The 5 Hardest Things I’ve Done as a Pastor

The 5 Hardest Things I've Done as a Pastor

When you are a pastor, you have a lot of really great days. But you also have your share of bad ones. These are the times when your responsibilities force you into spots that you’d rather not be in. In thinking back over the last 25 plus years, I have mostly good memories, but some difficult times stand out.

Warning: the list below may not be what you’re expecting and it may be difficult to read.

The 5 Hardest Things I’ve Done as a Pastor:

Watch a child die. While we’ve had that unfortunate experience a few times, the day a little boy hemorrhaged to death while his mother held him in her arms is burned into my memory.
Inform two children their father had died. This is a conversation that no one wants to have. I still recall their response.
Identify the bodies of a father and his four-year-old daughter who died in a fire. The sight and smell created lasting trauma for me.
Watch a young leader and friend die a slow and excruciating death. I still argue with God about that one.
Preach the funeral of a 17 year-old suicide victim. There is no adequate way to prepare for that.

No, these events were not about me. But I was there. This is not an effort to garner sympathy. Of course, I did not hurt as much as the family members of these people hurt, but I did hurt.

Notice something about all of the above events – they all involved death. They did not involve a church fight or an argument over money or even a moral failure. Here is the purpose of this article: Sometimes the things that we think are serious are not. The things that really matter involve life and death and eternity.

I hope that the Church can begin to focus more on issues of eternity.

10 Things Not to Say to a Grieving Friend

10 Things Not to Say to a Grieving Friend

 

I recently spent the day with dear friends who, like my wife and I, have lost a child. The conversation gravitated to the pain we had experienced, the goodness of God and recovery. But part of the most poignant comments centered around the painful things that people have said to us following the crisis. Some people are well-intentioned, some don’t know any better and some are simply cruel. Regardless of their motives, few people actually know what to say to a grieving person, especially one who has lost a child.

So, while this may seem obvious to some, others need some basic advice. These are things you should not say to someone who has lost a loved one: Yes, I heard all of the things listed below:

Get over it. It’s time to move on and get your life back to normal.

Don’t worry, God will give you another child to replace the one you lost. You could always adopt.

If you had possessed more faith, God would have healed your child.

There must have been hidden sin in your life.

I know what you’re feeling; I lost my grandma, or my cousin, or my dog.

God must have been sparing your child from something worse to come later in life.

God took your child in order to make you a more compassionate person.

You should have prayed harder.

You should have taken your child to a miracle healer.

The reason that all of the above are inappropriate to say to a grieving person is, they are untrue and hurtful. Any attempt to minimize the pain, explain the reason for the loss or make the person feel better is out of place and unappreciated. My experience is, most people who want to fix my pain are trying to play God. They want to understand it all and explain it away. This is ludicrous. These efforts usually resulted in more pain.

So what can you say to a person who is mourning the loss of a child or a loved one?

If you must speak, just say, “I love you” or “I am sorry for your loss” or “I am praying for you.” Many times, it is better to say nothing. Just a hug or a smile will suffice.

When I was standing at the casket of my daughter, a causal acquaintance came up, patted me on the shoulder and handed me a small scrap of paper. On it were the words, Deuteronomy 29:29. This is a Biblical reference that says, “The secret things belong to the Lord.” Those words spoke volumes to me. This was one of those things that only God understood. I am OK with that.

These things belong to God. He understands. Let Him take care of it.

I Found Myself Numb

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I heard myself saying the right things but I felt myself feeling nothing. As we were at the bedside of a yet another dying person, I was disturbed, not at the idea of death or even the mourning of a family but that I had grown so accustomed to the scene. This was after many years of pastoring. Too many funerals, too many emergency room visits, too many death-bed experiences. I had become the pale-faced, cold-blooded undertaker we’ve all seen on old westerns – except that I was supposed to be a pastor. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; I really did and was hurting for the family. It was simply a matter of overexposure and lack dealing with grief properly.

I didn’t get numb overnight. Unfortunately, I’ve had more than my share of morbid experiences: Identifying bodies burned in a house fire; gruesome deaths of children; and having to do things in hospitals that nurses didn’t want to do and family members couldn’t bring themselves to do. The breaking point seemed to be the slow and agonizing death of a young friend. I stood helplessly by his side for months and watched as his wife and young son let him go. I helped the undertaker load his lifeless body on the gurney.

I had allowed a shell to build up around my heart. For years, while conducting funerals, I have heard remarks like, “I don’t know how you held it together.” But this was different – this wasn’t composure.

I got my wake up call before it was too late. When I realized I wasn’t experiencing the proper response to death, I knew something had to change. I have since made necessary adjustments. These changes are too personal to share but they were precise and effective.

So how does one in my profession avoid becoming cold-blooded? My few suggestions would be:

Allow yourself to grieve (possibly in private because your breaking down in public could cause a tidal-wave response).

Be sure to debrief after especially difficult experiences.

Seek counsel when the load is heavy. Even those in the helps industries need help.

Pray that God will keep your heart tender. See Ezekiel 36:26.

I don’t regret my life work. In fact, I treasure it and am honored to be called by God to do this work. But I would like to avoid this pitfall in the future and help others to also avoid it.

Don’t let yourself become numb.