(Part of a series of posts on things I wish I knew when I was beginning my ministry as a pastor)
Fortunately I learned quickly and I don’t think I did any irreparable harm. I have seen and heard people who really needed to learn, or at least just shut up before they caused some serious damage. I wish I knew how to minister to those who are grieving. I knew some of the typical phrases because I had heard them over the years. What I didn’t know is that some of those phrases are often do more harm than good.
The biggest lesson I have learned through the years on this one is the “ministry of presence”. I learned that much more than any words that are spoken, it is the presence of people who love and care that make the largest impact. The words are not unimportant or meaningless, but their impact falls far short of the power of just being there in a time of grief.
A personal experience that showed this to me was when my Mom died. Her funeral was a powerful service, but I don’t remember what was spoken. Many people (around 1,000) came through during the visitation hours and many kind things were said, of which I remember a few. What I remember vividly was how I felt when certain people showed up. Many of these people said some wonderful things, but their presence, and hugs, spoke so loudly to me it was often difficult to hear their words. One of those people was a friend from high school and college who came limping in, he had a broken leg and had driven 2 hours with his cast on. He said, “Your Mom was there for me at times in High School, I had to come.” Another was 2 older couples from the church I was pastoring. They drove at least 2 hours and said, “You have been there for us we had to come and be here for you.” I remember their words, but only because their words reinforced why they came.
Another experience that shined a spotlight on this principle was when I attended the funeral of a relative of someone in my church. I was unable to get to the visitation, I attended the funeral and there were so many people there that I didn’t even get to speak with the person from my church I was there to see. I saw them from a distance and gave a quick little wave. Later that week I heard from one of them as he expressed how much it meant to him that I showed up at the funeral. I wasn’t even able to speak with him and he said it made an impact on him that I was present at the funeral.
This doesn’t mean that we should say nothing in these circumstances, it just means that showing up will likely mean more than any words we can say. This principle also applies to many other areas of life. Beware of your words and practice more of the ministry of presence and you will do more for those who are grieving.
There are many ways to serve those who are grieving, but I believe the ministry of presence may be the most impactful way to serve.
Here’s hoping you have people present in your life and that you are able to make an impact this week by your presence in someone’s life.