Becoming a widow at age 51 devastated JoLeta Nash, yet she determined to manage the grief and practical changes more proactively than she had done when her mother died a few years earlier. The Yukon, Oklahoma, resident attended a retreat for widows, but found few other readily accessible resources and little fellowship with people who understood. Now, she’s helping change that for other widows in the Sooner State.
Nash, 57, grew up as a Pentecostal Holiness pastor’s daughter. During college, she attended an Assemblies of God church, and then served with her husband, Robert, in ministry to girls and boys at her current home AG congregation, Christ’s Legacy Church in Yukon. After Robert’s death from cancer in 2016, JoLeta’s search for faith-based resources for widows led her to the Widows Link ministry of U.S. missionary Marlene Craft. Nash has adapted the program to the needs in the Oklahoma City and Yukon area in what is called Widows of Worth Ministry of Oklahoma.
After her AG ministerial ordination in 2020, last year Nash became a commissioned AG chaplain to widows. Her vision is to connect widows with fellowship and resources, while helping congregations recognize and minister to their unique needs. In 2020-21, she worked for a year with Stand in the Gap Ministries, helping develop ministry to widows.
In Nash’s experience, most people tend to avoid encounters with the newly widowed because they aren’t sure what to say.
“I wanted to give grace to those who at least tried, but few churches have a real awareness of the complicated needs of widows,” she says. Those needs include not only processing grief, but also finding friendship that doesn’t feel awkward; social opportunities are often geared toward couples or simply combine all single adults.
Practical needs also can be overwhelming. Especially if the death occurred unexpectedly, a widow may be unfamiliar with household and car maintenance previously handled by the spouse. Some need financial advice about investing insurance proceeds; others need to move, if they can no longer handle the responsibility of the family home or want to be closer to children.
“It’s a whole new level of grief,” says Nash. “And widows are targets for unscrupulous scams.”
COVID-19 has accelerated the rate of widows, further confounding the unease some feel in how to minister to survivors.
“Just be there,” advises Nash. “You can’t fix it, but let them know you care.”
In addition to developing widows’ ministry at Christ’s Legacy, Nash focuses on connections, including lots of church interaction.
She hosts a table at district conferences and other AG events, leading to invitations to speak at women’s ministry events, on podcast interviews, and at a virtual women’s conference. She recommends GriefShare resources, scheduling special sessions at area churches for specific topics such as “Surviving the Holidays,” and then encouraging attendees to get involved in the 13-week program.
“This ministry is so important, it’s wonderful to have someone dedicated to doing it,” says Susie Purkey, AG Oklahoma District director of women’s ministry. “We are thrilled to help support JoLeta’s ministry.”
In 2020, Nash’s daughter, Natalie, arranged for a faith-based financial group to donate gift bags to 35 widows in the OKC/Yukon area. One lady started to cry, explaining that her family, wanting to keep her safe from COVID-19, had not visited for the holidays. Although overwhelmed by loneliness, the widow said the present reminded her God had not forgotten her. Last year, 50 widows received the gift bags, which included a card, ornaments, Bath & Body Works products, snacks, and handmade craft items.
Recipients included Pat Bjerk, who began attending Christ’s Legacy with her daughter after her husband’s death in 2017 from a brain tumor just two days before Christmas. Natalie suggested Bjerk attend JoLeta’s upcoming class. As Nash shared her experience and assured attendees they could express raw emotions, Bjrerk formed new friendships.
“Having the group got me through that time in a way I didn’t think I’d be able to,” recalls Bjerk, 75. The relationships have continued, and Bjerk looks forward to the encouraging Facebook posts and Scriptures Nash regularly shares, along with lunch outings and activities. Bjerk also has started reaching out with a note, card, or gift to others going through death of a spouse.
“Until I experienced it, I didn’t know how much it would mean to hear from someone who understood,” she says.
In addition to equipping churches to better support widows, Nash makes personal connections, inviting widows she meets out for lunch. Saturday brunch meetings are popular, as many widows enjoy cooking, but have little motivation to do it if they don’t have children living nearby.
“God has brought ministry from misery, and knowing I have that purpose goes a long way,” Nash says.
Cindy Lou McKinley is another endorsed AG chaplain, ministering to widows in the PennDel Ministry Network.