By Bill Nieporte
In the last three years, I have conducted funerals for almost 40 percent of the active participants in my congregation. I have also officiated more than a dozen funerals for non- and inactive members. These numbers might seem staggering. For many clergy, funeral work is one of the most demanding aspects of their ministry.
Yet, while clergy are among the first called upon to help a family through its time of grief, often little attention is paid to the work, stress and sorrow experienced by clergy themselves.
Part of the problem is that many parishioners are unaware of the effort involved in preparing a funeral. I’d like to outline what is typically involved in planning a eulogy and conducting a memorial service.
The typical eulogy takes six to 10 hours of preparation. Before writing begins, however, the pastor will meet with the decedent’s family. He or she will spend about 90 minutes with the family, outlining the service, selecting scriptures and choosing music. The bulk of the time, though, will be spent listening to stories about the deceased person’s life.
Normally, the funeral will take place the following day. So after the family gathering the pastor will focus almost exclusively on writing the eulogy. This will necessitate setting aside most other job and family responsibilities.
The pastor will be the first one at the funeral home to meet with the director, musicians and other service participants. Before the service begins, he or she will assemble the family for prayer. After the eulogy, the pastor will join the procession to the graveside and officiate the time of committal.
It is ill-advised to expect your pastor to be in tune with much else beyond the funeral. This kind of work is unlike anything else the clergy are called to do. Pastors invest their best toward a well-prepared eulogy and respectfully planned funeral.
What is often missed by many parishioners is the humanity of the pastor. Very often a pastor is called upon to conduct a service for a person who is a close friend. Yet most pastors are unable to express their grief the way others might. If your pastor starts crying uncontrollably while conducting a funeral, you’d probably want to get a new pastor. So pastors become conditioned to hold in their grief (even while advising others to allow their grief to be expressed).
Now, consider that in many congregations the pastor will conduct two or three funerals in a month. Sometimes it will be two or three funerals in a week. Consider that funeral work will almost always affect the pastor’s time off, family responsibilities and the ability to get a decent night’s rest. Consider also that the pastor will still be expected to have a quality sermon for Sunday, to engage in hospital and homebound visitation and handle all the other aspects of ministry typically expected from a pastor.
I hope you can see that some special attention needs to be spent by a church toward the care of the clergy and their families, especially when they are dealing with large numbers of funerals.
So, what can a congregation do to care for their clergy in circumstances like these?
First, remember that your pastor really is a human being. Make sure that there is someone (a trusted deacon, fellow pastor, denominational leader, etc.) to whom he/she can turn when they need a shoulder to cry on.
Second, when the burden of grief and the stress related to numerous funerals begin to take a toll on your pastor, step forward and offer to help. Make visits on behalf of the pastor. Offer to teach the mid-week Bible study.
Third, understand (and insist) that your pastor take an additional day off and spend it with his/her family.
Finally, stick up for your pastor when he/she misses out on the completion of some typical pastoral responsibilities.
In one congregation I served, I had conducted four funerals in the first three weeks of November. That year, I had conducted 43 funerals.
On Thanksgiving Eve, a lady called to tell me that she had broken one of her toes. Did I go visit? No, I didn’t! I had Thanksgiving dinner with my family. The next day we traveled out of town for an overnight trip.
The next Sunday, after worship, this lady “blessed me out” for not visiting her when I knew she had a broken toe. (Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.)
Several deacons were standing nearby. They stepped in and defused the situation. The next day, they mailed a letter to the congregation defending my work ethic, demanding understanding and patience, and informing them that the first person to call when they had a need was their deacon.
I have a copy of that letter. Whenever I read it, I weep. It allows me to release some of my grief and sorrow and begin to find healing for my heart.
I think I am going to keep that letter in my top desk drawer so I can read it from time to time.