I have been in ministry over eleven years and I have done well over 100 funerals but only one wedding. This has been a source of constant amusement both to my congregation and my pastor friends. This is all in God’s providence, however, and he has used it to grow me in three specific ways.
1. I am a better pastor because I now see the whole world as my field.
I run across people who know me because I did a funeral for a friend of theirs or a family member. Though I don’t always remember them, they remember me and feel a connection to me because I ministered to them during a difficult and emotional time. I now feel obligated to minister to anyone whom God providentially puts in my path. Through ministering to so many people through funerals, I realized I don’t just represent the church I pastor; I represent Christ. Since I represent Christ, I must minister to his people wherever I find them. This has affected my ministry in other areas as well.
I used to go into the nursing home or the hospital, see the people I came to see and then leave. Now I have to plan a long time to make a nursing home visit and it is not uncommon for me to talk to, pray with, and minister to more people who are not part of my congregation than those who are. I do minister on behalf of our congregation so I see it as our church ministering to these people but more importantly, I see myself as acting on behalf of Christ to care for his people and to reach out to those who don’t know him. This church pays me to minister which enables me to do this, but Christ is the one who called me and that means that my field is not just this congregation; my field is the entire world and anyone whom Christ puts in my path.
2. I am a better preacher because my preaching has become much more eschatological.
Ministering to people near death (both believing and unbelieving) and to those left behind (both believing and unbelieving) has forced me not only to think deeply through such subjects personal eschatology, Final Judgment, Resurrection, and the New Heaven and the New Earth, but also to think about the practical, existential implications of these great doctrines.
As a result, I am more aware of how these themes are woven through Scripture, I am more alert to their connectedness with other doctrines, and they have become part and parcel with my proclamation of the good news. I’m not saying that every sermon contains lengthy portions addressing each theme not even that I mention all of them in every sermon, but they do inform and undergird almost every sermon and they may get a passing mention to keep each text oriented to these basic themes.
3. I am a better person because I now have deeper and broader sense of empathy and compassion.
My mother once told me that I was “a hard person.” I know what she means and she wasn’t being mean when she said it. But ministering to the dying and those whom the dead leave behind has taught me compassion. I have learned how to enter into the sufferings of others and “bear one another’s burdens.” I hear often from people that were blessed by the few moments I spent ministering to them during a funeral visitation or a service. One guy recently recognized me in the bank line solely by the sound of my voice and told me how blessed he was by how I cared for his family during his aunt’s funeral. I pray that the saints are comforted by this ministry and that many more are pointed to the Savior as a result.
It’s not always easy, however. One of the hardest things about pastoral ministry is having to minister to people who have mistreated you. I have learned to place my own feelings aside and see people as Jesus sees them and minister Christ to them regardless of what they have done or said to me.
Some final thoughts:
I know what some people are thinking: “What about growing your church? Shouldn’t you be reaching out to the lost rather than being a chaplain?”
My only response is that the question itself is wrong. It assumes that pastoral ministry is only about church growth. It’s not.
I do have some people attending services here who come because I (or the previous pastor) did a funeral for their family or friend. But you can’t do things expecting to get something in return. The Gospel is not something you keep; it is something that must be given away. I am convinced that our church has been able to weather the bad economic times in Michigan when other churches in our area have closed their door precisely because the Lord knew we would be generous: generous with the Gospel, giving of ourselves, and faithfully doing what he has called us to do.
When you minister God’s grace to others, you always receive more than you ever give away. God gives it to show the abundant measure of his grace but he also grants it because he knows you’ll be a good steward of it. God gives you more grace because he knows that when he does, you’ll use it to give away more of his grace and Good News.
In 2 Corinthians 9:8 Paul speaks of this very principle in the context of the offering for the saints in Jerusalem: “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.”