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When Death Arrives What Are Your Pastoral Responsibilities? — An Excerpt from "Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals"
You can plan for sermons, leadership council meetings, and outreach events. But you can’t plan for death. In fact, it often snatches you away from those other pastoral duties.
When death arrives what are your pastoral care responsibilities?
This and other questions are what Croft and Newton answer in their practical guide, Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals. They aim to help you shape these experiences so that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the primary purpose and focus.
And it all begins at the beginning when your people are hurting most.
Read the excerpt below to better grasp the six primary areas of responsibility you need to consider leading up to the funeral. Because as they write, “The responsibility for the pastoral care of the family belongs to you.”
FUNERALS TEND TO ARRIVE at [your] doorstep with little advance notice. Though you can sometimes anticipate a funeral in the case of an extended illness, most come rather suddenly and unexpectedly. An accident, a heart attack, an aggressive illness, a rapidly growing cancer, an undetected disease, a birth defect, a suicide — all of these tend to come without warning. As a minister of the gospel, you must be prepared.
Your Pastoral Care Responsibility
The responsibility for the pastoral care of the family belongs to you. There are six areas of responsibility you need to consider.
Offering Guidance and Care
The death of a family member is a significant event, one for which your church members will need shepherding and guidance. It is a time to apply the gospel and its promises to help a grieving family through the rough, churning waters they must navigate. One of our church families went through the trial of watching their newborn struggle with an undetected birth defect during his first month. They spent over three months in the local children’s hospital, with either the mom or dad constantly by the child’s side. I visited with them frequently, always reading Scripture, talking of God’s promises, reflecting on the gospel, and praying for them and their little boy. We shed many tears during that time, and my wife and I were there with them when he breathed his last breath…Later, when I conducted the two memorial services for this little boy (one with our church, the other in the dad’s hometown several hours away), I was able to build on the pastoral conversations I’d had with the family.
Offering Comfort through the Word and Your Presence
Bring comfort both through the Scriptures and by your physical presence. Just being present means much to a grieving family. Sometimes a minister thinks he needs to come up with some pithy quote or wise saying to help a grieving family. Better instead is the minister’s comforting presence as one who loves and cares for the family. Listen to them, offer a consoling arm around the shoulders, read from God’s word, and pray with them. All of this means much more than a clever phrase. They are unlikely to remember much of what you say, but they will remember that you stood with them in their loss…
Representing Christ, the Church, and the Gospel
As a minister of the gospel, you represent Jesus Christ, the church, and the gospel you proclaim. The minister visibly represents Christ’s ministry to the family. It’s not your job to replace Christ — that could never happen! But you are called to come alongside as one who has been in the presence of Christ through the word and prayer, and to now stand with this grieving family. Pastors are often the first face of the church to be present in grief and the first to apply the gospel to their circumstances to help them move forward in hope and faith. Ministers should also be alert to ways in which other members of the church can aid a family in distress, helping the body to provide care for its members in need…
Declaring the Sufficiency of the Gospel
A minister should be “all about” the gospel. By this, I do not mean that you should exploit the grieving process for the sole purpose of evangelism. Evangelism might present itself during this time of pastoral care, but the minister’s primary goal is to help the family understand that the gospel is about living and dying. The same gospel that gives us joy in life also gives us joy when facing death. As the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ triumphed over death, freeing those who trust him from slavery to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14 – 15). The minister’s task is to help the family live in this truth.
But what do you do if the deceased family member was not a believer?
…you must learn to walk the tightrope of not passing judgment on one’s eternal state. If the deceased had professed to be a Christian but showed little evidence of this, you can refer to the person’s profession but carefully avoid confidently declaring that this person has passed into heaven. I have done numerous funerals where there was scant evidence of genuine faith. Yet we need to realize that ultimately this is not our call to make. So I might say, “Mr. Brown professed Jesus Christ as his Savior as a young man” and then avoid mentioning this again…
Place the emphasis not on the deceased but rather on appeals to the living, urging them to trust in Christ.
Building Deeper Relationships
The occasion of death is a wonderful opportunity for developing deep relationships through ministry to the immediate and extended family. Walking with members of my congregation in their grief has put me into closer relationship with them. They rarely put on a front at such times. Their pain comes to the surface in comments that might otherwise never be uttered. As a minister, you will see people as they are, raw and unfiltered. You may hear things that surprise you; you may see attitudes surface that you had never noticed before. Build on these moments.
Being Ready to Offer Long-Term Counsel
The conclusion of a funeral service does not mean the end of your care for the family. A family’s grief may be tender for weeks, months, and even years after the death of a family member or loved one. Offering a word in season, a visit, a phone call, an e-mail, or a note will be welcomed and appreciated long after the funeral is over. Offer an acknowledgment on the anniversary marking the loved one’s death and your thoughtfulness and care will certainly be appreciated.
Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals
By Brian Croft & Phil Newton
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