Pastoral Care and Leadership - Lesson 5

Pastoral Care and Death (Part 1)

In your older years, letting go of life can be difficult if people are not realistic about accepting the inevitability of their own death. The process of dying often helps you sift out the trivial. As you approach death, life often seems to become a series of medical tests, interruptions and uncertainty. If someone begins to lose their sense of identity, remind them that God is good and perfectly wise in everything he does, and that he is powerful. In a Christian context, there is every place for grief but no place for despair. 

John  Johnson
Pastoral Care and Leadership
Lesson 5
Watching Now
Pastoral Care and Death (Part 1)

Pastoral Care and Death (Part 1)

I. Introduction

A. Loss comes in many ways

B. Delegating shepherding care for physical death is not an option

II. Know Your Theology

A. Death is a reality

1. Some people aren't realistic about death

2. We all die naked

3. Death helps us to sift out the trivial

B. Everlasting is a reality

C. Death is a fixed moment

D. In death, we enter into an intermediate state

III. Pastoral Skills

A. Prior to death

1. Life is a series of constant interruptions

2. Loss of identity

3. People need you to minister empathy, perspective and assurance

4. Three descriptions of God

5. Give wisdom regarding medical care

6. What should be said at the memorial service [see the link under downloads]

III. Pastoral Care in Death

A. Let loved ones decide about memorial service

B. The service itself

1. Prior to the service

2. During the service

a. Be prepared to conduct the service in a variety of settings

b. Be familiar with the components of the service

c. Let people get a sense of this person's life

d. Encourage people to share

e. Encourage people that it's ok to grieve

f. Psalm 23

g. Know what to emphasize

3. After the service

Class Resources
  • Being a shepherd to a congregation includes the responsibility to protect, provide and lead. A church is a group of believers that is incorporated into one body and adopted into a family. The church has a mission to go after truth, respond to truth, love one another and share their faith. The pastor is called to care for and lead the congregation in the process. 

  • Convergence is where your greatest passion, giftedness and abilities line up with the greatest opportunity. When managing your time, don't measure your success only in how busy you are. God has not called to do, but to be. Be on a lifelong journey of becoming so you have a reservoir to give from in both your relationships and your preaching. 

  • Visiting people in their homes is an important part of your ministry as a shepherd. Keep track of who you visit and take notes. Have a plan for a meaningful conversation. As you know people personally, it will make a difference in how you preach and how you pray for people. Pray that the Lord will lead you in what to say and be aware that you may often experience something unexpected. 

  • Jesus devoted part of his ministry to the sick, so you as a pastor should, also. God's not interested in taking us back to where we were, but he's always interested in taking us where we need to go. Sometimes being sick and experiencing pain causes us to focus our attention on God. Call the elders to pray for physical and spiritual healing. Part of the misery of sickness is often solitude. When you visit people in the hospital, be timely, expectant and careful with your words. 

  • In your older years, letting go of life can be difficult if people are not realistic about accepting the inevitability of their own death. The process of dying often helps you sift out the trivial. As you approach death, life often seems to become a series of medical tests, interruptions and uncertainty. If someone begins to lose their sense of identity, remind them that God is good and perfectly wise in everything he does, and that he is powerful. In a Christian context, there is every place for grief but no place for despair. 

  • Help the family plan and carry out the services they want in a way that honors both the dead person and their relatives and friends. Help the family navigate the details regarding what kind of services, who should speak, whether the casket will be open or closed whether people should give flowers or donate to a charity, etc. When you are planning what you will say, take into account special circumstances like murder, suicide or someone who may not have assurance of their relationship to God.

  • With the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, there is something happening beyond the surface that is sacred and divine. In the act of communion, we should experience an empowering grace. We look back to the Passover when God led the nation of Israel out of Egypt. We look back to Jesus' death on the cross. We celebrate our present communion with God by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We look forward to the consummation of all things in the future. 

  • How often should you practice communion? Who should be allowed to participate? Should you use wine or grape juice? Should it be done at home or always at church? Should it always be with the whole corporate body? Should communion be part of a wedding ceremony? When should it be in the order of service? As a pastor, how do you deal with serving communion to people you know are struggling in their lives?

  • Baptism is a sacred ceremony so you as a pastor should treat it with care. People have different views on baptism as it relates to who should participate, the mode used and it’s function as a means of grace or ordinance. Dr. Johnson says that baptism doesn’t produce change, it announces change. As one way to prepare for their baptism, the person who is being baptized can write out their testimony in a way that people who aren’t believers can understand it.

  • There has been a disintegration of the institute of marriage in the American culture over the past 60 years. People in our culture today traditionally get married in a church. Meet with the couple before you agree to marry them. Have procedures and policies in place for use of the church building and your involvement. Suggest that the couple choose one of the following passages as the main focus of the wedding ceremony: Col 3:12-14; I Cor 13:4-7; Phil 2:1-4; Gen 2:24-25; Ecc 4:10-13.

  • Discipleship was an essential part of Jesus’s ministry and a significant part of the early church. Be deliberate about spending time with people that are leaders and potential leaders that are living their lives to follow after God. The heart of congregational accountability is being involved in soul care for each other. Admonition is rebuke and correction that calls people back. Part of admonition is corrective preaching that is done with the right motives and in the right way. Membership requires sacrifice to join others in a battle with others who see themselves as investors not consumers. You, as a pastor, are accountable to protect, guide, encourage, comfort and admonish. In the process of confrontation, it’s important to have a commitment to mutual understanding, to do everything in love, aim for reconciliation, to be proactive, do all for God’s glory, to be a peacemaker and for reconciliation and closure.

  • Attention to administration is critical to the health of a church. By administrating effectively, you will have more time for other activities. A certain amount of administration cannot be delegated. Historically, three models for church structure are the Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Congregationalist. Churches need to be led by effective leaders.

  • The organization should always serve the organism. In some churches, the pastoral responsibilities are carried out by one or more of the elders, and in some, the pastor position is distinct from the elders. It’s important for you to make sure that the elders are qualified and that they carry out the duties for which they are responsible.  Recognize the structure in your church and your place in it so you know how to relate to people in a way that helps you to lead effectively.

  • Create a culture with a fundamental value of training and becoming leaders. Establish clear qualifications of those who will lead. Create productive meetings that avoid intimidation and manipulation, avoidance of tough issues, personal attacks, digression from the agenda, hot button issues without proper preparation, too much time on money or people issues, leaving the vision and mission out of discussions, people who monopolize and dominate meetings and insistence on unanimity. Have a clear succession plan in place for board members. The staff has the role of daily managing and shepherding and the board focuses on mission and vision.  

  • Determine reporting relationships and a structure for accountability. Develop effective staff meetings. Meetings should be regular, clear agenda, predictable time frame, participation, encouragement, focus on the mission vision and operational plan, informational, innovation, nurturing, praying together, discerning and sensitive to cultures. Establish personnel policies including a staff assessment plan and a release plan. 

  • Assessments are important because God calls us to be fruitful as well as faithful.  Effective ministry requires metrics because it helps you address real needs. A church’s mission should include pursue truth, respond to truth, mature the saint, love one another and reach lost people. What is your expectation of outcomes? What would it look like if you gave a final exam each year to determine what people could remember and what they have put in practice from your sermons? The difference between an organization that is good, and one that is great, is discipline.

  • Conflict is part of our lives anytime we are interacting with other people. According to Alan Redpath, if you are a pastor you are always in crisis, either in the middle of one, coming out of one or going into one. Reasons for conflict include that it’s part of life, the role of a leader, your personal growth, change, style, staff, budgets, preaching and uninspiring results. People often don’t like change, but effective leaders require change to make improvements. Your style of leadership can create conflict because of the expectations of people in your congregation, or what they are accustomed to.

  • Accept notes from people about situations in the church, only if they are willing to sign them. Work to gain trust. Don’t assume that people being kind to you at first means they trust you. Help people become dissatisfied with the same things you are. What got you here won’t get you there. As you create a culture for change, demonstrate that you respect the past and leave some things the same if they are working. Encourage people to accept and value your strengths and be patient with your weaknesses. Develop and teach a clear theology of worship. Worship is response to revelation. If you can articulate a theology of worship, it helps reduce the conflict about styles of worship. Focus on the mission and vision of the church to help avoid conflicts about finances. Teach people how to disagree without making it personal.

  • The Pastor’s job is to equip people to do the work of the ministry. Decide on and communicate the mission and vision of the church that the people support. Create a process to assimilate people. Have a clear entry point and subsequent steps for maturity and involvement. There are 4 historical models for how the Church relates to the world. 1. The church separate from the world to stay pure, and attempting to attract outsiders. 2. The Church in the world to be relevant to people. 3. The Church over the world attempts to gain power and position to control the government structures. 4. The Church engaging the world is being salt and light in the world without separating, compromising or trying to control the structures.

  • If you manage your own finances well, it will be easier for people in the church to trust you to manage the finances of the church. Teach your congregation principles of how to manage money and how to give wisely.

  • Designated giving can undermine the budgeting process. Faith-promise offerings can sometimes be helpful practically, but they can also create a false hierarchy of giving categories. Create a budget driven by the mission and vision of your church. Establish procedures and check to make sure people are following them. Conduct periodic audits to avoid embezzlement. Make the salaries one line item in the budget but don’t discuss the salary of an individual in a public meeting.

  • What got you here won’t get you there. Read current publications to keep up on culture. People like Stuart Murray suggest strategies for connecting with people in this post-Christendom era. Balance the tension between tradition and innovation. Evaluate why people are coming to your church as well as why they leave. Engage the world but don’t become like the world.

  • How you manage transition is a critical aspect of leadership. Manage your present ministry by keeping in mind that, “Success is not measured by what you are leaving to go to, but by what you are leaving behind.” “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners and worst of all, they have pastors who are sinners.” When circumstances in your ministry are difficult, it may be the time to stay and learn important lessons about you and your congregation, not necessarily to leave right away.

Are you a pastor? Are you studying to be a pastor? Are you a leader in your church and you want to encourage your pastor? As a pastor, what does it mean to care for your congregation? How do you do it well? What does it mean to be a good leader? What character traits can you develop? What relational, motivational, spiritual and educational strategies can you use to become an effective leader and develop leaders in your church? 

In Pastoral Care and Leadership, you have the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Johnson as he relates what he has learned, experienced and taught over the past three decades. What a great opportunity you have to learn about how to lead and care for people in your congregation from someone like Dr. Johnson who is thoughtful, relational, highly trained, a talented communicator as a seminary professor and experienced as a pastor who served for more than a total of 30 years at three distinctly different churches. 

In this class you will learn how to:

Care for yourself and others;

Deal with sickness and death;

Celebrate the Lord's Supper and Baptism;

Lead a wedding service;

Relate to the board and staff;

Grow from conflict

Handle your own money wisely, and the church's;

Transition the church forward with innovation.

Learning to care for yourself is critical. Understanding who you are and how you apply your gifts, abilities and training is an important place to start. Getting enough rest, being deliberate about your relationship with God and responding to his leading, and nurturing your family and your friendships helps you to have the emotional and relational energy you need to encourage and comfort the people in your congregation. As a pastor, you are often invited to be a part of some of the most memorable and intimate events in peoples' lives. You are welcomed into their homes to get to know them and pray for them. You are in the "front row" for weddings, baptisms, baby dedications and funerals. Dr. Johnson gives you some specific direction based on his training and experiences to help you know what to say and to make these times meaningful and encourage people in their relationship with the Lord in the process. 


As you begin to lead a church, find out about the history, structure and culture of the church. Work with the governing board to determine mission and vision so that when you hire and work with staff members, you can all agree on a common direction. Choose strategies that are innovative and effective. Decide on metrics so that you can measure the results. Continue what works and make changes by learning from your failures. Remember that, "what got you here, won't get you there." Avoid unnecessary conflict by fostering an environment where you set clear expectations and goals, practice regular accountability and show care for people by expecting the best and listening well. When there is conflict, have the conversation with the people involved, focus on the issue at hand, avoid personal attacks and strive for reconciliation. In the area of finances, be a good example of handling your own finances by being disciplined, shrewd, wise and planning well. Manage the church finances by encouraging the budget priorities to match the mission and vision that the congregation, board and staff agree on. Set up procedures to prevent misuse of funds and be relentless to make sure they are followed. When it's time for a transition, leave well by having already mentored other leaders and by creating separation so the church can move on. 


Recommended Books

Pastoral Care and Leadership - Student Guide

Pastoral Care and Leadership - Student Guide

Are you a pastor? Are you studying to be a pastor? Are you a leader in your church and you want to encourage your pastor? As a pastor, what does it mean to care for your...

Pastoral Care and Leadership - Student Guide

Pastoral care. We have covered some ground thinking about our own selves and how we care for ourselves and how we care for others by going behind closed doors, so to speak. There are times I have wanted to preach a sermon entitled, “Behind Closed Doors” because we all have a lot of things we hide.

Pastoral care and sickness is part of the reality of living in a fallen world. Part of living in a fallen world is, we also extend pastoral care to people who are dying.

I. Pastoral Care Prior to Death (Part 1)

A. Loss comes in many ways

When we talk about death, again just as in sickness, it is not always physical. We go through a number of stages of death, or maybe I should say loss. It might be someone is going through the loss or the death of a relationship or the death of a chapter. Someone has been full bore, then retirement and now their life has changed. Or the death of an opportunity, something that was there and it is suddenly gone. The death of youth can be at times a crisis, if you will. Or maybe the death of middle age and one is realizing one really is getting older, not that I know anything about this. Or the death of a marriage. But then of course, the death of life.

B. Delegating shepherding care for the physical death is not an option

With respect to this last one, delegating the shepherding task is just not an option. This is where pastors need to be. We are going to approach this like we have done sickness. Let’s think it through theologically for a moment, make sure we get our theological bearings, then we will talk a little bit more about skill.

II. Know Your Theology

You notice I’m bringing theology and skills always together because we can have great pastoral skills, but if we have an unsound theology, we are going to mess things up. On the other hand, if we have great theology, but we don’t have any bedside manners or pastoral skills, it doesn’t matter if we can perfectly explain healing.

A. Death is a reality

So I want to talk about death, thinking about sound theology. Here is a very obvious fact that our theology teaches us and that is that death is a reality. What I have discovered as a pastor is that a lot of people don’t really take their eschatology seriously. They won’t think of it necessarily in those terms, but they don’t really approach death with a certain reality.

Part of that is, that we all die. People who don’t come to grips with that sometimes are expecting the medical establishment to do heroic effort when sometimes I have had to pastorally say, “Evelyn, it is okay to die.” Our eschatology says that it is fairly safe. In fact, I think of it a little bit like this, and it is certainly not a pure analogy at all, but it is something like we are living in Somalia and there is a plane on the tarmac to Hawaii. We need to realize this, it is not what you’re losing, it is what you are gaining.

Here is another difficult thing we need to shepherd people through, and that is, we all die naked. We don’t take things with us. The older years are about letting go, letting go of a lot of things. There is again where a pastoral word, a pastoral sensitivity can be really good. As Psalm 90 teaches us, we all need to number our days.

One of the things death does in a good way is, it helps us to sift out the trivial. It puts life in perspective. But most people live in denial. Even Christians live in denial.

A few years ago, about five or six years ago, I had some intense abdominal pains that sent me to Emergency. After a stay in the hospital a couple of days, the Internal Medicine people came in and said, “John, it’s pretty clear you have pancreatic cancer.” I was released from the hospital. They had done their tests, but now they were awaiting more long-term results. I have to tell you, that powerfully focused my life. For example, suddenly things had a whole lot less appeal or attraction. Things that were priorities weren’t priorities and things that weren’t priorities became priorities.

B. Everlasting is a reality

Death is not necessarily a bad thing. We help people face this and help them face that everlasting is a reality, that again, we are not moving into extinction. We are moving into something that is eternal, whether it is death or life.

C. Death is a fixed moment

Death is this fixed moment. We use words like “untimely” or “accidental.” But again, we are focusing on theology for a little bit. It is an appointed moment and God tells us this in Hebrews 9:27. It is His sovereign will to give life and to take life, as Job understood in Job 1:21.

D. In death, we enter into an intermediate state

Again, thinking theologically, where a lot of people get confused and I have been there as well, is that when we depart, we who are believers and unbelievers, enter an intermediate state. We often use language of heaven and what people are doing in heaven. But that really does not coincide with scripture.

I like to think of it this way. Again, it is probably a bad analogy. But I remember once I was flying from Beirut and I was flying to Frankfurt and then back home. But the plane got delayed and we ended up stuck in Amman, Jordan. They put us in what is called a “transit hotel.” I don’t know if you have ever been in a transit hotel, but you realize it is just transitory. You are there for a day until you catch the next flight. You are not putting up pictures on the wall or going out to buy things to decorate the room. You just want to get moving on.

In a certain way, death is like that. We are in this transit hotel, what is called this intermediate state. For the righteous, scripture refers to it as “paradise.” That sounds pretty good. Luke 23:43. But for the unrighteous, it is described as “punishment.” Either way, it is a transit point. It is not to be confused with purgatory. It is not a place where middle-of-the-roaders work their way through a halfway house experience. It is a transit until we are all one day united with God in our bodies.

Christ modeled this future hope in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “Those in Christ will too be resurrected, but will be resurrected one day when the graves open.” So in the meantime, we are in this intermediate state. I do not know what state we are in. I’m kind of amazed actually as I think about it. I wrote a paper in a doctoral seminar years ago for Dr. John Walberg, who is Mr. Eschatology, on the state of our bodies in the intermediate state. I can’t remember what I said, but obviously, there is not a lot to build on in scripture.

The point I am making here is that when we think theologically about death, we need to think about, it’s okay to let go. We need to realize that death is our moving into hope, but we are not quite there yet until the end of the age, so we are in this interim position. That maybe helps people at least to verbalize, at least begin to think about what happens at death. So, a little bit of theology.

III. Pastoral Skills

Now let’s talk about pastoral skills because that is really what we are interested in in this course.

A. Prior to death

Let’s talk about some pastoral skills, first of all prior to death. What I’m talking about here is, we need to understand a little bit what life is like for those who are dying. What is life like for people who are dying? As I have watched my father die, my father-in-law die, my mother-in-law die, and even some of my friends, I realized when people get to this state of life in the journey, life becomes a series of interruptions. Life begins a series of tests, treatments. Life is uncertainty. One never knows from day to day what is going to happen next. Everything begins to be prefaced with “if,” if I’m still here. There are family challenges that come with this. Intimacy can be one of the casualties that comes with sickness and dying. There can be what I have already referred to as a feeling of uselessness. If we are not really careful, if we are not watching our souls, certain self-pity can begin to take hold. Certainly a loneliness.

But what begins to be lost in particular is the loss of identity. We are on this road and so much of our identity when we are young and in the thick of our careers, is what we do. “Hi, what do you do?” “I’m a pastor” or “I teach at seminary” or “I’m an educator.” But then you begin to lose that as you move older, into retirement and it gets harder to define your identity. Then when you begin to move into the death process, you lose more and more identity.

What I am saying is, this is a really core place to extend pastoral care. We will need someone in our lives to minister empathy. But more than empathy, what we really need to minister is perspective, perspective that says that God is not asleep. Although I find it interesting, don’t you, that in scripture, when you read Psalms in particular, the psalmist sometimes approaches God as if God has fallen asleep and calls for God to awaken. Sometimes the psalmist approaches God as a God who maybe has forgotten and he needs to remind God. When you approach these more difficult years, it can feel like God is asleep. It can feel like God has forgotten. Part of our presence as pastoral care is to remind people that God does not sleep. That God knows you more than you know yourself. That God is more aware and more present than He could ever be.

There are three things, sort of like a triangle, if you will. These three things I have held onto for particularly the last twenty years. These are my go-to things about God that get me through the night.

1. God is good. That is, He is good in everything He does. There is nothing he does that is not good. It is all good.

2. God is none other than wise in everything He does. God is perfectly wise. God does not have to be informed. God does not have to be taught. God never does anything foolish. Everything He does, even if I can’t explain - and there are many things I can’t explain - fall on He is wise.

3. He is good. He is wise. And the third thing that gets me through the night is, He is powerful. Take verses like Psalm 115:3, “Whatever he wills to do, He does.” That is all it says. Whatever He wills to do, He does. If God says, “This is what I’m going to do,” He does it. He never asks, “Well, can I? I don’t know. This seems really big.” There is nothing big to God. It’s like a woman once who asked the pastor, “Pastor, can I bring the little things of life to God?” To which the pastor responded, “Is there anything big that we bring to God?” Nothing is big to God. Only God is big.

That is what I would like to help people with. If you know God is good and He is wise and He is all powerful in everything He does, I don’t think we have to worry.

But in this period of life people go through a lot of worry, a lot of doubt, a lot of potential self-pity, as I mentioned. So we will need wisdom to help them regarding medical care. As I already talked about, part of that wisdom is knowing when you are extending life or extending death.

When I had my pancreatic cancer scare, I told my wife – she didn’t like this, but I told her – I said, “I’m going to go back to some fundamentals on eschatology.”

1. I remember that Paul said it pretty clearly, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” So if I die, it is a gain. What that tells me is that it is okay to die. I should be careful here because God can do many things, but most of the people that I have shepherded through pancreatic cancer usually go through lots of treatments that maybe buys them six months to a year. That is generally. I have to be careful how I use pastoral wisdom, but in my case, I told my wife that if the tests do come back and confirm that I have pancreatic cancer, I’m not doing treatment. If God wants to heal me, that is great. But if I am in the process of dying in the next few weeks or months, I’m perfectly good with that. Don’t get me wrong, I love living; but as I said to someone, as I think I just mentioned, it is sort of like being in Somalia with a plane to Hawaii, it’s okay.

So we need to give wisdom. Certainly when it comes to issues like living wills, euthanasia, or advanced directives, what should be said at the service. We do a disservice to our people that we care for if they don’t have an advanced directive. No matter what age we are, we need an advanced directive. We need to know how to instruct.

I discovered this when my dad was dying. Hospitals have the primary mission to sustain life, that is their mandate, that is what they are called to do. In my dad’s case there came a moment where if they didn’t keep my dad plugged to all the machines, he would have died. Basically, the hospital was saying that as long as we keep sustaining you, you can keep living and we will do that. I asked my dad, “Is that what you want?” He said, “No, I’m ready to go home.” So I had to tell the doctors, “Let my dad go.” He went to Hospice and died two days later.

Part of it is helping people know when they should make that decision. That is a difficult decision. It was not easy for me to do because I wanted my dad to stay here, but I didn’t want my dad to stay in the condition he was in. What could have helped is if my dad had had an advanced directive. We had to make decisions that he could have made. I have an advanced directive, my wife does, our kids. Everybody knows exactly what to do. That is important to do.

The other thing I want to say is, it is not enough to have an advanced directive. I know that especially as we are younger, it is like a lot of things we just don’t want to think about, we want to put it off. The interesting thing is, none of us know when this life ends. One of the things we need to leave is, what should be said? What do we want people to say?

I have something I have entitled “Memorial Instructions.” It is a guide sheet that all of us should take time to fill out. It says things like, “Here is what I want to be remembered for. Here is what I was passionate about. Here is what I didn’t like. Here is where I loved to invest my life.” You know why I say that? Because I wonder how many memorial services, let’s imagine we are up in heaven and we are watching the service, we might be going, “I never said that. I don’t feel that way.” “John’s favorite verse was Zechariah …..” What?” We let people try to fill in the pieces. It is to our advantage as pastors to encourage people to do this, so that we don’t have to do the guesswork, so that we can say, “Let me tell you what was Ann’s favorite, favorite song, and this is why this song meant so much to her. In fact, she heard this song the night she came to Christ and these words are what helped bring her to Christ.” I want to be able to say that, as opposed to just making something up because it sounds good, or listening to relatives who will try to fill in the pieces, but they are not really sure.

So we are talking about pastoral care prior to and part of pastoral care is saying to the people to whom you minister, I know you don’t want to think about it and for many of you it is way, way off, at least looking at the averages; but I need to put some things in order right now. Everybody should have a will. Everybody should have a living trust. Everybody should have that all sorted through. Because I can tell you, where attorneys make much of their fortune is on family disagreements. I know. We went through one for three years and it was hell because of a family member that did not give careful instructions and left it to the kids to figure it out. Lots of bad things happened that have, I fear, maybe permanently torn relationships apart.

I would like to think that what we have gone through is an isolated case; but the reality is, as I have talked to a lot of people, they have faced something similar. Why? It is because somebody didn’t just take the time to face reality that one day I’m going to die. It provoked Heather and me to sit down and we have laid out everything, from the directives about what to do if I’m in a coma, or to what happens with what resources we have, so my kids don’t have to guess. They know who the executor is and everything is all laid out.

I know these are things people don’t necessarily enjoy or want to talk about, but where are you going to do it if you don’t at least as part of your pastoral task, help people to get there.

III. Pastoral Care in Death

That is prior to. Let’s talk about pastoral care in death.

A. Let loved ones decide about memorial service

Again, we need to help guide people into seeing that this is one of life’s appointments. We need to release and then remember. Part of releasing is to tell people, but don’t give directives, as to whether you want a memorial service, or whatever you want. That really should be the prerogative of the people who are living. A lot of times people feel like when they are dying, they can legislate. The point is, a memorial service isn’t for them, it is for the people who survive.

My father-in-law, for example, didn’t want a service, even though he knew the Lord and was beloved by family, he was just private in that way. I can tell you that to this day, it was a huge mistake for the living, people who needed to grieve, like my wife, who needed caregivers around her at that time.

So I try to gently but pastorally say, ”We are going to die, but it is important to instruct people what you want said, but leave whether there is a service or not up to people to decide.” So this is part of pastoral care before and pastoral care in death.

B. The service itself

If you are training for ministry, inevitably you are going to do weddings and funerals, memorial services. It is really important you get this right because it is not like with this, if I screw up, we can re-tape this. You can’t do that in a memorial service. So you’d better be careful about what you are going to say.

You will face various contexts, whether it is a believer, whether it is an unbeliever, whether it is natural, whether it is a suicide, whether it is a murder. I have had to deal with all of the above and they all require different ways of handling.

Part of prior to the service is to meet with the people to help with their decisions. When someone dies, one of the first things that is important to do is to be a pastoral presence, not only to care, but to instruct, give instructions. People are confused, they are often blindsided. They don’t know what is the next thing to do. Should there be a service? What is the paperwork? What are the burial decisions? There is cremation. There are a host of things. This is where the church comes in.

Part of it is meeting with the family to grieve and again, I can’t stress too much how important it is. That is one of the times you just drop things, sermon preparation, a lot of things, you just have to stop and say, ”I need to be there.” Even if it is briefly.

Sometimes we avoid it because that is one of those, “I don’t know what to say.” You don’t have to really say much of anything. Sometimes just being there, people will remember you were there. Sometimes just simply saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss and I’m here for anything you need.” Help them to think through the next step because most people are in shock and they are not thinking clearly. There are some in the death establishment, if you will, who love to take advantage of emotions at this point.

At some point, you are coming back to gather information. You are sitting down with the family in the living room. I like to sit down and just say, “I want you to tell me about this person’s life. What do you remember?” This can be a great time of bonding and grieving and reflecting. Again, don’t do it on the fly, don’t be haphazard. Be intentional. Carve out the questions you want to ask. You are going to stand up there and it is going to be really important that you make some sense.

You are also going to need to think through who is involved, who should be involved. Sometimes I will say to family members who may want to say something, “Know this, I will be your backup system.” Sometimes people say, “I want to say something about Dad” and then they get to the service and emotion and grief so overwhelms them, they can’t speak. I like to let people know ahead of time, just have a copy of what you’re going to say and give it to me. Give me a copy of it, so that if you can’t, at least I can get up and say, “This is what Tom wanted to say.”

The day of the service it is really important to meet with the family ahead of time, pray with them, go over things. During the service itself, some pastoral care. Just be prepared for multiple settings. It might be outdoors. It might be in a funeral home. It might be in a church.

A funeral home. What do we need to know about a funeral home? A funeral home is where one of the first things you do is meet with the funeral director and you go over details and have an outline of service for the director. It is good to stand. Most funerals will have a casket. People will ask questions of open or closed and we will talk about that more in a little bit. Part of where you stand is by that, to give dignity to the life of the person.

I can’t stress enough that you are on top of being prepared for knowing all the details of the service, what the funeral director is thinking, what are the songs.

I did a service once for a guy I played tennis with every Monday night. He seemed to be particularly down one night and I said, “Are you okay?’ He said, “My mom just died.” Tennis has been part of my ministry outside of church, so I said, “Can I help in any way?’ He said, “No, we’re okay.” He called me two days later and said, “Yes, actually, we are a mess. I have no idea what to do.” So we met, went over talking about his mom and remembrances. Where I wasn’t so sharp and prepared was the service itself. It was in a funeral home. We came there and I remember, he had two brothers. Tommy, as I recall, totally lost it, even before the service, he was just emotionally so strung out. We had to wait for Tommy to compose himself to come in. Finally, Tommy came in and the service started. They started with a Roy Orbison song, “Crying.” I don’t know if you are familiar with that song. It is one of those gut-wrenching, emotion stretching songs. By the time Roy Orbison’s soundtrack was over, Tommy was an absolute mess. Guess who has to get up and speak. Just a word to the wise, when you do services, try not to be surprised and don’t surprise them.

Is it good to be in a funeral home? It can be easier for some guests, particularly the unchurched. It can be less responsibility, they take care of a lot of the details. But if believers in the church are going to ask me, I will always move them to a memorial service in the church. I find funeral homes tend to focus more around death, there is the casket, there is the presence of death. And a memorial service, the focus tends to be more about life. There usually is not a casket in a memorial service.

In a memorial service, unlike a funeral home, too, the advantage is, you are in charge, so you are not surprised. The advantage is, there is this greater emphasis on life. There is more opportunity to facilitate community and care and there is more freedom for elements. You are not on a rigid timeline like some funeral homes, where maybe you have 30 minutes to conduct a service.

You may be doing it in a funeral home. You may be doing it as a memorial service in a church. You may be doing a graveside. Some prefer to just have something simple. That is okay. Sometimes it is both/and. It is a memorial service or a funeral and a graveside. You need to be prepared to do a pastoral care that is different. In a graveside, it is going to be more personal. You are dealing generally with close friends and family.

The important thing is to be familiar with the components of the service, what you are going to say. I know this is all so uplifting, isn’t it? But it is part of the pastoral task. There should be a time to remember. Let people get a sense of this person’s life, not just in a rote way reading an obituary. People deserve more than that. A brief overview of life, accomplishments. Again, getting into what people liked or disliked, their interests, their passions, what this person would want to be remembered for.

Think of your own life for a moment. If you were writing out these instructions, what would you want to be remembered for? What are maybe three things you would say, “If you remember me, remember I was about these three things.” Write them down.

Encourage people to share. This is where wisdom comes in. It can be overdone. Services can drag. I have been in two, three-hour services. How do you control something if lots of people want to say something? Maybe say something like this: “We have a space here for four or five people to share.” Never give the mic to someone, a fundamental rule. Have someone out there that holds the mic and you can control the situation. Be prepared, there can be lots of surprises. You never know what people are going to say.

It is important to minister grace, give assurance, encourage people that it’s okay to grieve. Sometimes we do stupid things like say, “We have a great hope in heaven, there should be no crying here.” What is going on? That misses the fact that grief is part of God’s healing process. In a Christian context, I like to say to people, “There is every place for grief, but no place for despair.” Grief and despair are two very different things. In grief I still have hope, in despair, I have no hope. I like to say to people, “Please, we welcome you to grieve today; but please, there is no need for despair.” I can’t say that with a nonbeliever, but I can say that with a believer.

In all of this, please don’t be canned. I have a go-to text I often use and that is Psalm 39. Psalm 23 I typically use more with an unbeliever because I like to say something like this. I never want to tell people, “We know Tim is in hell because he never made a decision.” Obviously, we don’t say that, but I don’t like to give false hope either. Someone who has lived like hell, then say, “We know that God is a forgiving God and He is a gracious God and we know we will all see Tim in heaven.” That is irresponsible. I cannot say that. What can I say? I can say something like this: I can read Psalm 23 and I can talk about God. I can say: “This is what I know about Tim, that Tim still lives and he is in the hands of God. This is what comforts me and should comfort you. He is in the hands of a God who is far more merciful than we could ever be. He is also in the hands of a God who is far more just and holy than we could ever imagine, as we will all be in the hands of this God.”

Whatever is done should be modest, should be scriptural, should be balanced. It should have some sense in an appropriate way, of humor. Humor I find sometimes, if it is done well, done in the right way, can relax people, like in a sermon. Here is an example.

I follow the San Diego Padres, I grew up in San Diego. There was this hitter for the Padres that was on this amazing streak, he was breaking all records. That is, there wasn’t a game that he didn’t get a hit for maybe 30 games. There came this night and every time he came up to bat, he got a hit. He came up in the ninth inning, it was his fourth time up and as he was announced, came up to bat, the stands erupted, people went crazy. He couldn’t help but pull back and the tears came down, he was overwhelmed with people’s response. They were playing the Chicago Cubs, I remember that. The catcher said, “Relax, the scoreboard just announced that Armstrong has just walked on the moon.” That put things in perspective. Death puts things in perspective.

People are feeling tense. They don’t know if you are safe. They don’t know what you are going to say. They don’t know if you are going to use this to hit them hard with the Gospel or whatever. It relaxes them and then you can talk. Death does suddenly put things in perspective, what really matters how big or important we really are.

Here is what I have found important to emphasize. I like to always emphasize a few things. First of all, God, as I have already mentioned, God and his character. For the believing, that gives them great hope. For the unbelieving, it reminds them of who God is. It helps them think about their own life.

I had a kid, I think in his late 20s, in my first church. His name was Michael, Mike. Mike, as far as I know - I think I only met him once - never came to church. His parents came to church, kind of nominal, but they came every Sunday and their son, Mike, lived like hell. Drugs, alcohol, he ran with a hard group, into cars, the whole thing, and he had a massive heart attack. I remember, I went to the family and they said, “Pastor, we are so grateful, Mikey went forward when he was seven.” What could I have done? I could have gotten up and said, “It is a tragic loss, but here is the great thing, God is gracious. Mikey accepted Jesus when he was seven and we can rejoice in that.” I could have done that. But then I was staring at all of his friends, who might have said, “Wow, that is pretty cool, you can give your life to Jesus and live like hell.” To be honest with you, I didn’t know his state, how could I? I don’t know the state of Mike’s eternal destiny. There are some scriptures that could point to the fact that Mike is in eternity with God and some that would surely suggest he is in hell.

What I chose to do is to focus again on who God is and that God is just and God is merciful. I wanted people to leave knowing who God is without trying to suggest the eternal state of Mike.

I want to stress the importance of who God is. I want to always use the Word of God because the Word of God is my power. Psalm 23, I have often found fits in well, though again, we see it in Hollywood movies, right? It is always the standard, what typically the pastor who is really rather secondary and problematic, gets up and reads. We don’t want to do it in that way. But there actually is tremendous, great truth about the person of God in Psalm 23. I like Psalm 39 because it describes life’s brevity. It reminds people that we are here and then we are gone. Life is transitory. We think we are going to be here forever, but the reality is, and I can tell you as I have gotten older and older, life has gone way too fast. I still think I’m 30. How can that be? What happened? It is a blur. So we remind people that if life is a blur like that and the older you get, the faster it goes, then it is really important to think about eternity, which by the way, goes for a long time.

Part of it is then connecting with people and talking about grief. As I’ve already mentioned, allowing grief to have its way and let people shed their tears. I wonder if this is more an American thing and I wonder sometimes if it is a disservice. I know this is going to be controversial, what I am going to say. I wonder if this whole thing about receptions and food and all at the end of a memorial service, does a disservice to grief.

I remember when Heather was in the hospital. I was with her and she was still unconscious. Well-meaning people came to be with me, but they insisted we go out for lunch. Food was the last thing I thought about. I remember I did it, but I had no appetite.

People will say that we should be celebrative, right? We are rejoicing. This person is in eternity. Yes, we should rejoice. I have discovered that people who too quickly make the transition from loss to celebration and bypass grief, will then deal with some of the issues that come after death later on, which is not so healthy. I think we need to encourage grief. We certainly need to offer hope, not despair. There should be some balance. Especially in the church, I’ve had a lot of people say, “Pastor, just share the Gospel, that is what I want you to do. I just want you to share the Gospel. I want people to know.” It is important and it is a wonderful place to stop and consider this whole question of redemption. But I think some pastors do it and I feel like they hijack the service, to make it about that. While it is a part and I don’t mean to be misunderstood like the Gospel isn’t important. But I have found people sometimes get very offended by the Gospel if it is preached primarily as all about that and not doing the memorial service and looking at the Word and shepherding through loss. Then talking about the Gospel, putting it all in a context instead of just getting up and preaching John 3:16.

So there has to be some balance, for sure. Then obviously there is prayer. This again should be really thought through. In a memorial service or a funeral service, what do you want to pray? What should you say? A lot of our public prayers are just impromptu, right? Off the top of our heads, and we hope it is going to sound really good. But in a service like this, and weddings are the same thing, I think they demand that we outline what we want to say when we pray.

The music should be obviously appropriate, contemplative, sensitive. I think we want to avoid depressing funeral music, but we also want to avoid trivializing and playing Elton John.

It is important that we be sensitive to customs, traditions. When I lived in Holland, these services are very different than we do in America. So it is understanding that.

A couple of things about pastoral care after the service. Pastoral care doesn’t end when we have done the service and we have gone home. You have to write it down and log it in. For example, things like this: “Miriam lost her husband on November 15th” and write that in that directory where I keep all my accounts of people and write, “November 15th”next to his name. Because that will be a date that I need to be sensitive to.

Let me back up a little bit. Pastoral care also includes after the service, helping people think through how to dispose the body. Treat the body with dignity. It has its own sacramental purpose and it needs to be disposed with dignity and reverence. We will talk more about what is involved there in a moment.

Some rules at the graveside service. Generally, you ride with the funeral director if a funeral is involved. You meet the pallbearers. You stand by the door. You lead the procession. These are all part of the dignity that we need to be aware of. You stand at the foot of the grave. In graveside service, you keep it brief. Emotions are pretty intense, especially with the body. I like to select maybe portions from 1 Corinthians 15. I like to remind people of the body’s future, that it is not going to be here forever, that one day it is going to open, this grave, this body will be reunited in a resurrected body. It is a great place to pray a dedicatory prayer. “Lord, I want to dedicate this place as a place of healing. That every time people come and they remember and they mourn, may this always be a place of healing.” Respect time for people who need to be alone at the site.

In the days to come, again there will be a grief process. People generally do quite well right in the immediacy of the service. They are still in shock. They have all this family support and friends. This is what I have discovered, for the most part, people are saying, ”They are doing so well, it’s amazing.” And they say, “It is amazing, I think God is getting me through this.” That all sounds fine until everybody goes home. The family goes home. The friends go home. Now they are sitting in their home alone. All of a sudden, lots of things start to go through their minds – anger, regrets, doubts.

I had a man in my church in Holland, his name was Dudley Parent. He was one of the most Godly men I have ever met in my life. He was a leader in the church. I loved the idea of serving in my church in Holland with this man. He prayed for me. He stuttered every time he spoke. But he was so Godly. About every six weeks he would welcome people to the church, the elders would rotate. He would go welcome to trinity. Without fail, every time he prayed corporate prayer, he did not stutter a bit. “Dear Lord, I just pray now that you would bless our service and pray for Pastor as he comes to preach.” It would be flawless, it was like a miracle. So here is this Godly man. I will never forget the night one of the elders called me up and said, “John, Dudley is dead.” Dudley was a scientist with the European Space Agency and he had some inoculations, he was going to India. He got on a horse because he loved to ride. With the combination of all of it, he had a sudden massive heart attack. I did the service, ministered to the family. Everything was great.

Then I got really busy pastoring. I had sent an occasional written note, “Thinking of you, hope you are well.” This was a clear illustration of, just sending a note was not enough. She needed me sometimes to come over. She was all alone, a British woman, now trying to get on with life without Dudley, whom she really loved. She turned really quite bitter towards me. It was one of my pastoral failures. I wasn’t there. Part of this, I didn’t understand this process of grief as carefully as I needed to.

I will always remember that moment in future deaths, to say, “Everything is great here today, sort of, but three months from now I need to visit. Six months from now, I need to just keep constant check.” So watch for anniversaries because, I think this is maybe fair to say, in a way people never really get over grief and loss. It stays with them for the rest of their lives.