Twenty-five years ago, I worked as a summer intern at Reedwood Friends Church. It was a great opportunity. The church had four very competent pastors on staff. In that company, “I felt like a grasshopper in my own eyes.” I felt very inadequate.
Because my internship was during the summer, all of the other pastors kept leaving for vacation. More than once, all of them were gone at the same time. On those rare but dreadful occasions, the crushing responsibility of pastoral care fell on me. I was terrified that some dear saint of the church would die while no better qualified pastor was available.
When it comes to death, we pastors are expected to sound triumphant: “Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting?” But in the presence of real suffering, those words feel counterfeit to me. If someone can point to the body of their beloved and say, “There is the sting of death, you jerk,” then I am inclined to concede the point. I don’t have the knack (nor even the inclination) to find a sanctified silver lining within someone else’s dark cloud. So I hid in my closet, and I prayed that everyone would remain alive for a few more months.
Happily, everyone at Reedwood survived the summer. I made it through my internship without exposing my incompetence.
The following summer, I started my ministry at West Hills Friends. The handful of people connected to this project were relatively young and healthy. Best of all, I was given the responsibility of forming a new church. I could invite people to participate in something positive and healing and life-giving. Death wasn’t really part of the plan.
Of course, death is rarely part of the plan. Over the last 24 years, people from my church have died. Some of them were young. Some were older. Sometimes, death was expected. Sometimes, it was a shock. Every time, I felt inadequate. I still don’t know what to say. I still don’t know how to help in a way that feels meaningful.
I’m afraid that I will find myself in an aging congregation, where a majority of my attention is devoted to the end of life. I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to feel inadequate so much of the time. I’ve informed God that I will leave the ministry if death becomes routine. Although I’ve kept this commitment to myself, the matter has long been settled in my mind: “If people are dying all the time, I am done with this.”
Over the last six months, God has been changing my heart. I’d like to say that God has finally shown me a secret for helping to guide people through grief and loss. But that hasn’t happened. I still feel inadequate. Only now, I don’t mind so much.