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Pastorally Proactive

Responding Wisely to Family Funeral Requests

Funeral planning is a growing pastoral challenge. Even ten years ago, families mostly left planning to the pastor, who worked to personalize each service. Now, families often make requests of the pastor—but many don’t fit well in a Christian funeral. So how might pastors respond wisely to such requests and even proactively avoid them?

Occasional services—baptisms, ordinations, weddings, funerals—are prime examples of how all liturgical leadership is like playing jazz. It needs to respond to unique circumstances in real time. And yet it sings most compellingly when it’s based on deeply internalized “chord patterns” of the gospel. Jazz falls apart without internalized chord patterns, and so does a lot of improvised liturgical leadership.

“Christianity is nothing if not a way of thinking about death.”
—John Witvliet, “How Common Worship Forms Us for Our Encounter with Death,” in Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003). 

At funerals such leadership is especially challenging given the deep emotion involved. When various family members make opposing suggestions, some will leave the service not only grieving their loss, but also frustrated at the pastor and at each other.

Here is one key lesson I’ve learned from veteran pastors: It’s important to be proactive—to reflect on funeral liturgies outside the context of grief and along with trusted peers and, ideally, your church council. Discussing this with a council is a wonderful opportunity to develop a shared vision and to educate each other about the “chord patterns” of the gospel that we have the privilege of improvising on in times of grief.

Consider writing a warm, pastoral letter about funeral planning to be made available to everyone in your congregation. The letter would guide the planning process in the context of each unique death situation and convey your pastoral desire to work with each circumstance and each family—to listen attentively and respond graciously to their requests. But the letter can also convey a way of being pastorally proactive, offering families insights and ideas that come from time-tested church practices over the centuries.

Topics you might want to address to encourage thoughtful reflection and preparation are Scripture, the range of emotions at funerals and permission to express them, various names for such a service and what they communicate, guidelines for remembrances of the loved one, congregational songs, and the gospel message.

Making this letter generally available could help some families in their planning well before they ever talk to you. When you use it to guide a conversation about a service in which you might need to discourage or even challenge some of their plans, it might help you to note that your cautions are not meant as personal criticism, but rather the way you (and other wise pastors) approach all services.

You might think of other topics to add—if not in a public letter, then perhaps in a written reflection for you and your church leadership to consider. What about funerals for those outside the church? What about funerals for children? What about funerals in the case of suicide?

Funerals—are prime examples of how all liturgical leadership is like playing jazz. It needs to respond to unique circumstances in real time. And yet it sings most compellingly when it’s based on deeply internalized “chord patterns” of the gospel.

In each case, the simple act of preparing in advance a written paragraph conveying a thoughtful pastoral response could be one of the best ways to prepare yourself and your congregation for how to respond in the moment.

An example of such a letter can be found at tinyurl.com/y5do3cg8.

You are free to use it as a first draft, personalize it further, and then revise it after discussing it with your church council, staff, and trusted colleagues. Talk about it with local funeral directors, who likely have significant wisdom to share based on their work with clergy across many traditions. Then make it available to your entire congregation, perhaps even on your church’s website. It could be a tool God’s Spirit uses to bless someone outside your congregation.

In some congregational cultures, this letter would be too long. In some cultures, this material would be better conveyed in conversation. In some congregational cultures it might be better to feature each section of this letter as a separate installment in a church newsletter. In any case, I hope something in the tone of this letter is helpful, conveying an approach that is pastorally proactive.

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