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Stewarding grief: PC(USA) pastor shares hard-won insights

The Rev. Kim Dawsey-Richardson spoke last week during a Stewardship Kaleidoscope plenary session

by Nancy Crowe for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Kim Dawsey-Richardson spoke last week during a Stewardship Kaleidoscope plenary session. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

In 2019, the Rev. Kim Dawsey-Richardson took on the challenge of revitalizing the fading but faithful First Presbyterian Church of El Cajon, California. Important changes began, including closing the preschool and restructuring the staff.

Then came the pandemic, virtual worship and tough discussions around race and refugees.

Just as the sanctuary reopened, and on the day of the Derek Chauvin verdict, a spark from a roofer’s torch burned her family’s home. In the months that followed, her son was diagnosed with autism.

Questions about financial stewardship naturally emerged for both the pastor and her congregation. Just as important, if not more so, were questions about stewarding grief in times of complex change.

Dawsey-Richardson shared what she’s still learning in a plenary session at Stewardship Kaleidoscope in Minneapolis Sept. 25-27. Stewardship Kaleidoscope is an annual conference on generosity and stewardship. It is sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation.

The places we’d rather avoid

The journey of Jesus through Samaria in John 4, Dawsey-Richardson said, is an example of an undesirable route with unexpected blessings.

“Some gifts can only be given and received going through the places we’d rather avoid,” she said.

The church she serves was in decline, right down to the dated linoleum in a bathroom, “but there was so much good.” The congregation included a diversity of perspectives, ample friendship and habit of showing up for one another.

“Those continue to be its most valuable assets,” she said.

As 2020 and its challenges rolled in, Dawsey-Richardson was proud of the congregation’s resilience. They’d begun serving unsheltered neighbors in their neighborhood, became a Matthew 25 church, faced issues of race and, of course, made the awkward shift to worship via Zoom. There was plenty to do as the church reopened in April 2021.

There was so much, in fact, that when she and her family suddenly found themselves unhoused after the fire, she admitted she didn’t take the time she needed.

Even as an overflow of love and support came from her congregation, Dawsey-Richardson struggled to sit with her own pain. She kept thinking about the injustice and hardship others near and far were enduring.

“Often grief is complicated,” she said.

It got more complicated amid her 15-year-old son’s autism diagnosis, the house being declared a total loss, having to move from their temporary quarters and getting the new house built. “It gave me a lens to understand and hold the grief of others,” she said.

In the meantime, the church’s choir was down to five members, and three church employees had to move when living in California became too costly.

“Our people kept asking, ‘Where is everyone?’” Dawsey-Richardson said.

But new people were showing up.

Stewarding grief

Dawsey-Richardson said she’s had to let go of grieving perfectly. Trying to be a beacon of hope when your own is flickering can make ministry feel more forced than faithful, she said.

Here’s what else she suggests for anyone dealing with loss:

  1. Pay attention to the patterns. Just as the loss of a parent can bring old sibling rivalries to the surface, things we thought we’d dealt with can come up too.
  2. Name the loss. Avoid minimizing it, as Dawsey-Richardson admits she did. Even though it felt trivial in light of the world’s suffering, what helped was to name specific things she and her family missed about the house, which had been built in 1898, and all the work and history they’d had in it. A beautiful, unique quarter bath. Windows with pre-Depression glass.
  3. Engage grief rituals. When a church matriarch moved into assisted living, she left behind a much-loved home of many decades. Dawsey-Richardson suggested a memorial service to honor all those walls had held — and realized she wanted to do so for hers as well. “I asked my clergy friends if they would do that for me,” she said. (They did.)

Watch for the gifts

Jesus’ trip through Samaria resulted in the conversation with the woman at the well, who then carried the message to others. It was “living water” no one expected to find there.

Dawsey-Richardson listed just a few gifts of grief:

  1. Gifts born of people. A neighbor the family didn’t know showed up with a shovel to dig through the ash after the fire. Church members and friends pulled together necessities and support.
  2. Gifts born of circumstance. Losses have led to new possibilities, she said. Conversations around fraught social issues continue, and the church has begun outreach to unhoused neighbors. Head Start moved into the building. Though the church’s budget is in deficit, it’s applying for and receiving grants.
  3. Gifts born of creativity. First Presbyterian Church of El Cajon is not dying, but it has the potential to die, Dawsey-Richardson said. Yet there’s no poverty of imagination, even if the question is, “what do we have to lose?” The church strengthened its partnership with Welcome Ministry, an outreach to the immigrant, refugee and unhoused in the area, and has worked to empower local leadership in a local community garden.

Dawsey-Richardson’s story of two homes — letting go of the one she lost and creating a new one — continues, but the gifts of grace are boundless, she said.

“I wonder if that’s the journey our church is on?”

Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor, and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at


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