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Embracing God's Future without Forgetting the Past: A Conversation about Loss, Grief, and Nostalgia in Congregational Life

Michael K. Girlinghouse (Author)
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Many congregations today are dealing with changes that have led to decline and significant loss. In Embracing God's Future without Forgetting the Past, Michael K. Girlinghouse argues that until a congregation comes to terms with its perceived losses through a healthy process of grief, it will be paralyzed in the present and unable to think creatively about the future.

Acknowledging and expressing grief will give the congregation the courage to redefine its relationship with the past and draw strength and encouragement from its memories as it steps into the future.

Drawing on more than thirty years of ministry experience in varied settings and concurrent study and teaching about loss, grief, and nostalgia, Girlinghouse shows clergy, church staff, and lay leaders how they can work through the experience of loss and grief, both personally and in their congregation.

Part 1 discusses loss and grief using a contemporary, task-based model for the grief process. It also introduces recent research on the value of nostalgia.

In part 2, Girlinghouse helps leaders tell their congregation's story, including its losses, examine how that story fits in our current social context, and explore ways to accept the reality of its losses and express grief over them.

Part 3 considers ways congregations can think more adaptively and creatively about the future without forgetting or devaluing the past. Girlinghouse presents appreciative inquiry as a tool to discover and build on a congregation's strengths while coming to terms with its losses.

Part 4 is about embracing God's future for the congregation, "remembering forward," and making the changes necessary to move from the sadness of loss to the joy of taking up life again.

Each chapter includes a Bible study and questions for reflection and discussion.

Release date: 
August 6, 2019


“In many ways we have lost the means to talk about grief. The church in North America is in the midst of change, and much that we knew and experienced post–World War II is disappearing. In this book, Girlinghouse not only names the loss and grief many congregations feel but encourages them to acknowledge it and work with it. His insight that nostalgia is not a disease but a powerful tool to move into the future is liberating.”

Elizabeth Eaton | ELCA Presiding Bishop

“Transformational congregational change is required today. But Michael K. Girlinghouse knows that the grief of loss must first be confronted, not avoided. This book is full of deep, courageous wisdom, showing pathways for congregations to move through tradition into mission, discovering the promise of God’s intended future.”

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson | Author of Future Faith

“As is often said, ‘The only thing that is constant in life is change.’ Congregations that are healthy learn how to address the changes they face and continue to minister effectively in their communities. Not grieving the losses of past glory can get in the way of being flexible and adapting to changing circumstances. Girlinghouse’s book gives useful information and practical exercises for doing this. This book will be very helpful to congregations willing to do this work.”

Ronald W. Richardson | author, Creating a Healthier Church

“Michael K. Girlinghouse has listened to a litany of nostalgia for the church of the past. In this insightful book, he encourages readers to find new ways of being church through respectful remembrance, development of rituals for grieving, then adapting by embracing practical techniques for living into a vibrant and authentic future.”

Beth A. Lewis |

“Michael K. Girlinghouse knows the heart of congregations. He also knows they want to move forward but seem to cling to the past. This book unlocks the secret to bridging the gap and helping the people of God move forward.”

James Hazelwood | ELCA Bishop

There is hope and new life in looking back to go forward.

“Incorporating a wealth of ministry experience, Michael K. Girlinghouse has provided a view from the ‘adaptive balcony’ of grief and loss and the impact of nostalgia on church culture today. Interpreting grief and loss as vital, he responds to his own question ‘Is grief a barrier to change?’ with a ‘yes, but . . .’ This resource is a guide for leaders to engage in practical ways to reclaim the paradox and mystery of God’s mission and purpose. There is hope and new life in looking back to go forward. Down to earth and resounding with honest and engaging stories.”

Emlyn A. Ott | Bexley Seabury Seminary

“Michael K. Girlinghouse has brought together his background teaching about grief and his experience working with congregations as a bishop to write a well-grounded but practical book. The material in these pages will help any congregation that has been over focused on the past to find healthy ways to honor what was, so they can move forward into what God knows can be.” 

Dave Daubert | Day 8 Strategies

I know Girlinghouse’s book is one I will keep on my shelf

“As an intentional interim minister who has helped congregations move through transitions my whole career, I know Girlinghouse’s book is one I will keep on my shelf. It is full of wise, practical guidance for leading congregations through grief and loss, even while pointing them toward a future and a hope. Chock full of examples drawn from his years as a campus pastor, congregation pastor, and bishop, Girlinghouse draws upon contemporary grief and bereavement literature, organizational development theory, and Scripture to create a toolkit for every pastor, particularly those leading a congregation through a time of transition.”

Norman B. Bendroth | Wicked Awesome Church Consulting

“Many congregations are not just yearning for the past, they are grieving it. Girlinghouse wisely reminds us, ‘The only way through grief is to grieve.’ This is true of congregations as well as individuals. With pastoral heart and experience, he gently guides congregations through the barriers of unacknowledged or unresolved grief and loss. Well-researched and practical, this book takes congregations into Bible study, storytelling, and meaningful activities—so that they might take up life again. For any congregation that is dying to live.”

Mary Sue Dreier | Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

The path to 'embracing the future' is not easy, but Girlinghouse is a wise, compelling, and humble guide

"What a gift Michael K. Girlinghouse has given the church! Embracing God's Future courageously offers a path for congregations—especially congregations in decline. This is not an easy path. It includes naming our individual and congregational losses, retelling and honoring our memories, grieving intentionally, and then working together to accept a new reality, a reality that opens us to a new future. Girlinghouse relies on wisdom from Scripture, the best of grief therapy, and gripping and relatable examples to lead readers toward concrete, hope-filled action—making this a perfect book for church councils, pastors, and judicatory staffs. The path to 'embracing the future' is not easy, but Girlinghouse is a wise, compelling, and humble guide."

Ann M. Svennungsen | Bishop, Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA