Ministering during times of grief is a significant portion of the pastoral work of the church, yet even with training and experience, the struggle to “find the right words” remains constant in most of our interactions at these emotion laden times. – “Ministering During Times of Grief,” The Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, June 7, 2019
I came away from this year’s Christian Scholars’ Conference with a full heart and a fist full of notes on biblical interpretation, pastoral practice, theology, social and cultural analysis, politics, poetry, and more. Below is some of the wisdom I gleaned from a panel on ministering to grieving people, with bios of the panelists at the end.
As long-time minister Eddie Sharp says, “The thing perhaps most common in ministry is loss and grief. People are carrying a burden in their heart for themselves or someone close to them almost all the time.” If you are carrying a burden of grief or know someone who is, the wisdom below is for you.
Grief as Sacred Ground
“There is a circle of grief and inside that is holy ground. You go there in silence until you figure out if there’s anything to say, if there’s a question to ask, if there’s a story to hear. . . . Most of the things we need to do in ministry and in life need to begin in silence.” – Eddie Sharp. Focus on being present, not on the right words.
“Hurry, hug, hush. . . . Sometimes your role is to guard that circle of grief (from those who don’t know how to hush, who can’t shut up).” – Jim Nichols
“You’re on very, very sacred ground when you are with a family on the very worst day of their lives. Treat them as you would want your own family to be treated.” – John Knox
Minister with a Pastoral Heart
When you’re asked to write an obituary for someone: “You can’t walk into something like that without at least asking God to give you a pastoral heart.” – Cheryl Ann Bacon
“People ought to be free in the presence of God with the words, feelings they have in whatever has brought them to that present moment. When people are angry at God, don’t try to argue them out of it. God can take it. I am not a blocker for God. This freed people and freed me to be myself.” – Eddie Sharp
“Sometimes chaplaincy or ministry is as simple as show up and shut up.” – Eddie Sharp
Remember the Person Who Has Died
During the funeral service: “Memorialize the person, but be honest. . . . Be meaningful and personal, authentic and honest. Sometimes there are elephants in the room . . . address them as tactfully as possible, but be honest.” – Jim Nichols
When asked to write an obituary: “Every life has a story to tell. . . . . If you’re kind and do your job, people welcome the chance to tell you about the person they have lost.” – Cheryl Ann Bacon
A helpful resource on writing about suicide: reportingonsuicide.org
Know Yourself as a Ministering Person
“I’ve been a learner as well as I hope at times someone who serves.” – Cheryl Ann Bacon
“When you take care of people, you learn something about yourself.” – Jim Nichols
“In ministry you get to have a continuing longitudinal relationship with someone grieving. You get to tell them you still remember, and you are open to hearing another story. People need to know that you’re not so locked up in your own denial of death that you can’t hear these kinds of stories.” – Eddie Sharp
“Your giftedness is not the ministry you enjoy, but the ministry that God blesses no matter how painful it is to you.” – Eddie Sharp. In ministering to grieving people, this giftedness includes knowing what to say or more importantly what not to say, the ability as part of a funeral to do an exegesis of a person’s life in the context of honoring them and comforting the family.
Grief and Community
When you minister to someone who is grieving: “You have that tie, and that tie may be reopened at the most extraordinary moments. Often the people who were the most difficult and belligerent are the ones who will call me later on.” – Jim Nichols
“The more people you can involve to shoulder the grief, the better.” – John Knox
“No matter your level of recovery or healing, you will not be the ultimate person. Have off ramps to others [who can help those who are grieving].” – Eddie Sharp
“There is an absence of community at crucial times. . . . This is not a time for anyone to be alone. . . . We need to do this [grief work] as a community. We’re not going to solve this. We’re going to weather this.” – Jim Nichols
Ministry as Confession of Faith
I rest all of my hope on the fact that Christ has been raised; otherwise I have nothing to say to the grieving or to myself. . . . Ministry is a confession of faith. – Eddie Sharp
Cheryl Mann Bacon, Abilene Christian University
John Knox, Abilene Christian University; Chaplain for Texas Department of Public Safety
Jim Nichols, Abilene Christian University; Chaplain for Hendrick Medical Center and Kindred Hospice
Eddie Sharp, Siburt Institute for Church Ministry
This excellent panel discussion was part of the Christian Scholars’ Conference hosted this year at Lubbock Christian University, and was held in their Christian Development Center pictured above.
For more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better,