Magazine article The Christian Century

I Miss Funerals

Magazine article The Christian Century

I Miss Funerals

Article excerpt

OVER FIVE YEARS AGO I came to work for Princeton Seminary after spending 32 years as a parish pastor. One of the questions I frequently receive is "Do you miss serving a congregation?"

I love serving our seminary and am absolutely devoted to its mission. But of course, there are some aspects of being a parish pastor that I miss. By far, what I miss most are the funerals.

It surprises people when I say that, and it's actually been a surprise to me as well. But as much as I enjoyed my years as a parish pastor, the funerals are the only thing that have ever tempted me to look over my shoulder at the decision to leave congregational ministry.

I don't miss the evening committee meetings that can last too long and accomplish too little. I don't miss the small-time politics, the denominational bureaucracy, or the grumpy members who were never going to be happy but who just wouldn't leave the church. But being with someone through the process of dying, offering compassion to the family as they place their loved one into God's arms, conducting the funeral, and working through the grief--it's the purest form of pastoral ministry I know.

Like most seminarians I used to think that when I became a pastor I would love officiating at weddings and somehow get through the funerals, too. And like most veteran pastors I would now say just the opposite. Weddings can be glorious experiences of worship, but usually they have way too many layers of planning and expectations for anyone to be able to focus on holy words. Mostly what people want from the minister is to get through the service as elegantly and quickly as possible.

At a funeral no one is thinking about the bride's gown, the flowers, how cute the ring bearer is in his little tuxedo, or how much this thing is costing. Best of all, funerals don't have photographers. But frequently they do have caskets, which have a way of riveting the congregation's attention. And the music is soulful. So when a pastor goes to the pulpit, people are ready to listen. They're thinking about important matters of life and death. My job was to help them also think about the resurrection to eternal life. What could be more central to the gospel I vowed to proclaim?

We don't know if Jesus had a good time at the wedding in Cana, but it is clear that he helped the party by turning water into wine. That's essentially the pastor's job at weddings--trying to help those who are knocking themselves out to have an extraordinary day. So I would always happily go for the ride at weddings, do my part, and enjoy what may be the most beautiful day for the couple before me at the altar. …

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