When the Pastor Dies

priest graveI just learned over the weekend that the pastor who held me in his arms to baptize me when I was four months old passed away in 2012.  He was 93 years old and had been retired for almost thirty years.

The grief of losing a nonagenarian spiritual leader is real, and yet it’s quite different than the feeling of losing a person whose voice you can still hear as you remember her sermons, whose face singing familiar hymns is still a fresh memory.

Two colleagues passed away over the last month – one last Friday and another in late January.  One from a terrible disease and another after an accident.  One retired early after her dire diagnosis, although she remained active in the community.  And the other was an active pastor serving a small church.

It’s a tender time for the families and friends of those two gifted pastors.  But it’s also a holy time for their congregations which will forever influence their spiritual lives.

How do we grieve our spiritual mentors well?  When the pastor has been the holder of our darkest secrets and the celebrant of our most joyous milestones, it feels strange to watch that same pastor fade away slowly or quickly.

For the pastor who knows he or she is dying, there is the temptation to keep smiling and never let God’s people see you doubt or cry or curse.  The truth is that dying is usually more difficult than being born ever was.  And it’s okay to doubt and cry and curse.  Sometimes it’s the most pastoral thing we can do.

For the pastor who dies suddenly, it’s a horrible jolt to everyone, especially the family.  It’s okay for the pastor’s family and friends to doubt and cry and curse too.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are losing their faith.  It just means that they are devastated and rocked.  And so are we.

I remember being in a worship service several years ago the Sunday after a pastor had suddenly died of a heart attack.  One of the liturgists announced that “if anyone wanted to be on the committee to nominate the next pastor” to let him know.  Really.  Their beloved pastor had not even been buried yet, but they were trying to keep moving.  Maybe it felt like the faithful thing to do.

But it was not faithful.  It was fearful.

Remember that axiom about not making any Big Changes after a loved one dies?  Don’t sell your house or marry the next person who invites you to brunch.

The same is true when the pastor dies.  It may take a long time before the congregation is ready to call someone new because rushing into the next pastorate may result in an unintentional interim situation.  But we fear our church losing traction or losing members or wandering aimlessly, and so we reach for something that feels solid.

But we still need time.  It’s okay to take time.

In memory of the Reverend Carlyle McDonald and in honor of special friends who know who they are.

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