A few years ago a close friend, member, and staff leader at Christ Church suddenly died. Before I knew it, I was burying a good friend. This post captured what I had felt then…about the ‘job hazards’ of what clergy do.
It struck a nerve. Even with our growing blog, it remains one of our most viewed blogpost.
It is still true…
The original blog:
I took an unscheduled afternoon off yesterday because I needed to. Let me explain.
We all have had it happen. A good friend in the parish suddenly dies: a confidant, a mentor. A friend suddenly dies and you, as pastor, are left to pick up the pieces and the broken world of the family that is left. But what about your broken world? What about the personal grief and pain that we as pastors experience when someone we care about dies. This just happened to me.
Wayne was one of “those” members. We all have them: a personal brother or sister that we depend on, advocate, leader, supporter, pillar, and spiritual trustee of the parish. He died suddenly and quickly.
I think I react to the death of a parishioner differently than the members of the church. When they hear about the death of a beloved peer or friend, they react with sadness, of course. They can be emotional. There are often tears. People can be real and raw. It is a loss…and it is sad. They will attend a funeral to express their grief and find comfort and hope.
Me? I start thinking of words. I start to imagine what kind of words I am going to use to help other people through the grief. What will I say? What hope can I bring? How will I say it? I am the wordsmith and I start my job early.
This is a hazard of our calling to ministry. Pastors and priests have to use words to guide their people through difficult days. We should all know what NOT to say: I know how you feel. God needed another rose in his garden, so he picked your spouse. Give this time, you’ll get over it.
But we have to find the right words to say when we meet with a grieving spouse. We have to have the right words to say when we inform others or write about the loss to the rest of the parish. What do we say to the children of the dead who still have their life to live? What words are the best words?
And then there is the sermon. As the main preacher in my church, I immediately start to think about what kind of words, phrases, passages, analogies, metaphors, descriptors, and anecdotes I am going to use to preach the sermon. This is a job hazard, so to speak. I think we tend to process bad things lexicographically first. If we are not careful, if we do not attend to our own emotions and inner life at a deep level, we can stumble even with our carefully selected words.
For instance, years ago a young girl, a member of my church, died after a long fight with cancer. I saw the family immediately. I helped them make the arrangements. I sat with the parents and attempted to add words of comfort. I did everything I could with the words I could find to help the people I knew through a very difficult time.
My emotional reaction to her death got lost in my ministerial work. This young child had been a friend to our young children. We had been to her family’s home to swim in their pool the previous summer. She had come to our home to play with our pets and children. We were close to this family; we loved this little girl.
When this child died I was so caught up in finding the words for my professional ministry, I never processed the loss personally. At the funeral service, I vested and welcomed the hundreds of supporters and friends that were arriving. The hearse parked at the curb and, as arranged, I walked toward it to begin the procession into the church. Its wide black door opened and the pallbearers took their places. They glided the casket out onto a roller stand and began to guide it toward the front door of the church. It was a small casket.
That’s when it hit me. She was a little girl…a young girl. I had imagined most everything I was going to say that day. I had planned a proper service. I had written out an inspiring message for the congregation. But I did not imagine a small casket. All week long, I had attended to everyone else’s feelings about her death, but not mine. Seeing this small casket brought it home to me. Our family friend, this child, was actually in that small narrow coffin. She was dead. I felt the loss…maybe for the first time.
The procession began walking up the center aisle and I was mute. It was a silent procession until it was nearly over. The words with which we begin the Burial Office in the Anglican tradition are huge words. They are of consequence and power. “I am the Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.” But I could not even speak them; I could not even squeak them out. Finally, as the procession neared the front of the church, I strained out the opening line. For all the planning and verbal preparation I had gone through, I literally choked, so to speak.
This ministry moment has instructed me for years. When death happens, I will attend to the people first. I will visit their home and pray with the family. I will anoint the dead body and speak the beautiful words from our Book of Common Prayer. I will plan what I am going to say and practice the words just like any other message or sermon I preach. I will be the purveyor of words and, by God’s grace, I will try to make God’s Word the last word.
But personally, I need to find some emotional space where I can feel what is in my heart and take time to grieve. I need to find a time when I can stop speaking my words and instead, experience and pray at a personal level. I find that I need to wait for God to speak His healing Word to me. Enough of my words, Lord. Speak Your Word to me. Only say Your Word…and it is I who shall be healed…” as the Centurion might have asked.
That is why I spent yesterday afternoon alone…Listening instead of speaking.