The phone awakens you at 5:45 AM. “Seven pounds, six and a half ounces,” you manage to hear. Although half asleep, you feel honored that these people share their important life passages with you as if you were one of the family.
Because church members do not routinely ask their pastors directly for pastoral care, ministers need to be creative in order to give that care to them. One way to do this would be to listen to their life experiences during crucial times, especially during life passages such as births, adoptions, birthdays, weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, graduations, retirements, and funerals. Such occasions are windows of opportunity for pastoral care.
How can we, as pastors, acknowledge these life passages? Though things like prayer, music, relaxation, quiet time, gifts, cards, words of encouragement, and creative services can be appropriate, sometimes simply listening is often the best way to acknowledge the significance of one of these events. Just being there, and being aware, can speak volumes.
Several life passages are mentioned in this article, with ideas for celebrating them. The following life passages progress from being primarily celebrative to more reflective.
Tedious processes that involve considerable waiting, hoping, and praying include adoptions.
Parents should be affirmed and encouraged during these efforts, which can feel like a marathon. When the big day finally comes to pick up the new child, a celebration is in order, and if you, as pastor, find out about such an occasion, you could help celebrate. Sometimes called a claiming ceremony, this occasion becomes the pinnacle of the adoption process.
As you include siblings in celebrating adoptions, join the hands of the adoptee with the rest of the family in a dedicatory prayer. If the couple has a family Bible, be sure to record the child in their Bible. Consider making them a “welcome to the family” certificate. If the parents have chosen a name for the child, speak of the significance of the name. Stress that the child has been especially chosen and that God and the church would like to be partners in the adoption.
Especially appropriate scriptures include Psalm 139, because it discusses God being with people in the womb and through every step of their journey; Ephesians 1, which discusses adoption; John 14, which mentions orphans; Isaiah 49:15, 16, which ask whether mothers can forget their nursing children; Psalm 22:9, 10, which speak of God’s love from the womb and beyond; and Psalm 68, which speaks of God as the Father of the fatherless.
Chaplains are often privy to birthdates on medical charts; pastors can get birthdates from their church clerks. I admired a fellow pastor who gave his members a brief call on their birthdays. Simply call on members and have no other agenda than to wish them a happy birthday and to pray with them. Cards also remain in style, with email or e-cards fitting for some. Blessed is the pastor who has members who also love this ministry. Brief visits are appropriate when time permits, especially for special birthdays. In cultures where aging may not often be celebrated, it is especially relevant to acknowledge 90- or 100-year birthdays. This will ensure that these celebrations do not become monotonous, as not everyone has a 90th or a 100th birthday. Affirm seniors for their longevity, faith, contributions, and legacy to the future by using Psalm 103 as a key passage, for it celebrates the blessings of life.
Numerous anniversaries mark life passages: weddings, deaths, baptismal dates, personal achievements, and disasters. Pastors need some kind of organizational system to remember these occasions. Family and church members who know the individuals and the history of these anniversaries can be of special assistance to help celebrate. My wife recently phoned a young lady on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s accidental death. This woman was, of course, thinking about her husband, and my wife’s call was especially meaningful to her. Remembering anniversaries becomes primary to celebrating them.
Baptisms symbolize a passage into God’s family by proclaiming divine, human, and congregational acceptance. Share scriptures that affirm those being baptized, especially those that speak of joining God’s family, or that acknowledge individuals as cherished children of God. Biblical affirmation is especially healing because many in contemporary society have not grown up hearing statements such as, “This is my beloved Son [or daughter], in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
A crucial part of baptisms includes officially welcoming new members into church fellowship when they come to the front for an introduction. For example, “This is Miss Smith. She enjoys swimming and teaches history at a secondary school,” or “This is Mr. Lee. He is a software engineer from Korea.” Also, introduce their family or friends that attend as well as acknowledging those who were involved in their joining the church. Giving them a gift, a Bible, devotional book, or spiritual journal can be especially meaningful and appropriate. Encourage members to befriend those who join the congregation, and welcome new members by stressing that they are part of the church family.
Beginning and graduating from school
Beginning an academic year comprises a significant life passage as emotions often run high when school begins. Having public church celebrations as your young people begin a new school year means that your church members consider these students to be an important part of the congregation. Invite each category of students up front, including those in primary, secondary, and university while also acknowledging the teachers and others that work at school. Assure them that the church strongly supports them. Encourage them with words and scriptures to exercise faith and to study diligently, such as “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccles. 9:10, NIV). One way to dedicate students to a new school year would be to pour water over their hands to commit them for the new academic year. Another way may be to bring symbols related to school, such as an ink pen, laptop computer, book, or whatever their education entails. Pray for the students and their studies, and assure them that the church supports them as they progress in their academic and career lives.
Graduating from school should continue as a joyous time when you communicate the pride that God, the congregation, and the pastor have in these graduates. I dedicate a church service to graduates each spring by gathering information about their favorite classes, what they experienced in school, and other significant memories. When relatives attend, they can be acknowledged appropriately. These opportunities can mark the transition from one academic grade to another, the learning stage to the earning stage, youth to adulthood, or graduating from one life chapter to another.
Retirements move people into change, challenge, and new lifestyles. Financial, physical, relational, and other adjustment issues often converge at this life passage. Finishing one’s life work signifies a transition from one phase in life to the beginning of a new one. For some, this can be traumatic, leading to emotional stress and a loss of purpose.
One way to acknowledge retirements would be to gather items that specifically relate to the retiree. A summation of a person’s work may be fitting as you affirm them and their career. If appropriate, have them share some of their work experiences or plans for their future endeavors. A retirement meal provides a nice setting to mark this time in their lives.
The notion of God resting after Creation may be an appropriate biblical theme. In addition, consider 1 Corinthians 15:58 as relevant at retirement: “Your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (NKJV). Psalm 121 appropriately mentions that God stays involved with our going in and going out. Psalm 139 also emphasizes God being omnipresent as life passages progress.
As life’s final passage, a funeral should express pastoral care rather than evangelistic rigor. Funerals acknowledge the reality of death, deal with the feelings of loss, remember the deceased, and celebrate the memories. Along with many pastors, I appreciate Psalm 90:9–12, which speaks of the shortness of time, the value of life, and the need for wisdom in relating to death. With funerals being a time for reflection, these occasions help us to stop and think. Listening to what others are thinking and feeling is crucial to pastoral care during funerals.
Pastors tend to minister more to adults than to children at funerals. Be intentional about speaking with children and grandchildren along with adults by finding ways to include children in funeral sermons. One of the ways I have done this at funerals is by reading a child’s book at funerals, entitled Love You Forever.1 This book presents to children the shortness of life, the value of family, and how human beings age and die. I have led prayers to pass on parental blessings to children. This has been especially touching for some who grew up with limited verbal and physical affirmation. Consider the biblical model of Jacob passing on his blessing to his children. When funerals demonstrate pastoral care, they are evangelistic and meet relevant needs during life’s final passage.
Resources for commemorating life passages
Resources abound to empower pastors to understand and celebrate life passages. Some especially good books include Marking Time: Christian Rituals for All Our Days,2 Deeply Into the Bone: Re- Inventing Rites of Passage,3 Understanding Men’s Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men’s Lives,4 Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Counseling,5 and Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life.6 Many other books, Internet resources, and retreat centers specialize in life passages.
Consider being present as primary in marking life passages. Whenever someone is dying, celebrating a milestone, or going through another significant life passage, a pastor can be a powerful presence. Ministers are set apart to be with others, especially during these seasons of their members’ lives. When clergy provide pastoral care during life passages, they serve individuals on deeper levels, better serve institutions, and become links to human transformation.
1 Robert Munsch, Love You Forever (Toronto, Canada: Firefl y Books, 1986). 2 Linda Witte Henke, Marking Time: Christian Rituals for All Our Days (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2001).
3 Ronald L. Grimes, Deeply Into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).
4 Gail Sheehy, Understanding Men’s Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men’s Lives (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1999).
5 Jeanne S. Moessner, Editor, Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Counseling (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1996).
6 Harvey E. Goldberg, Jewish Passages, Cycles of Jewish Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).