Many people do not like to think about death any more than they have to. Even in ministry, most of us would prefer to focus on the happy times, the blessings, and the exciting things that are happening in the church. Yet a significant part of what a shepherd does is teach people how to live, how to die, and walk with them along the way.
I have never kept a detailed record of funerals conducted. At times I have regretted that I failed to do so. Conservatively speaking, I know I have conducted well over 200 funerals/memorials, probably more like 250, with 17 being the most in a one year timeframe. I always count it an honor to do so, and have learned much along the way. In thinking about this subject I wanted to write a brief practical guide to the bereavement ministry, especially for younger men in ministry to learn from.
Every situation is different. Sometimes bereavement comes suddenly, sometimes it comes slowly. Each situation varies also depending on the spiritual condition of the individual, and the family circumstances. This requires a great deal of discernment, and flexibility in how to minister.
Learn to be a good listener. Sometimes people are given a diagnosis that will eventually lead to death. All sorts of emotions can arise from the uncertainty including fear, sadness, and even anger. Be there to listen, and to go through the emotions, continually encouraging the person to look to God for their hope and peace. Sometimes death comes suddenly and tragically. These situations can be very tense and emotionally charged. Love people where they are and listen as they process loss.
Practice the theology of presence. If a shepherd serves a church with very many people, the bereavement ministry can become overwhelming. There must be a shared responsibility among the other shepherds, and deacons in the church to be present for people in their time of need. There are many times however, when the presence of the shepherd is necessary and expected. We are uniquely gifted by God, and are often given opportunities to speak into people’s lives in a way that nobody else will be able to. When you practice the theology of presence, you are given opportunities to be with people when they need spiritual direction the most.
Maintain a spiritual focus in a compassionate manner. Learn when you need to say something and when you need to be quiet. Learn when you need to answer questions, and when you need to ask questions. Be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. As a representative of Christ, make the Word of God and prayer the centerpieces of your bereavement ministry. This will point people to the Counselor, the Holy Spirit who can reach people in the depths of their souls.
Don’t be surprised by anything and don’t act surprised about anything. People say and do unexpected things in times of distress. Family members do as well. Provide a strong and steady presence through the troubled waters.
When death comes to a family, the situation rises to the top of your priority list. Through the years, many of my days and nights have been “interrupted” by a death call. I always stop what I am doing, and if at all possible go directly to where deceased person and family are. I seek to be a quiet presence during those moments, and look for practical ways to help. On many occasions, I have been in the room when someone breathed their last and stepped out into eternity. These have been high and holy moments in shepherding, and I never take them lightly.
Typically, the family gathers to say their final goodbyes and the funeral home is contacted to come for the body. When the funeral homes arrives, I always have prayer with the family before the body is taken away.
Preparation for the funeral/memorial service usually takes place the next day. Depending on how much family there is, and what the situation is, make yourself available to go to the funeral home with the family. Often they will not need it but at times they will. Sometimes your presence can be of help.
Funeral culture has changed dramatically in recent years, so prepare yourself for this. One way it has changed is the timing of funerals. Years ago, one could anticipate fairly accurately when a funeral would be after a death. Now, with our mobile society, families are often scattered far and wide and services are delayed, sometimes by as much as a week. This can prove to be challenging to manage along with other ministry responsibilities. Seek to be as accommodating as possible for the family. Cremation has further changed this are of funeral culture.
Another way it has changed is many people do not have a clear understanding or expectation of what is appropriate for a funeral. I try to accommodate a family as much as possible, but if I am leading, and especially if the service is in the church I serve, I strongly suggest to the family what would be good and what would not be so good. There is nothing wrong with saying, “that is not appropriate” if asked to include an element of the service that you object to.
A third way it has changed is in the number of people who often take part in the service. In some services, the floor is even opened for anyone to speak who wants to. Ultimately a funeral is a worship service for the Christian and I am very uncomfortable and not very supportive of an open mic. If this is insisted on, be sure you always have the last word in case you need to do damage control. This does not happen very often, but it does happen. Trust me, I have seen some very odd situations.
Proclaim the Gospel and speak clearly about life, death, and eternity in the funeral/memorial service. Do it with grace, but be bold. Everyone in the room is already thinking about life and death, so connect them with the truth of God. Keep the focus on God and point people to the hope we have in him through faith.
Where I serve, it is also common for there to be a meal following the funeral/memorial service, most often at the church. This is a good opportunity to conclude the day, visit with and encourage extended family and friends, and transition to the next phase of bereavement ministry.
Followup is important. Grief often hits the hardest after the service is over, and family goes home. Send a card of encouragement, schedule times to call and check on family members. This is very meaningful. Provide resources for reading and devotion to help loved ones through grief.
Teach people how to live, how to die, and how to deal with death. If you serve in a church for an extended period of time, you will see many people come and go who are truly friends, and who become like family to you. Don’t be afraid to get close to them. Reject the tendency to professionalize your approach to the point that you become distant from people. You can’t be a wreck and effectively provide strength in crisis, but don’t be afraid to shed some tears and show emotion. Bereavement ministry is a great privilege. Seek to bless those you serve through it.