I just spent the last three hours trying not to cry my eyes out in pastoral care class. The topic this week was funerals. I rightfully anticipated a swell of emotions and prepared my heart accordingly. But in class the conversation and the stories drifted towards the death of children, the most precarious moment of pastoral engagement. I felt the lump in my chest rise to my throat and before I knew it I was doing deep breathing exercises to control the pain and sorrow of even the idea of my own daughter’s death.

Can pastors be criers? This was the question I managed to eek out before actually bursting into tears before Prof Dykstra at the break. Between sobs I got out that my strong reaction was deeply related to child death, not death in general. He gave me some assurance about the role of empathy, especially for grieving parents, and the importance of not hiding our emotions.

Nice. Helpful. But could I actually do it? Could I actually stand before the family of a three-year old who died of leukemia and make a convincing case for the resurrection? In all honesty, I have never really come to grips with the fact that I will regularly be asked to conduct funerals as part of leading a congregation. I just can’t go there.

This is about the time that I want to call into question my ability to do this job. I am a pretty good mind person. I can grasp fairly complex arguments and translate their concepts. But more significant, I’ve never cried in a course on Christology or Romans. I do question my skill to successfully lead a family through the Gospel proclamation that death has been swallowed up even as our hearts are broken. I mean, how would you like it if the mouse-like pastor couldn’t get through the Gospel, let alone the sermon, at your mother’s funeral? Holy smokes….

I think that most “serious” theology types like to think that the really difficult work of the church is figuring out the inter-relationship of the Trinity or identifying the sacramental theology of Aquinas. For me, the difficult questions are quite different. How do you tell the parent of a child who died in a car accident that you’re not going to be able to lead a hockey themed funeral? How do you physically tear a mother away from the graveside of the child she bore with her own body?

Theologians have it easy.


10 thoughts on “crying in church

  1. Great post—and so true. Last year I spent some time with a teenager who had tried to kill himself. He had no connection to the church but wanted a “priest” to help him. I was a year out of grad school and pretty much clueless about how to handle a situation like this. All of the wonderful doctrines I had learned and written eloquently about during my studies seemed hollow and useless. “What can God do about these voices in my head” was a much more difficult question for me than anything related to the nature of the Trinity…

    Theologians have it easy indeed.

  2. You are right that theology is easier than pastoring. As for making a convincing case for resurrection at the moment of a death…you probably learned at L’Arche that there is a time for proclamation and a time for solidarity.

    I hope you are finding the right path for you.

  3. Does it help you at all that I nearly cried just reading this post? It seems to me that in those wretched moments of pastoral care, when you’re comforting a family after a death, those are the times when all of that theological studying will turn into just simply being the hands and feet of Christ. You will cry in those moments because you’re human, you’re not made of stone! But your empathy will comfort, and your faith will guide you even when you don’t think you can do it, because it will also be guiding the people you are helping. Hang on to your tearfulness, it is meaningful. I have recently expereinced the indifference of a pastor who seems to have developed the ability to hide his empathy, and it has shaken my faith. Don’t do that!
    The theologeons may have it easy on paper, but when it comes down to it, I think you’ll have a much greater impact on many many people’s lives as a pastor.

  4. You are a theologian. We often get this cold, hard, rational picture of theologians perched upon their ivory towers busily correcting the errors of theology. But you are a theologian, and with this post you remind us that theologians are in fact living, breathing, feeling, crying members of the body of Christ, the church. Bonhoeffer came to mind for me. He certainly was a theologian, and he most certainly was moved (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually) by very immediate, very difficult, challenges of the church, of bearing witness to the death and resurrection of Christ at a very dark hour. Thank you for this reminder. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thanks for the reminder, Kampen. While I think you’re right my sense of where theology is going (within the confines of my experience at Princeton and Duke) is away from the dual vocation of church pastoring and production of knowledge. I definitely get the sense, especially from those controlling the allotting of terminal degrees, that these programs see there purpose as the repopulation of the academy. I’ve been counseled that a great way not to receive admittance to a theology PhD is to let them know you want to be a pastor instead of a professor. But maybe those are just my sources.

  5. Melissa, You’re not a mouse, and crying is not a sign of weakness. I’m really glad you wrote this, because last week I left a professor’s office feeling like a mouse (after he informed me they’re all “vulgar secularists” at the university), and I’ve been trying to sort out why I felt that way. I think it might be useful to use that good brain of yours to remind yourself of the history of downplaying emotions, especially those exhibited by women, and how desperately the church needs people who are willing to enter into the reality of grief and not just throw Bible verses at it. Hang in there–please don’t shut yourself down. The world is full of people who are shut down.

  6. A wonderful post. I was a lay chaplain for several at one of the children hospitals here in Philadelphia. It was equally the some of the most rewarding and hardest ministries I have had the privilege of performing. As such I had to minister too, sit with listen too and cry with children and their families. I have baptized the dying prayed over the dead and sat with those awaiting children coming out of surgery. People know when you are genuine. Crying with the family is not a sign of weakness but of empathy.

    There are two stories I would like to pass along. The first is that during our training we had two mothers come and speak with us who had children who had died while in the hospital. Both had been very religious prior to the death of their children. One lost her faith saying, “How can I believe in a God who would allow that to happen to a child?” The other said that she did not have an answer to that question, but the death of her son had strengthened her faith. She said that she believes that she can not understand why things happen. She said that when she gets to heaven she believes it will be like an Oriental rug. That down here on earth it makes no sense. Looking up at the rug it is a mass of tangled threads and knots. She believes that when she goes to heaven it will be like looking down on the same rug. That once she gets up there it will be a beautiful pattern like looking down on the top of the rug and it will all make sense.

    The other story was about a pastor who had been up all night with a sick parishioner. He had a monthly visit with an elderly home bound member of his parish. He was tired, but went to visit her anyway. While sitting in a big overstuffed living room chair he fell asleep. He awoke awhile later, not knowing how long he had been asleep or if the woman had even noticed. As he left she grabbed his hand and said, “This was one of the best visits ever!” The moral was that most often you don’t need to have a ready answer, you just need to be present.


  7. Oh Melissa, what a difficult time pastors’ hearts have of it. Keith performed his first baptism yesterday, and it was in the hospital for a baby who had just been born and was just about to die. I do think others are right that compassionate presence means more in those moments than anything else, and you can compassionately help people think through things that you do not think are right to do (like the hockey themed funeral). If your compassion and respect are evident, that will do more than half the work for you. And you do have a sharp mind, it’s true, but your compassion is evident in everything you write. I’ll send this along to Keith.

  8. Melissa, I certainly agree with and have experienced the truth of how difficult and complex pastoral care is. It touches our own vulnerabilities and at the same time it asks us to be present, care for, and guide another to healing, wholeness, and salvation. To be invited into the life story of another is one of our greatest privileges.

    I do not agree that theologians have it easier. If they do have it easier, that is a symptom of a problem. I think I understand what you are pointing to – the separation between theory and practice. That separation, however, is devastating for pastoral care.

    Being a pastor demands first being a good theologian. It is the Biblical and theological precepts that guide pastoral care and offer the possibility of healing the soul. Pastoral care, then, is the application of those precepts to another’s life and life experiences for the healing or wholeness of that person and the healing of that person’s relationship with God. Unfortunately, that understanding of pastoral care seems to have been forgotten or ignored in favor of a more secularized therapeutic approach in which pastoral care is done in the context of psychological rather than theological categories. Consequently, the pastoral relationship is now generally crisis driven, waxing and waning with the ups and downs of life with the result that pastoral care tends to be pain management rather than healing of the soul.

    Theologically based pastoral care is what creates a path away from the graveside offering the mother hope and a way forward. We, as pastors, have the great privilege of walking that path with her.

    Thank you for an honest and thought provoking post.

    God’s peace be with you,

  9. I’m almost a month late to this comment, but I do want to echo what others have said: this is theology, which the best of the Christian tradition will affirm in uncompromising terms — but I also know from experience (and as someone who has gone on for a PhD, my temptation is the other way around) that it’s difficult-bordering-on-impossible to hold onto that as sure and firm knowledge while in studies…

    But I also want to say: don’t give up hope on your ability to remind the academy-bound (or the think-they-are-academy-bound) of that. I had the tremendous gift of doing my master’s at a school where the professors refused to perpetuate this false split between theology and ministry — and challenged me every single day I was there on any inclination I might have had to see the former as in any way more valid than the latter — but I am well aware that such is not the case at every school of theology / seminary… and even at the theologate I did attend, we joked (in a way that sometimes stung both sides more than any of us acknowledged at the time) about “robots” and “CareBears,” about “feelings and shepherding” versus “essences and forms” classes — but the deep and abiding friendships I formed with fellow students who entered direct ministry have shaped the way I do theology more than they will ever know.

    Friends who are unutterably important to me are now engaged in full-time chaplaincy… and believe me, every time I sit down at my computer and start to write anything about suffering and hope — or about God’s outpouring love… or the Eucharist as a place of participatory solidarity (Trinity and sacramental theology) — I think about my chaplain friends and the patients to whom they minister… and I write things that are considerably different than what I would have written if I had done my master’s at a place that kept me warmly ensconced in the academic bubble.

    And I hope that I am of some help to them, as well. There are times that they’ll call or write me, anyway, asking for pointers toward something more traditionally theological to help them in their own ministry.

    But the point of all of this, really, is I have confidence (and, granted, this is without having met you) that you do have the strength to be present with those who are suffering without being utterly overwhelmed… but maybe part of your gift while in grad school is to be the person who lets her emotion show: the person who reminds, even by shocking, those trinitarian-sacramental types that if all of this theology cannot give expression to the hope that is within us, then it’s only so many clashing cymbals. Because of the particular professors I had, I did cry — or nearly cry, or cry afterwards, or cry while doing the reading — during courses on christology and Romans — because they wouldn’t let us escape the knowledge that the parent whose child has died is what this is all about.

    I’m not trying to tell you that you’ll change everyone’s approach, but there are people who have forever changed mine, and I don’t think they would have known it while we were still in class together.

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