Each week I am posting on Tuesdays about a different aspect of a pastor’s life. It’s pretty easy – or so it seems to my German DNA – for this to sound whiny. I imagine this was how Paul came across to the Corinthians. They valued strength and stoicism and Paul offered vulnerability and open emotion. In the 2nd letter to the Corinthians, towards the end, we have a Paulish list of the troubles he experienced trying to be a pastor to the church (2 Co 11:16-29). He ends his list of troubles with these intriguing lines…
“Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?”
Eugene Peterson, the quintessential pastor, puts Paul’s words this way in the Message, “And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.”
There’s no way to get around that saying “Yes” to pastoral ministry, means saying “Yes” to a life of troubles and feels. Sometimes people get called, ‘pastor’ but don’t have this experience – in the same way that sometimes people get called, ‘chef’ but all they do is reheat prepackaged dishes in the microwave.
One aspect of the kind of troubles being a pastor involves means you will say, “Yes” to an acquaintance with death, dying and trauma that very few will share. You will not only be present as people take their last breathe, you will have had meals with them, arguments with them, prayed with them, celebrated with them, cried with them and been asked to tell them why this is happening to them before their last breathe. And often you will continue the journey of loss and grief with their families and loved ones after their passing.
Doctors and nurses will probably witness more but they will rarely have a personal relationship with many of the people they will see die. The closest vocation I can think of that will share a similar experience will be social workers in a hospice setting.
I’m not sure what a ‘normal’ human experience would be in regard to the number of deaths, funerals and traumatic experiences a person would expect to go through, but pastoral ministry exposes you to more.
Years ago, I officiated a funeral at a funeral home I had never been to before. The funeral director approached me afterwards and complimented me on the service I had led for the family. “Would you mind being on call for people who come in but have no one to officiate their funeral service?” he asked. That’s how I became a substitute funeral pastor.
I have a friend who pastors a rural congregation that includes many people beyond retirement age, some in nursing homes, whose families have been a part of that church for generations. He has averaged one funeral service per week for several years because of the generations that are part of his local church.
Part of pastoral ministry is a willingness to share the deepest pain some people will ever experience. And then do it again the following week with someone else. And then walk through the journey of grief with those families even as you begin that passage with another family.
I buried a friend who couldn’t get the monkey off his back and finally passed away from complications resulting from an overdose. I buried another friend who had “routine” surgery and was going out on a day pass when I visited her in the hospital – 3 days later she died from complications from the surgery. I buried a friend who played guitar with my worship team on Sunday morning and died from a massive heart attack and was buried before the next Sunday. I buried a close friend who shared Christmas with our family and suffered a stroke days later and passed away as my wife and I stood around her hospital bed with all her adult children.
I’ve buried teenagers.
I’ve buried babies.
For all of these funeral services and graveside services, visits to ICU and sitting in hospital waiting rooms, the pain of loss doesn’t get easier. I’ve never found a satisfying answer for the family member – husband, daughter, grandchild – who stops me and asks, “Why her? Why this?” To a degree, being engaged in pastoral ministry means you will willingly experience loss after loss, trauma after trauma, grief after grief.
After a few decades of this you begin to develop a mental encyclopedia of probable outcomes for every possible diagnosis…because you’ve been there. And then you have to develop a face that doesn’t give everything you have known away when someone tells you what the doctor said. Not everyone who is a pastor has a high capacity (or even, it seems a low capacity) for empathy. But for those who feel with others, brace yourself.
But also know this…there is no space more holy than the space you’ll occupy beside a person passing from this life to the next. No moments will carry more weight than the moments you sit beside a person ascending into the life that’s coming. These are beautiful and terrible moments, painful and grace-filled moments. Times for tears and wonder, seeing the worst and best in people. But if you do it right, you cannot pass through any of these moments without them leaving a mark on your soul.
And I would want you to know that the collective weight of these moments, as beautiful as they may be, can leave you feeling broken and hollow and traumatized and wide awake in the small hours of the night.
Rest before you get tired.
Have relationships you make time for that will comfort you and help you get through the troubles.
Avoid emotional denial the way you avoid eating rat poison.
Make as much room in your life for healing as will be made by the hurting.
Follow Paul in being honest with the people you pastor about the pain that pastoring creates in your heart.
Practice lament and thanksgiving, there’s plenty of room for both in a pastor’s story.
Before I could get this post uploaded today I received a call that a beautiful woman from our congregation passed away this morning. I am confident she is in the presence of Peace and yet the burden of losing her for now remains. Lament with me until Death is ended, this too is pastoral ministry.