The sins of a pastor

No, not mine this time, but those of a pastor who should know better.

Well, in reality, this probably violates the 8th Commandment, so my sin is confessed even before I begin.

On Friday, I attended the funeral of a family member. Now, I admit I have very high standards when it comes to the care a pastor provides for me and my family. I have clear expectations and frankly, am almost always disappointed. I also pray that I might not cause the kind of offense I experience at the hands of these pastors. It all started with the visitation on Thursday.

Family gathered for the visitation at 4:00 pm. The public visitation was from 5:00 – 8:00 pm. By 4:30, the family had completed their “work” and drifted toward the food brought in at the funeral home. When people started to arrive just before 5:00, I chased family members back into the room so they could greet the people. The pastor had not arrived yet.

The visitation dragged on for me. I knew practically no one. At one point, I was cornered by a man who needed to find a new recipient of his stories. Everyone else in the room had heard them. At about 7:15 the pastor arrived. He spent a little time with the new widow, touched bases quickly with the children, and spoke with me before he left. He was in the room for 10 minutes. At 8, we closed up shop and went home. No prayer, no attention from the pastor to all who were gathered. From all indications, he was simply another visitor. At least he had been to the funeral home.

I expected more at the funeral on Friday.

Family were to be at the church one hour before the funeral service. That would include a last viewing before the casket was closed, a time of prayer together in the church basement, and then the family would proceed together into the church following the casket. The “prayer service” did happen, and in general, was respectful and attended to the needs of the family.

I was surprised when we began the funeral service that an Order for Christian Burial was not a part of the liturgy in the hymnbook. This was a disappointment to me. What resulted was the absence of some particularly meaningful parts of the funeral liturgy that I’ve experienced across denominations. I kept waiting for them, and was disappointed.

There were some stylistic and practical matters that were a bit distracting for me, but the worst was the funeral sermon. I have two pet peeves about funeral sermons. Far too often, they become more about the pastor and that pastor’s relationship with the person who has died than they are about the Gospel. Sure enough, this funeral sermon had that quality about it also. I’d guess that about 25% of the sermon was about that. The second pet peeve is that funeral sermons often trivialize a person’s life. The pastor often picks out one thing about the person where a connection is found, and drives that into the ground. This time, it was how the deceased loved baseball. We learned how he played baseball in high school and softball on the church softball team. We learned how he loved to watch baseball on television. (It formed the basis of the relationship between pastor and the deceased.) Frankly, I’ve known the man more than 30 years, and I’m not sure in that time that he even followed a team nearly as passionately as others I know.

The most disappointing (and distracting) element of the sermon was the specific naming of some of the sins of the deceased. Some of this man’s sins were enumerated as a way to get to the Gospel message of forgiveness. The shock of hearing these sins and the invitation for us to also fill in the blanks of the sins we knew about served to overpower the message of the Gospel. By the time I was able to listen again, the pastor had moved past the Gospel and was rambling on (in an ill-informed way) about the evils of embryonic stem cell research (where fetuses are created, used, and discarded). I confess that I don’t know how he got there, but my daughter, sitting near me, set her jaw and stiffened visibly. She is doing stem cell research in a Doctoral program at a Catholic University. She didn’t wait long after the service to inform us that the pastor was completely misinformed about how the stem cell research was conducted.

Following the church service, the graveside service went fine (as fine as they can go.) A few other snafus occurred, but those were not the fault of the pastor. One of the military honor guard rifles jammed, so he got a 19 gun salute. The VFW flag folder did the worst job I’ve ever seen folding the flag.

And yet, this was a service that was important to all who attended.

I’m glad that the funeral service is more than the sum of all its parts. God was at work in spite of the distractions.

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4 responses to “The sins of a pastor

  1. Dear Pastor, please forgive my intrusion. I found you through the “tag surf” feature on WP because this was filed under “liturgy”. I have been involved in several different types of protestant denominations from Charismatic, to reformed to Lutheran (LCMS) prior to becoming Orthodox. This is something that I have also taken note of and it seems to me that two factors are at play. One is how liturgical the church is and the other is who they view the Eucharist. It seems to me (and this goes for visiting the sick as well as dealing with funerals) that the more liturgical a church is (or perhaps pastor) the more hands-on care a pastor gives to his flock. Also, if a church views communion as partaking of the true Presence (whatever way we say – or don’t say – that happens 🙂 ) the more serious that pastor takes his role as shepherd.

    It just seems to me that the liturgical churches see pastors as shepherds and the charismatic/ contemporary worship style churches see pastors as “speakers” or “teachers” and thats it.

    Forgive me if I have gone way off base…

    Respectfully,
    Debbi

  2. ponderingpastor

    Thanks for your comment. It makes a great deal of sense. The problem is that this was a LCMS pastor and congregation, and the pastor has been there 20 years. I would have expected what I received had it been a non-liturgical church.

    Pondering Pastor

  3. ah well, there goes my theory out the window. How sad for the family.

  4. Thanks for this – I struggle with funerals when I’m not the officient because they so often drift into glorified eulogies and “I remember…” fests. I hope your daughter informed the priest. He deserved… uh, needed it.

    Now that we have a few local funeral directors promoting “life celebrations”, rather than funerals, there’s been a strange tilt to planning and leading some member and non-member funerals.

    We don’t need to do much at a funeral, but we need to do it well, faithfully, and with dignity with the Gospel at it’s heart.

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