Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Importance of Death Ministry

Rural church ministry does not lend itself to much proactive ministry. However, one thing is certain; funerals are going to come. There is no greater opportunity for the rural church pastor to show love and care for his folks than during a death. At the church I serve, I have officiated at nearly thirty funerals and have attended twice that number.

Morbidity aside, death ministry is very significant, not just in the life of a rural church, but at any church. After having been at the current church I serve less than three weeks, I was called upon to do a funeral. The lady was slightly mentally deficient, lived in a nursing home, and only had a sister surviving her. However, probably half the church turned out for the funeral. Looking back, I know why.

Funerals are important in the life of the church and mean a great deal to God's people. A minister who handles a funeral and the ministry that follows well, cements his relationship with his people and opens significant opportunities to later serve.

People are especially open and vulnerable during the loss of a loved one. The heart is fertile soil, receptive to the Gospel and the love of Christ. One valuable lesson I have learned during death ministry is not necessarily what you say but that you are there. Presence means more than anything; it is more tangible than any words that could be spoken. Later, folks will remember and say something like, "Well, my pastor was there when my husband died."

Follow-up is also key. I tend to make personal contact every day for at least three days, depending on the severity of the situation. From that point, I go once a week for a month and then once a month after that. I know it sounds overly practical and I don't always follow that simple plan. I tend to see the family of a deceased loved one more than that!

I also mark in my calendar the date of death and then I visit the deceased's family on the anniversary of their loved one's death. I have always gotten looks of incredulity upon arrival because I make the visit unannounced. The individual will always be grieving that day; I have not seen otherwise. A special visit on that day ministers to that person's heart in ways you cannot imagine.

I am never in a hurry during death ministry. For the deceased's family, time is standing still. For just a few moments, the pastor's watch can stop. Stumbling in out of breath, disheveled, clumsy, and altogether "not with it" communicates to the family a grave lack of care and concern. Christ is our Rock, our Refuge and Strength, and for a brief few moments, the family needs their pastor to be the same. However, do not be afraid to cry along with your people. Remember, Jesus wept.

And prayer is of utmost importance. Always pray. Every opportunity God gives, take advantage of it and pray with the family. They will be looking for some modicum of comfort and the wise pastor reassures his church family that there is a balm in Gilead.

I also have key Scripture passages memorized. Not only does it make the funeral service itself easier but it also serves as a timely word of comfort to a grieving family. Psalms 23, 121:1-2, John 11:25-26, and 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 are all appropriate. Through Scripture, God's people hear the audible voice of God speaking joy, comfort, and encouragement to them. Through it they can be reminded that God is familiar with death yet He is the One that by His own power overcame it.

Oftentimes, life's most dreaded nightmares become harsh realities. Death always causes more questions to be raised than answered and we will never have all of the answers. But we do know the One who does.

18 comments:

Les Puryear said...

Tony,

Excellent post and I agree with everything you've written here.

This is the area of the pastorate in which I feel that I need the most improvement. To me, weddings are easy but funerals are remembered forever by the family.

I wish I could improve in this area.

Kindest regards,

Les

Tony said...

Les,

I am sure you do fine in bereavement ministry. I on the other hand have grown increasingly irritated with weddings. I would rather do fifty funerals than one wedding.

Praying for your dad.

Headmistress said...

Great post. My neighbor/friend, an LCMS pastor's wife, recently told me about a funeral for a member who came to Christ later in life. Although our friends were obviously saddened by this member's sudden death from a heart attack in his 50s, they were so excited that this man's very large un-Christian family would have an opportunity to hear the Word--possibly the first time for many of them. I've never given much thought to this side of funerals before, but what a great blessing to come from someone's loss.

And by the way, Tony...from an organist's perspective, I'm with ya on the "rather do fifty funerals than one wedding" bit!

Tony said...

HM,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Funerals provide enormous opportunity. I have preached at many who I knew it was the first time any of the folks had ever heard a Gospel presentation. I have even had folks compliment my unpressured yet unapologetic presentation (not tooting my own horn, mind you).

An organist, huh? Music for funerals is fairly straightforward; weddings, well, its ridiculous what some people want played at their ceremonies.

Brian said...

I am in a Chaplaincy unit right now and was thinking you might like to read a book called Pastoral Care Emergencies. by Switzer - its really pretty good.

Brandon said...

Tony,
Excellent post brother. You truly have the heart of a pastor.

You touched on some very important aspects of funerals. One is the opportunity for evangelism.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.

3 Sorrow is better than laughter, For when a face is sad a heart may be happy.

4 The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.

Another is for building relationships and trust.

Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

It's one thing to be there when life is simply hard, it's another thing altogether to mourn with someone else.

Great insights my friend.
Be blessed...
Brandon

Tony said...

Brian,

Thanks for stopping by the blog. I hope to see you back again. Feel free to comment and participate anytime.

I'll add that book to my wish list. One of the most significant works I have read on the subject is Dan Lloyd's slim tome, Leading Today's Funerals. I don't really know the significance of "Today" in the tile, because the principles seem pretty timeless.

Brandon,

I sincerely appreciate those fine compliments. Those are fine Scriptures as well for bereavement ministry. I am glad this post was a blessing to you. That's my goal!

Hope you all have a great weekend and blessed Lord's Day.

selahV said...

Tony: having ministered and watched my husband minister to countless grieving families as a pastor and Hospice Chaplain, I praise God for your post on Death Ministry. I feel all pastors everywhere would benefit from reading it.

Your sincerity and methods touches my heart. Deeply. Having lost a son on Mother's Day 2005, the day will forever be etched in my heart, soul and mind. I grieve every day. Your attention to the anniversary date speaks volumes of you and all pastors everywhere would do well to follow your example in this detail. (Especially about not visiting in a hasty manner.)

Your congregation are very blessed to have you. selahV

selahV said...

Tony: LOL. I just read your comment about weddings. My husband feels exactly like you. It's a wonder there aren't more funerals due to weddings. selahV

Tony said...

selahV,

Thank you so much!

I am so sorry about the loss of your son. It is something that over time it will get easier but you will never fully recover, at least not until Jesus returns :)

I don't know of any other words of comfort except those glorious ones!

I don't mean to minimize weddings, but they are frustrating, especially as I pointed out to Headmistress, the music the couple sometimes picks out is ungodly and horrendous and not fit to be played in church.

Just because a country song is a slow song does not make it a righteous song.

Gordon Cloud said...

Awesome post, Tony. This is sound advice and every young pastor should be made aware of it.

God bless.

Tony said...

Thanks, Gordon. You are always an encouragement.

selahV said...

hello Gordon: there are many old pastors who need to be made aware of it also.

Tony: the pain comes and goes with intensity. The Lord is filling the void from the loss with a strange wisdom and discernment that surpasses all understanding. I am grateful for a God in Whom I can trust and rely on. selahV

selahV said...

Tony: I've written a post on my GRIEF MATTERS blogsite. (You can see it by clicking onto my name with this comment) I've linked this post of yours to my blog. Just wanted you to know. God's grace be unto you. selahV

Dan Edelen said...

Tony,

Lovely sentiments and full of wisdom. Everything you said was right on. Slowing down our lives enough to stop for another's family when they die is something we forget all too readily.

Tony said...

Dan,

God bless you. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Elder's Wife said...

Tony-
Very timely post. Weddings are usually planned months in advance, but funerals tend to be a bit spontaneous. It's an area where we would all be wise to plan (in the event that the Lord doesn't come first!).
My husband and I are in a somewhat unique position, since he is in a bi-vocational ministry. We serve in an elder-led church with two other elders and their wives. Each time there has been a death (all very sudden), it has meant at least one of the elders taking nearly a week off his "day job" to help with arrangements, plan a sermon, spend time with the family, etc. In one case we all drove several hours to another location for a funeral held on the other side of the state.
One of the privileges of leading God's people is to be His hands and feet and His shoulder to cry on.
Isn't God good!
Kat

Tony said...

Kat,

Thanks for you continued dialogue here. Yes, God is good, as the song goes, all the time!

That is very interesting about how the elders at your church handle funerals. I have always found the very rural churches fascinating in their approaches to ministry. I think their larger sister churches could stand to learn something for their compassion and grace.

I look forward to further interaction so that I might learn more about how you and your church does ministry. Blessings!