Unexpected Deaths & the Ministry of Presence

Death comes unexpectedly, even when we expect it. As much as you try to prepare for the “expected” death of a loved one — spouse, parent, child, good friend — you can never quite prepare for that singular moment when death visits. On Sunday, less than 24-hours apart, two of my own church members — a husband and wife — experienced the death of her father and then his mother. The inevitable “why” questions begin to formulate in your mind. Why now? Why all in one day? Why did God . . . ?

As a pastor, it is tempting to want to answer the “why” questions in order to bring comfort to those who are grieving. But, throughout my ministry, I have learned that there is something better than answers that you can offer to families during their time of grief — you presence. Here’s a post from a few years ago, ” Being There: The Ministry of Presence,” which reminds us of just how important our presence can be following an unexpected death:

“The most important ministry you can offer a family in the midst of difficulties is your presence.”  Perhaps one of the most helpful lessons that I learned while a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Spoken from decades of pastoral experience, Dr. Bill Cubine, retired Professor and Seminary Chaplain at Southern, taught his students that the “ministry of presence” would be valuable and indispensable, especially during times of grief and tragedy.

I have been reminded once again of the importance of the ministry of presence with the sudden and unexpected death earlier this week of a beloved member of the church I am privileged to pastor.  During the course of my fourteen years in pastoral ministry, I have walked with hundreds of families through various trials and tribulations including divorce, financial turmoil, problems with wayward children, terminal illnesses, and the death of family members.  And while my experience helps make it easier to minister in these situations, it is never easy.

As pastors, and sometimes as laypeople, we want to fix all the problems and provide all the answers to the WHY questions that inevitably arise in times of crisis.  As a young pastor, I would try to come up with neat and tidy theological answers to some of life’s most challenging problems, only to realize that my answers, at least at the time, were neither encouraging nor comforting to the family.  It was usually at that point that I would remember Dr. Cubine’s words and simply begin to minister to a hurting family by my presence, even if I didn’t say two words apart from a prayer.

How can you, as a pastor or a friend, comfort someone in the midst of difficult circumstances?  Understand that you don’t have to understand it all.  You will not have all the answers to why someone is going through a particular trial.  Don’t try to answer questions that only God knows the answers to.  After all, Job never did get any “satisfactory” answers to why he endured all that he did, even though his “friends” tried to help him understand why bad things were happening to him.  At the end of the day, Job realized that God is God and he was not.

Then, just be there for the person or family in crisis.  Stop by and let them know you are praying for them.  Bring food by (this is not just a Baptist doctrine) or offer to run to the grocery store for them.  Use cards, letters, phone calls, text messages, Facebook, and other means of communication to stay in touch with folks as they journey down difficult and painful roads.  And, even after they have “come through” their crisis, remember to reach out to them in meaningful and practical ways.

I have learned a lot during the course of my pastoral ministry.  God has allowed me to minister to families during trying times in the past and He will continue to give me opportunities to minister to families in crisis in the future.   Whether or not we call ourselves “pastor,” each of us will have those opportunities, maybe even this week.  Make the most of it by ministering through your presence.  Thanks, Dr. Cubine.

3 comments for “Unexpected Deaths & the Ministry of Presence

  1. Shane Morgan
    May 6, 2013 at 8:51 PM

    Thanks for sharing this Howell. I’ve discovered that no matter how astute a theological analysis of death and disease may be, it provides little to no comfort for those who are grieving. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we just knew the answers to the “why” questions, it would take away the pain. But we don’t get to know all of the “whys” this side of glory; and it wouldn’t really help anyway. Human beings created in the image of God are far too complex to be able to be “fixed” with a cold recitation of facts, even theological ones. But as pastors, we are so accustomed to “doing” ministry, it actually requires a great deal of faith to break out of that mold and realize that sometimes just being there is all you can really do – and that that’s enough!

  2. Bennett Willis
    May 7, 2013 at 7:40 PM

    Presence is a good thing. And never say, “It is a blessing…” If the mourner wants to say that, that is fine. But you have no business saying it. What if they replied, “From your point of view, perhaps.”

  3. Christiane
    May 8, 2013 at 7:54 AM

    in the seven days after the burial of a Jewish person, the family ‘sits shiva’ in mourning, surrounded by those who visit them from the community and cook their food and serve them, and tend housework chores for them, and pray for them . . . the family then is in grief WITHIN the community, surrounded by the community of faith, and supported by the community . . .

    being peacefully ‘present’ for an hour with the mourners is merciful . . . to mourn with those who mourn is one of the great kindnesses that helps to comfort the bereaved . . . and in taking leave, it is customary to offer to them the hope that God will comfort them along with all the mourners ‘of Zion’ . . . another reference that they are ‘not alone’ in their pain.

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