The minister closes his Bible. Black clad family members shake his hand and whisper thank you. Quietly the crowd moves away from the graveside. It’s an all too familiar scene for many of us. A life has been celebrated. A death has been mourned. A family has said goodbye.
I am no stranger to funerals. In my 13 years of being in full-time ministry I have officiated and been involved with scores of funerals. I have been in the hospital room when a husband became a widower. I have been the harbinger of bad news to a wife who lost her spouse in a boating accident. I have stood at the foot of a coffin that was barely over two feet long. Admittedly, there were some services that were tougher than others, and the toughest ones are the ones of people that I was closest too, even if I knew their salvation was secure.
Rarely do people give thought to the preacher’s grief. Ministers are often forced to grieve differently than other people. There are many reasons for this.
- Ministers are expected to provide strength when the family has none. This means we often have to dissociate our emotions while we are with the family. While we may empathize, we do not openly grieve.
- People often look to the preacher for answers. The painful truth is sometimes we are just as clueless as the rest. But for the sake of comfort and diplomacy our mind has to be just as engaged as our heart when comforting the family.
- Even if we knew the person well, our grief cannot inhibit our duty. Again,in my experience, this often leads to a ‘shut-down’ of certain emotions while we interview the family, talk with funeral home directors and prepare eulogies.
- Depending on the local culture of the church, ministers are often expected to remain composed and in-control of their emotions at all times. While this may be unfair, and cultural expectations are changing, many preachers find it hard to express their grief in the presence of their parishioners.
So what is a preacher to do? Often we mourn alone, in the privacy of our homes or with our spouse, or worse, we bottle it up and keep it inside, but this can be unhealthy and lead to anxiety, stress and even depression. To avoid this preachers and churches can take some pro-active steps to help preachers grieve in a healthy manner.
- We preachers need to realize it’s okay to weep with those who weep. I admit, I struggle with this. I don’t cry often and I rarely cry in front of people. But we can’t always be disengaged from our emotions. Sometimes people don’t need our words as much as they need us to share their pain. It also let’s the family know that this person was special not only to them, but to you as well.
- Church leaders should keep in touch with the preacher after a particularly hard funeral. A phone call, email, or text message letting the minister know that you are there for them can go a long way in preserving your preacher’s emotional health.
- Preachers MUST network with other ministers. No one can empathize with what a minister goes through other than another minister. Other ministers know the pain of mourning alone, and they can often give words of advice and support.
- Churches should minister to the family of the deceased first, but members should be sensitive to the minister’s need as well. While funerals are part of the territory of ministry, they can add to an already full workload, which means the preacher may not be able to properly grieve until a week later. I once received a card of encouragement from a church member a week after the funeral for a child. That card was perfectly timed and exactly what I needed to get through that week.
- Preachers can use the funeral message as an opportunity to heal. I find interviews with the family, sharing memories and telling favorite stories about their loved one is cathartic for them and a boon for me. Not only does this provide a personal touch to the service, it helps the minister express his care and concern in a productive way.
A preacher’s first duty after a death in the church is the family of the deceased. There will always be times where we have to go into ‘preacher mode’ and put our personal feelings aside so we can minister effectively. But we cannot neglect our own grief and we must make sure we do so in a healthy way if we wish to preserve ourselves for effective, long-term ministry.