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.