What kind of meaningful, personal ministry can a pastor have, with a family after the funeral is over? All too often our ministry to the family ends with the benediction at the graveside.
Regardless of which family member has died, things are never the same again for the other members of that family circle. There are common needs rising out of their common grief that need to be addressed. A sensitive pastor also will note and give attention to personal and unique needs of different members of the family after the funeral is over.
The death and funeral experience of a loved one creates a time and a climate for the reexamination of important subjects pushed aside at earlier times. The real issues of life and death, the meaning of time and eternity, the value structure of most members of the family, the important and unimportant things, relationships to others, to the church, to Jesus, are all being examined consciously or unconsciously at this critical time.
The pastor who sincerely desires to be a tender, yet true, undershepherd will treasure the opportunity that comes only after the funeral is over.
Many needs rush down on a bereaved family like the torrents of a waterfall. The pastor who is sensitive to his limits of ministry can be a tower of strength. There are financial and legal problems that simply cannot wait. The pastor should know those to whom he can direct his people for financial and legal help. This is a complicated age in which we live.
Unless the pastor has special training in financial or legal matters, it would be better not to try to be an amateur practitioner. But with at least the basic understanding of these matters, he can greatly assist his people in getting professional assistance from one who has a Christian perspective. Do not assume that these matters have been taken care of in advance. Do not intrude into the private, personal, business affairs of your people, but let them know that you are ready to guide them as they have need of your experience.
If the death has been a husband or wife, many additional needs and adjustments confront the surviving spouse. Loneliness invades the house and the heart at almost every moment of the day and night. The sight of those things the loved one had or used or enjoyed brings it on. Those times of treasured sharing of the past that cannot be repeated, even though the need to share is so very real, evoke loneliness. The friendly, happy crowd at the church of which he or she had been a part will also draw the bereaved into the whirlpool of loneliness.
The pastor who truly wants to shepherd his sheep will be alert to those loneliness-creating situations in the lives of his people who have recently lost a loved one; There is a great need to help families after the funeral to handle their guilt. No matter how close or affectionate the family has been to the one recently dead, times of almost overwhelming guilt will come when those left remember some request not granted, some need not met, some words spoken in anger not resolved. This is probably a universal experience, but the grief-stricken individual will think it peculiar to him. Help from a pastor at these times of stress and self-doubt can be very meaningful. But if you leave the survivors at the cemetery, you cannot help these suffering souls discover the reality of the love of God during those times of great need.
The effectiveness of the kind of ministry a pastor can expect to have with a family after a funeral depends upon the kind of relationship he has with them before and during the death experience. Is there the warmth of a personal pastor-people relationship? Is there a relationship where you genuinely respect each other? If the death came at the end of an extended illness, was the pastor present and available often during the illness? Does the pastor have the kind of relatedness to the family where he is a welcome participant in the funeral arrangement planning at the funeral home? (A note of caution here: It is best not to seek to influence a family in the matter of casket selection unless specifically asked. There is a time for this kind of advice . . . but not in the selection room.) The kind of relationship the pastor has before the funeral will greatly influence the kind of ministry he can have after the service is concluded.
To have an effective "after ministry" the pastor should include in his preaching schedule sermons on what the Christian's attitude toward death should be. Sermons on heaven and hell, the second coming of Jesus, the reality of the resurrection (other than at Easter), and messages from the Twenty-third Psalm and from John 14:1-6, should be preached often. No subjects have more appeal or need. If the pastor preaches on these topics only at the funeral hour, he does not help his people develop healthy, Christian attitudes toward death.
The pastor is strongly urged to have an "encouragement ministry," which ought to include special seminars, studies, lessons on estate planning, financial matters, funeral facts that everybody ought to know before the critical hour of need. Invite knowledgeable people from the community to lead these special studies. It is tragic that many husbands and wives refuse to discuss death or any funeral desires with each other. The pastor who really wants to be a good pastor will prepare his people for this inevitable experience. The kind of ministry he has after the funeral will depend upon what he has led his people to believe about death before the funeral need.
The kind of funeral service the pastor has will also influence the kind of ministry he can have after the benediction is pronounced. Is the pastor kind and thoughtful and tender as well as strong in his faith? Is the funeral one of defeat or victory? Is Christ or man exalted?
On the day of the funeral plan to go to the home after the interment. This quiet time of sharing your presence with members of the family, some of whom have come to town from great distances for the funeral, will be used of God to bless. While the family is remembering all the comforting things said and done during this quiet "afterglow" time, the pastor has opportunity to be a friend and oftentimes a teacher. Many, many times people have questions about heaven and Jesus and death that can be dealt with by the pastor. Do not let this precious time slip through your fingers.
Encourage the bereaved family to be at the church services the very next week. They will be blessed, and the congregation will rejoice in the opportunity to minister to them. Their presence back in church will give the pastor occasion to befriend and help the family. Ask the family to come into your office or study before the service for a time of prayer. This experience will draw the pastor and family closer together and make possible many additional times of ministry.
In the weeks and months after the funeral do not forget to visit or telephone. Encourage, privately, other members of the church to give some special attention to the family.
The loving, caring, sharing pastor will influence his congregation to be involved in the same sweet ministry.
Please remember: After the funeral is over, don't leave the grieving family at the cemetery.
From Church Administration, July 1979. Copyright
© 1979, The Sunday School Board of the
Southern Baptist Convention. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.