It’s been the better part of a decade since I returned to my home town to pastor the church in which I grew up. I could write a separate post about the intricacies of ministering in one’s home town (or following one’s father in a pastorate), but we’ll save those for another time. One of the great things about serving for years in a relatively small town is the opportunity to become a “community pastor” and minister to people who are not part of our particular congregation. There was a time when I fled from that role. Now I embrace it.
One of the functions of being a community pastor is officiating funerals, and I’m often called to do services for people I never had the privilege of meeting. This can happen in several ways. Maybe the deceased was a local resident who did not attend church. Maybe the deceased grew up here but had lived elsewhere for many years. Maybe they were members of another congregation which happens to be without a pastor at the moment. Regardless of the situation, ministers sometimes find themselves called upon to officiate funerals for people they did not know.
Here are some humbly-offered suggestions from my experiences (much of this applies to all funerals):
1) Tell the crowd why you’re standing there. Ministers, repeat after me: this funeral is not about you. However, people might want to know why you’re officiating the service. Briefly explain your relationship to the deceased. If you were the deceased’s pastor for the last 40 years and went fishing with them every Monday, then tell the crowd that. If you never met the deceased, and you’re there because the funeral home called upon you to minister to a grieving family in their time of need, then tell the crowd that. You gain no credibility with the crowd by acting like you were best buddies if you never met the deceased. If all your information about the deceased is second hand, then cite your sources. It’s okay that you didn’t know the deceased; it’s not okay to pretend like you did.
2) Do your homework. This one should be a no-brainer: know how to pronounce everything in the obituary. One sure way to look incompetent while officiating a funeral service is to mispronounce something in the obituary. It’s hard to appear competent and caring if you don’t pronounce the family’s names correctly. I typically re-write the obituary for my own notes, and I spell out any questionable names or locations phonetically. When I used to broadcast basketball games for our local radio station, I would always tell coaches: “I don’t need to know how to spell your player’s names. I want to know how to say their names.” If there’s even the slightest question, ask the family or funeral director for clarification. One of the best (and funniest) pieces of advice I ever received was from a community pastor who had performed hundreds of funerals: “Son, if you get to a name you can’t pronounce, just cough and keep on going.” Absent that, do your homework.
3) Personalize the service. I’ve attended funerals where I heard more about the pastor than I heard about the deceased. Over your ministerial career, you’re going to preach dozens if not hundreds of funerals; the departed only has one. So make it about them. Every situation is different, because all families are different. In reality, there might not be very much positive information to share. You might personally know 90 minutes of great material about a person. Share the best of that. A family might only be able to give you six minutes of good material about a person – share all of that. Share what good things you can. Our English word eulogy derives from the Greek words eu (good, correct) logia (words). It is to speak well of the deceased. Speak well of them, not yourself.
4) It’s a funeral, not a Sunday morning service. Before you stone me with offering plates, please hear me out: If you want to discourage people from choosing to come hear you preach at your church on a Sunday, then preach to them for 30 minutes at a funeral on a Tuesday when they don’t have a choice. It might be a funeral in a church, but it’s not church. I know, I know… “It might be the only time that they hear the gospel.” That’s true. And if you arrogantly treat funeral goers like a captive audience, you’re doing your part to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. An important exception is when the family specifically requests that I preach more than I eulogize. In that case, I defer to the family’s wishes, and I communicate to the crowd that the family asked me to preach more than funeralize (yes I made that word up). Another time in which I spend more time on theology than biography is in the loss of a child. It is rare. It is gut-wrenching. There is not as much to share from a long life well-lived. A funeral is a funeral, not a filibuster. Before you accuse me of being a flaming secularist, of course the gospel has a central place in a funeral. We can preach for a lifetime and never exhaust the riches of God’s grace. You’re a gospel minister, not an architect or a butcher. There’s a reason why you’re going to be standing there – someone assumes that you are a professional theologian who can project the radiating comfort of God’s light into the valley of this present shadow of death. It is possible to concisely communicate God’s redemptive plan AND still have time to eulogize the deceased. If you can’t, then you need to work on your clock management.
5) Personally pre-grieve. I learned this one the hard way. I was on a church staff during my seminary years. One of our beloved older members passed away, and the family asked me to read his obituary before the senior pastor delivered the funeral message and eulogy. I had prepared for my relatively minor role in the service (see #2), but hadn’t given much actual thought to the fine man’s passing. As I stood before the assemblage of family and friends to read the obituary, my own grief overwhelmed me. I slobbered all over myself through the whole obituary. I finally regained my composure about the time I finished speaking. My pastor gently called me aside later and gave me some excellent advice: pastors have to pre-grieve alone, before the funeral. Grief is not a moment; it’s a process. Pastors grieve too. If you were especially close to the deceased, officiating the service can be terribly difficult. The more you can process your personal grief privately, the better position you’re in to minister publicly. This is the real life application of the biblical truth that we can comfort others with the comfort we have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4). Your voice may still crack. You may still shed tears. It’s okay to be real, but if you haven’t pre-grieved, you haven’t prepared.
6) You don’t have to explain everything. Maybe this is my Gen-X self talking, but it’s possible for you to be long on comfort without being long on answers. This is especially true in the case of tragedies. It’s okay to say that you don’t know why things happen. Be very, very careful when attributing tragedies to the hand of God, even if you mean it as a statement of faith. What you intend as a statement of faith resonates very differently with people who don’t hold your same worldview. God can pick up the pieces of a broken situation without having to be the one who broke the situation in the first place. In the storms of life, avoid the theoretical. Point them to the light of life. Hold your personal theories close, and point them to the God of comfort and the God of all peace.
Certainly there are more ideas out there about how pastors can better navigate these difficult days, but I hope these help you.