With Gratitude for Pastors Everywhere
“On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” Psalm 138:3
Several years ago I went to a particularly difficult memorial service with my daughter, Haley. It was the funeral for one of her friends from high school who died in a complicated way from causes that were not entirely clear. He had been an Eagle Scout, a disciplined athlete, an excellent student, an adored youngest brother of four with an impossibly contagious smile…and he was just finishing up his freshman year of college. In fact, he died the week before final exams.
As Haley and I drove to the funeral, it was very quiet in the car. We had run out of ways to talk about the dreadfulness of this situation. In this wordless silence, I ached for the family who had lost such a bright light in their lives. I couldn’t help wondering, How would they be able to go on after such a devastating loss? How would they ever experience life as anything but incomplete –shot through with an immense emptiness—now that their beautiful boy was no longer with them?
In addition to grieving for the family, I was burdened for the young people who were trying to make sense of this loss and the unanswered questions contained within it. How were they to process the fact that this delightful boy—one with whom they had grown up, played soccer, gone to Boy Scouts, attended youth group, studied, gone on dates—was no longer with them and for reasons no one could understand? I was unspeakably grateful to have my own bright-spirited nineteen-year-old right next to me in the car, very much alive, but even that felt awkward.
A Burden too Much to Bear
As we made our way to this unbearable occasion, I was also thinking about the pastor who would be presiding over the service. What prepares a person to guide others through a moment such as this, I wondered? Does seminary do that? Does a homiletics class do that? A course in death and dying? Would he or she know what to say—really—beyond canned liturgies and one-size-fits-all funeral meditations?
Could anyone really know how to provide true spiritual guidance to the standing-room-only crowd that gathered, each person carrying with them their gut-wrenching grief, confusion and unanswered questions? Was there any escape from the terrible weight of expectation as people made their way into the sanctuary—some weeping already, others numb with shock, grown men in suits with red-rimmed eyes clutching twisted handkerchiefs, mothers clinging to the arms of teenage sons who were friends of the young man in the casket—all hoping against hope that this service would offer some comfort or peace or hope or insight?
As we waited for the service to begin, I couldn’t help praying for this pastor and for all the clergy I know and love and for whom the Transforming Center exists. I prayed because I know this kind of scenario is repeated over and over again in pastoral ministry; on some days it doesn’t even seem fair that such weighty expectations could be heaped onto one office, and onto the person who fills that office. On some days, it truly is too much to bear.
Available to God for Others
Finally the pastor stepped into the pulpit and as he looked out on that sea of upturned faces, I wondered, Did he see what Jesus saw on that day when he fed the five thousand—so many sheep in need of a shepherd? I’m sure he felt the pressure of knowing that while this might be one of his “routine” responsibilities as a pastor, it was one of the most important hours this group of family and friends would ever spend together. Whatever happened here needed to make a difference in the deepest possible way.
As it turns out, this young minister did as well as anyone could have in the midst of such an impossible pastoral situation; I grieved and wept and despaired right along with everyone else. But I also gave thanks. I gave thanks for pastors and clergy everywhere who dare to stand in front of people and attempt to bring hope and make meaning even when nothing makes sense.
I couldn’t help but be freshly aware of the great paradox of spiritual leadership: that ministry is all about you (because you are the one God has called to be where you are in this moment) and it is not about you at all (because it is all about being available to God for the work he will do in and through you for the sake of others).
A State of Ongoing Preparedness
Such availability to God on behalf of others is not something we can “put on” like a uniform the day the call comes for us to do that thing we don’t feel prepared to do. It involves what Henri Nouwen describes as “living in a state of ongoing preparedness.” “The question is not to prepare,” he says, “but to live in a state of ongoing preparedness so that when someone who is drowning in the world comes to your world, you are ready…” 1
Ongoing preparedness is cultivated within a life that is being lived in deep and honest response to the presence of God in the midst of our own human experiences, day in and day out. It is a defining characteristic of those who have experienced time and time again that “ On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.” (Psalm 138:3) Ongoing preparedness is what I pray for, for myself and for all of us who minister.
This month we express gratitude to those whose very lives serve as a bridge between the troubled waters of the human experience and the solid ground of Divine reality. As we experience and express our gratitude to those who care for our souls, let us also call out to God and ask him to increase their strength of soul and our own. For the glory of God. For the abundance of life that Jesus promises. And for the sake of others.
1 From “Time Enough to Minister” by Henri J.M. Nouwen in Leadership (Spring, 1982)
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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Thank you Ruth for a really encouraging reflection. I have conducted many funerals from babies to people over 100 years old, including tragic deaths and those who have passed peacefully away after a long and fulfilling life. Aside from the usual thanks that are given after the service, I have never read anything in such depth that seeks to understand the pressure that each funeral brings which, strangely enough, multiplies when it is a member of my own church fellowship. I thank God that, on each occasion, He has made me adequate for the task in front of me: I know that on each occasion, without His help, I would not have been able to cope.
Beautiful and a timely reminder. Thank you Ruth.
Thank you for the encouraging words and the timely reminder that our ministry matters. You have a way of touching my heart through your words. Thanks again.
Thanks for this wonderful encouragement, Ruth – holding this close today …
“I couldn’t help but be freshly aware of the great paradox of spiritual leadership: that ministry is all about you (because you are the one God has called to be where you are in this moment) and it is not about you at all (because it is all about being available to God for the work he will do in and through you for the sake of others).”
Thank you Ruth for your willingness and love to encourage the pastors and preachers of the Lord.
Ruth…such beautiful thoughts…so beautifully written. It brings enormous compassion to my heart for my pastor and to all of you that stand in the gap for us. Bless you my friend.
A beautjful reminder of God’s call upon our lives. Thank you for your “being available” to God this day and always.
Beautiful reminder and encouragement, Ruth. Thank you.
Ruth – Your article With Gratitude for Pastors Everywhere is wonderfully well written, but even more important is insightful, thoughtful and moving. It is exactly relevant to the reality of pastors’ lives and needs. Well done.
The first funeral I ever led as a pastor was of a young mom of 32, who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after the birth of her second daughter. Over the next eight months we prayed together many times and anointed her with oil. But still she died. Her husband was only 28, and now responsible for two little girls both less than two years of age.
I had never conducted an ‘ordinary funeral’, far less one so dreadful as this. The church was overflowing, and I had a mix of terror and responsibility in my mind. Trying to pretend that a tragedy was really a good thing was never going to work. But Linda, who had died, was a wonderful Christian and many in that church would share her faith that her destiny beyond death was glory. I told myself, ‘Your job today is help people come through this moment with at least some comfort and as much hope as they can believe.’ I remember nothing now of what I said – that may have been true also by the next day, for strong emotions can either enhance or cloud memories – but I do recall that people were helped.
And I survived. I write the three words of that last sentence with all seriousness. It might seem that how the pastor feels is unimportant, but years of ministry and all-too-many more difficult funeral services lay ahead of me. Confidence and courage can be seriously damaged if you believe you have failed people at critical moments. I didn’t feel that, and I was strengthened for the future.
Maybe one day I’ll tell you about the service for an 8-year-old girl who had died of a brain tumor, whose father told me he was coming to the service to raise her from the dead. Or the man whose ex-wife would not let him into the house, and she later found he’d committed suicide on the doorstep. Or the 17-year-old boy whose father sent him ahead to reach the summit of a mountain they were climbing, and the young man slipped and fell 2000 feet to his death.
There are many more stories not much less dramatic than those. I am far from unique. These things are the privilege and the burden of pastoral ministry, and I too pray for those this week dealing with ‘ordinary’ or tragically ‘extraordinary’ funerals. May the Lord strengthen their souls, even as they seek to strengthen the souls of those who grieve.
God bless you in your work.
Thank you all for taking this in so deeply. I pause to receive your gratitude and blessings as well.
AHHHH…You slay me! Four funerals and two weddings in two weeks. Last Saturday there were over 500 in attendance for a 50 year old beacon of God’s light and love. I was feeling a bit empty heading into tomorrow’s service for an 85 year old. Thank you for this beautiful reminder and encouragement. Thank you God for this timing. Blessings, J
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Thank you. This is perfect timing and precious encouragement. I am living in a season in which I have to stand in front of my beloved congregation to do this work of “sense-making” for reasons other than the death of a young person. This is a season of leading change and I am reminded that there truly is a death in every change. So, thank you. I pause to receive your prayers on my behalf. Peace.
Having both watched pastors in such difficult circumstances and been the pastor at too many funerals, I appreciate your insight. The motto of one Anglican group is that one should be ready to preach, pray or die at a moment’s notice (while ministering in India, one often felt that it was in the same moment). Cardinal Dolan reflected on one priest who did not wear clericals when he did not have to saying to another who did that he went incognito so that no one would know that he was a priest and request ministry. The other replied that that was precisely why he normally wore clericals. One’s whole life is ministry; there is never a time or season. One lives in constant embodiment of Jesus for the world. It is indeed the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” And what one is always prepared for is the awesome responsibility of representing Jesus.
Fantastic. Thank you.
Bless you Ruth and the ministry of the Transforming Center – bless your keen insight into the souls of pastors as they learn how to take hold of and then willingly enter and serve in the “impossible and unbearable situations” of life.
Thank you, Ruth, for this thoughtful reflection. I will take the “ongoing preparedness” as a personal call in my own ministry of spiritual direction, for which I am an ordained minister.
I really like the phrase, and it encourages me to continue my own spiritual disciplines in order to be ready at all times and in all places.
Blessings to you –
Thank you for this perfect depiction of the awesome role and responsibility of a pastor.