By Ken Camp
Anxiety about his or her own mortality can hinder a pastor’s ability to minister effectively when a death occurs, a former hospital chaplain said at a recent conference at Baylor University.
“We are not immune to the same fears everyone else has. We proclaim resurrection, but most of us are not eager to take it for a test drive right now,” said Katie Long, a United Methodist minister and director of the Wesley Foundation at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Long spoke at a conference April 8 on “Death in the Family and Congregation,” sponsored by George W. Truett Theological Seminary, the Baylor School of Social Work and the Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family.
“The more anxious the pastor, the more likely he or she is to do too much speechmaking and too little listening,” said Long, who has served as associate pastor at a large United Methodist church and currently is pastor of a small, aging congregation in addition to her campus ministry.
She noted that terminally ill patients approaching life’s end may be more willing to discuss issues about their own mortality than their pastor.
“It is my experience that the church member raises the issue of death when he or she thinks the pastor is ready for it,” Long said.
Ministers need to understand family dynamics and recognize every death represents a drastic time of transition for the whole family as a unit, she stressed.
The minister’s goal should be to help a family “bury the dead at the time of death” and not leave matters unresolved, she said, emphasizing the importance of rituals such as funeral services.
Long offered several suggestions for ministers:
— Be present at the time of death. “The pastor needs to be really present and open with someone (who is dying) and remember it is their life and their dying. It’s not up to us to jump in and try to fix it.”
— Set aside adequate time to plan with the family. Talking with the family and listening to their stories before the funeral service can be an important part of helping them cope with loss. “If I want to hear them, they will want to talk.”
— Show interest in the person versus the task. Dedicate the necessary time and attention to the grieving family.
— Offer opportunities for the family to participate. Encourage family members to write down remembrances of their deceased loved one, regardless of whether they read them at the funeral service or whether the minister reads them.
— Take responsibility for religious leadership. Suggest scriptures or hymns that seem appropriate based on conversations with family, rather than expecting the family to do it.
— Involve others in the congregation. Recognize that a death that affects one family in the church has an impact on others, as well.
“Not all deaths are equal in a congregation,” Long acknowledged. “Some have a greater impact because they are more plugged in. But some who are more peripheral may affect the congregation because those who are plugged in are connected to them.”
Death creates anxiety in congregations because they may be seen as a threat to the church’s survival or because the deceased person performed a pivotal function in congregational life, she noted.
Any worst-case-scenario death — the death of a child or young person, a murder, a suicide or a senseless accident — naturally creates anxiety in a congregation, she added.
“As anxiety goes up, our ability to function goes down,” Long said.
Simple tasks such as cooking a casserole or mowing the yard of a family during their time of loss not only helps the family, but also gives church members meaningful ways to express compassion when they may not know what to say, she noted.
“It’s easier to face a funeral with three-dozen cookies in hand,” she said.