Note from CM: Before I started writing for Internet Monk, Michael Spencer asked me to do an interview about Evangelicals and Pastoral Care for the Dying. I’m working on some upcoming posts about using the Bible in ministry and pastoral care, and in preparation I thought it might be good to revisit this seminal discussion.
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THE INTERVIEW (part 1)
Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a Christian and your current ministry.
I grew up in the Midwest, in a moral, Protestant home, attending United Methodist churches. During my senior year in high school, after a move across the country that shook my foundations, I had a spiritual awakening and responded to an altar call in a Southern Baptist church, where I was re-baptized. I went to Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania. There, I became convinced of a call to enter the pastoral ministry. My wife and I were married after graduation, and our first congregation met in one of those historic, quaint, white steepled churches in Vermont, and there the people taught me much more about how to be a pastor than I taught them about Jesus.
After five years, we moved back to Chicago to go to seminary at Trinity in Deerfield. I was studying under some of the finest teachers in the world, pastoring a small church, our children were being born, and we had many wonderful friends supporting and encouraging us. However, there came a point after I graduated that I felt I needed some mentoring and more experience on a church staff. We also were trying to determine where we would put down roots as a family. So, when the opportunity came, we packed up and moved to Indianapolis. Here I served in a non-denominational church as the associate pastor with an emphasis on worship and music, but I also did a lot of pastoral care, teaching, and leading mission trips. Then I became the senior pastor in a sister congregation. After a rather difficult experience there, God opened up the opportunity to serve as a chaplain in a hospice program. Soon it will be five years since that journey began.
God used many past experiences to prepare and equip me for this work. In Vermont, our small church was a parish church. Because we were the only congregation in the village, I visited the sick and did funerals for all kinds of people, including complete strangers who’d had vacation homes in the mountains and wanted to be laid to rest there. We also had a significant population of older folks and shut-ins that I learned to love visiting. That was also true in the other churches where I served — I just seemed to connect well with the senior citizens. Also, while in seminary, I took my first CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) course, and was introduced to the inner workings of the hospital and how to serve patients. Since then, I have always appreciated the strong connection between medical and spiritual care.
I consider my grandmother to be one of my greatest examples for ministry. After my grandpa died rather early in life, she devoted much of her adult life to caring for her elderly neighbors, friends, and fellow parishioners. Her simple and faithful service showed me what it means to be the salt of the earth.
I have always believed that pastoral ministry is about prayer, proclamation, and people-work. As my favorite pastoral author, Eugene Peterson, says, it is not about “running a church.” Frankly, I am appalled at how these perspectives have gotten turned around in today’s church, and how little attention is given to foundational ministries like pastoral visitation. It is a forgotten art.
That is why I am glad to be in a position now where personal work can be my primary focus. Every day I visit individuals and families in their homes, in extended-care facilities, and in hospitals. My job is to enter their worlds, befriend them, show them kindness, listen to them, answer their questions when I can, and provide various kinds of spiritual support that may help them find peace at the end of life. I have often imagined that Jesus’ earthly ministry must have been like this, as he went from village to village and house to house, engaging people in their own settings, exhibiting compassion, providing healing, giving hope.
Another reason I love my job is that I work with a team of skilled and compassionate professionals who all do their parts to serve our patients and families with regard to their medical needs, psycho-social needs, personal care needs, and, after a death, needs associated with the grieving process. Hospice is a wholistic service, covering body, soul, and spirit, and respecting the processes involved in the final season of life and beyond.
1. I first thought of this interview when it occurred to me that evangelicals don’t seem to have anything close to the resources of other traditions when it comes to pastoral care of the dying? Am I right?
In my experience, most people and churches in the evangelical world have their focus on fellowship and activism. The kind of work I do doesn’t fit the model very well.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had an evangelical friend or pastor ask me, with a sour look on his face, “Do you really like doing that?” They recognize that caring for those who are seriously ill and suffering is a part of life, but it’s a part they would rather avoid and deal with only when absolutely necessary. Not a regular part of the mission, you might say.
They know how to put people on the prayer chain. They know how to make a meal and bring it to a family that is going through a hard time. If there is something active they can do, like get a list together of folks to help the family with errands or cleaning house, etc., they might be able to organize some practical assistance. These things can be quite helpful, and should not be looked down upon. However, beyond that, there’s not much in the paradigm, especially if you’re talking about pastoral visitation. And we haven’t even talked about ministering to dying people who are outside the church, which is not even on the radar of most pastors or congregations.
It certainly was not an emphasis in my education. We had few pastoral care courses in my evangelical Bible College and seminary. Nor is it emphasized in churches. I don’t know many evangelical churches that have programs like the Stephen Ministry for equipping believers in caring ministry. The more pervasive model seems to be that churches will support a parachurch ministry and expect the work to be done by them. It’s not really part of the church’s mission.
With regard to care for the dying, most pastors and people have not been taught that it is a good use of their time, that it is Christ-like and genuinely helpful, to simply sit with people, actively listen to their feelings, and not feel like you have to give “answers” or put the situation in an understandable theological framework so that folks might know the divine “reason” behind what is happening. Evangelicals don’t usually have a great deal of good language with which to pray for these folks, either, and it may be the rarest of things to find an evangelical worship service (or even funeral service) that contains rubrics for lament or recognition of grief and loss.
Don’t get me started on mega-church pastoral care. From what I’ve seen, it’s virtually non-existent.
Now, I don’t want to be too hard on evangelicals alone here. Other traditions have more experience and better tools for being pastorally present with people, but that doesn’t mean it always happens. Mainline pastors often drop the ball here too. I’ve seen many a Roman Catholic priest do a perfunctory anointing of the sick and never really connect personally with the family. One can read the most beautiful prayer from the Book of Common Prayer without feeling or expressing any empathy whatsoever. Nevertheless, I have found that pastors and parishioners in the older traditions at least understand that this is one of the things the church and her ministers should be doing.
Ultimately, in my view, this is another area where the church (at least in the white, suburban culture with which I am most familiar) has become conformed to the death-denying, suffering-averse, productivity-centered world we live in. How is sitting with the dying gonna help build my church?
2. Is a significant part of this deficit because of evangelicals’ lack of liturgical resources?
That lack certainly doesn’t help. When most of our prayers begin, “Lord, we just want to thank you for” – it signals that we might suffer from a lack of language to appropriately relate to life’s awesome mysteries. Purely spontaneous prayer doesn’t work because we simply don’t have words when we are in a situation that overwhelms us.
But why do we rely on that? After all, we claim to be Bible-believing people. No book on earth contains human expressions of sorrow, pain, anguish, grief, disappointment, anger, guilt, loneliness, or fear like the Bible. We just have to read it! But because we haven’t really internalized the Scriptures, we don’t know how to be human, we don’t know how to pray as real people dealing with real life before a real God.
Walter Brueggemann writes about “the formfulness of grief.“ One thing we learn from Scripture is that, in the chaos of suffering, we need a sense of clarity and direction in the midst of our disorientation. So, we lament. The lament form gives us a pattern by which we may express our grief, contemplate our faith, and make a way through the wilderness of suffering. We usually don’t have the words. We are too overcome. It hurts too much to talk. Appropriate liturgies give us profound words to speak when we can’t, words that in turn speak to us, give us perspective, and help us survive.
3. Do evangelicals have a model of a “good death” or does their theology move them in the direction of asking God for miracles?
Coming to grips with the terminality of a loved one is a process for everyone, not just evangelicals. The difficulty of the process also varies depending on the situation. Losing my 90 year-old grandmother is sad, but I probably would not suffer undue shock or dismay, especially if her death followed a normal course. I would be happy that she had lived a long life. I would rejoice in memories of what we shared in life together. I would be grateful that she was able to be comfortable and peaceful, with her pain and symptoms managed well at the time of her passing. Most of us would probably call that a “good death.” We would be concerned and sad, we would offer prayers for her and the family, but I doubt if we would be calling all-night prayer meetings asking God to intervene.
However, a young person, a woman in the prime of her life, a robust middle-aged man, a person who is not at peace with God or others — in such cases the diagnosis of a terminal condition throws us all out of whack. And it should. The question then becomes: What are our options at that point? I’m not sure there is a single “evangelical theology” that speaks to the situation.
Those whose tradition emphasizes miracles, divine intervention, and healing would likely view the situation as absolutely NOT God’s will and would marshal all their resources to fight the devil they blame for the person’s illness. Others would be more stoic and submissive. Some might emphasize trying to understand what is happening, looking for “reasons” to satisfy the Christian perspective. Most all people will bounce up and down on a roller-coaster process of anticipatory grief, needing someone to be with them for support and encouragement all along the way.
In my view, that is the bottom line. No matter where people are with regard to their specific reactions to end of life issues, no matter their theology or conditioned response to tragedy or loss, they need support. They need a calm, reasonable, caring human friend to sit with them, who is available to listen and support them. I have sat with families that have all kinds of reactions, and my approach has been fairly consistent — BE THERE. Period. Trust the process, rely on the active presence of God, and walk down the road with them.