Pastors’ work requires our competence and our compassion . We have the professional tools to guide our congregants and congregations through joys, challenges and sorrows. How do we handle ourselves and our role when a death in the congregation finds us dealing with our own feelings?
This week’s question:
I have to do a funeral for a woman who is close in age to me. Indeed, her birthday is exactly two weeks before mine. Her death was unexpected, and it will take a long time for the coroner to make a ruling about the cause of death (influenza? underlying heart condition?). I am finding this one more of an emotional tangle than usual. Any advice for me?
Our Matriarchs are well acquainted with this scenario:
Sharon Mack Temple:
I have officiated a few funerals/memorial services that were very close to home: a teenager who was the same age as one of my kiddos; a man who had reminded me a lot of my father; and a woman who was my age at the time of her death.
Have any of the rest of you Matriarchs had that experience?
I officiated at the funeral of a high school senior whom our family knew very well and who was the same age as our exchange student. Spent a great deal of time helping her process it.
The hardest funeral for me was for three young children who were right around my grandchildren’s ages. Their grandmother and uncle killed them and themselves because they didn’t think their parents should have them. It was gruesome.
As for advice, I think that having a good counselor and/or spiritual director before you have to face something like this is crucial.
And once you have carried out your ministry of leading the funeral or memorial service, give yourself some space to breathe. Let those who know you and love you care for you.
Kelley Wehmeyer Shin:
It is such a fine and sacred line between feeling the deep emotion of grief for those we serve and holding on to our role as pastor and comforter. I have walked that line so many times and crossed it just as many. It is all part of belonging to one another in the Body of Christ. I have the more unusual experience in almost 32 years of ministry of never officiating the funeral of a young person. Probably because I served a lot of congregations whose members were older. Even so, I too have struggled to keep my emotions and composure together while officiating funerals. The Spirit has our back and our hearts, thank God!
When I find my heart in my throat even thinking about the funeral beforehand, I make sure to have everything written out the day before. That way I don’t need to expend precious emotional energy searching for words or phrases. I also always work from a manuscript for funerals and give a copy to the family. Many, many bereaved family members have told me how comforting those words were in their daily reading for months afterwards. The bereaved often don’t hear much of the sermon the day it is proclaimed from the pulpit, but the words are so very much appreciated when their heart is ready to hear them.
Thank you, Matriarchs, for sharing your compassionate wisdom.
Can any of you Revs add your own strategies? Please add your ideas in the comments.
Do you have a question for our Matriarchs? We would love to hear from you! Send it to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and we will do the best we can for you.
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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