By Joel Woodard
I never dreamed that I would find myself so familiar with death as a pastor. I studied theology in seminary, and learned about expositing a text and church leadership. However, I don’t remember reading a book about what to do when visiting someone on their deathbed. Looking back over the past seven years as a pastor, I’m astonished at how many times I’ve found myself in that exact position. Along the way, I’ve seen firsthand how uncomfortable with death we are as a society. Most people don’t know what to do or say in those moments, and so they call for a pastor.
A few months ago, I was called to visit an elderly man who was dying. He was the father of someone in our church. The family had gathered in a small living room in a care facility, while the nurses where busy attending to the man in his bedroom. After some friendly conversation with the family, the nurses emerged from the bedroom, and nodded to give permission to go in. Everyone got up slowly to make their way in to the room, and stood awkwardly along the walls and in the doorway. No one wanted to approach the bed.
The man’s son, whom I knew, leaned over and told his dad “Dad, this is Joel. He is a pastor.” Then he moved out of the way to give me room to do whatever it is that pastors do in situations like this. As I stepped toward the bed, I remembered that I was putting on the mantle of a pastor. Over the years, I’ve learned that at least five things are involved in this role, when approaching the death bed.
- You serve as a priest. The first several times I visited hospitals, I went along with an older pastor. He told me, “Mostly in situations like these, people just want to hear you say God.” They just want to know that God is there and has not forgotten about them. As a priest, you represent God to people and have the opportunity to pour his words over them as a blessing during difficult times. Enter that time ready to share some verses, say a prayer and offer comfort.
- You enter sacred space. My wife and I served as missionaries in this little Alpine village in Slovenia. The old, Catholic church in the middle of town marked each hour with the ringing of the bells. I also remember bells ringing as funeral processions marched from that old church building to the cemetery located directly behind it. The funeral bells were off rhythm, and seemed as if they were causing a rift in time. I always thought of these moments as sacred space, caught in between this world and the next. Pastors need to set time aside to enter these sacred moments. Hours of study and message prep will fall back into place once the funeral bells are silent and life will go on. Don’t miss the window to be in that sacred space.
- You sit in cultural discomfort. Americans, on the whole, are uncomfortable with silence. Nonetheless, in those still moments by the deathbed, you must not leave when it gets uncomfortable, and you must not fill the silence with empty words. Rather, you must sit in cultural discomfort. But it’s not just the frequent absence of sound that is uncomfortable beside the death bed. For some reason, people are afraid to touch a person when they are dying. Maybe they are afraid that they will break the dying person or make their condition worse. However, even if uncomfortable, those last touches are special. A kiss on the forehead, the caress of a hand, a whisper, “I love you.” Embrace these intimate moments.
- You invite people to see eternity. If sickness hits or the cancer comes back, we naturally hope for the best. We give a halfhearted “You’ll be fine.” or “You can beat this!” That optimism is helpful when facing a tragic diagnosis, but there usually seems to come a point when the fighting is over and the loved one is no longer prolonging life, but prolonging death. That change is often hard to notice when you are neck deep in medications, with doctors poking you and nurses checking vitals. In those moments, a pastor can help a family understand that it may be time to say their final goodbyes or discuss last wishes. It’s not something you naturally want to do; you want to hold out hope until the very end. Still, a gentle invitation to see eternity may come as a helpful gift.
- You shepherd the family. Shepherding is more than just a visit to the hospital and a prayer. Shepherding is a continuing process – not a completed task. A good shepherd protects his sheep, and sometimes as a pastor, you need to protect the family during these vulnerable times. It may mean being the contact person and telling someone that they shouldn’t come to visit at that moment. It may mean calling a boss to let them know what is going on or helping to navigate the medical issues. More than likely, you’ll need to guide the family in decisions after the loved one has passed. Making decisions about a casket, burial plot, headstone, flowers, and the million other things that go along with a funeral can be overwhelming. In those vulnerable times, people can often feel taken advantage of. It helps to know average costs, typical procedures, and trustworthy businesses to refer people to.
Engaging with death and dying is not something we can choose to opt out of as a pastor. In many ways, it’s the culmination of our life’s work. We should be well prepared to enter that sacred space as a priest of the Lord, and sitting in cultural discomfort as we invite people to face eternity and shepherd God’s flock.
Joel Woodard is one of the pastors at Cornerstone church in Gresham, OR. He earned his M.A. (Biblical and Theological Studies) from Western Seminary.