Post Author: Sarah Ross
A few weeks ago, one of my church members, Dee, approached me after worship. Dee is one of our adults with special needs, and she is kind-hearted but often quite blunt. “Pastor Sarah, someone said your grandpa died,” she said. “But that’s not right. It was your grandma, right?”
I sighed. “Well, actually it was both,” I told her. This summer, my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandfather passed away just two months apart.
“Whoa.” She paused, looking stricken. “That’s really bad.”
It was indeed.
All spring, my congregation had been stressing out about hosting the May presbytery meeting. They’d touched up the paint, picked out centerpieces, prepared an elaborate menu, and arranged worship for the regional pastors and elder commissioners who would be coming to our building for a meeting. It was one of those long-awaited, much-discussed, all-hands-on-deck kind of church events.
So I was a bit caught up in all the nervous preparation and had just gone home for lunch when my mother called to tell me that my grandmother had not woken up that morning. She had died sometime during the night, unexpectedly.
Two months later (to the day), Mom contacted me again, early on a Sunday morning, to tell me that my grandfather who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for many years had also passed away.
As a pastor, I get phone calls about deaths pretty regularly. I’ve done my fair share of funerals in five years of ordained ministry, and sat at a number of deathbeds. It’s a strange thing to boast about, but I’m good at funerals. I’m good at caring for those in the midst of grief, whether sudden or long-anticipated. As a single woman working as a solo pastor, I’m used to caring for others and carrying their pain. I’m not so accustomed to being on the receiving side of care.
“Go home. We don’t need you.” That’s not a message that solo pastors often get. There’s always something we should be doing, someone who needs visiting, some meeting that needs attending. But the day of the all-consuming presbytery meeting, my church folks found out what had happened and sent me home. “Call your family. Do what you need to do. We’ll be fine.” And they were. I’m still hearing comments from clergy colleagues about the delicious meal and the smoothly-run meeting.
I came back later in the day, when the dinner was being served. I was supposed to preside at Communion after supper, and while I knew there were plenty of other pastors who could handle it, I wanted to be there. My grandma’s encouragement had been such a part of my call to ministry that presiding at the Table seemed the best way to honor her. So I showed up, but found that I could not stomach the prospect of dinner small talk at a table of presbytery acquaintances.
So my people found me a stool in the corner of the kitchen and brought me a plate, and there was something deeply comforting about that little corner of refuge in the chaotic kitchen as the church ladies (and a few men) fussed over salads and potatoes. Instead of small talk, I was surrounded by the busyness of a family at work—a kitchen full of aunts and grandmas and uncles hurrying to get a holiday meal on the table. They mostly left me to my own quiet introverted self, while offering the occasional sympathetic smile, pat on the shoulder, or “Don’t get up, pastor. Let me get you a piece of pie.”
I fretted about taking too much time off consecutively, as I added funeral travel to an already stretched summer schedule of vacation and study leave. They said, “Take the time you need.” I worried about all the things that needed to be done. They said, “We can handle it.” I needed to get my stuff moved out of my apartment and into my new house before leaving town. They said, “Tell us what time to be there with the truck.”
Often in seminary boundary workshops, pastors-to-be get the message that the members of your church can’t be your friends or your support. We can’t lean on them, because they are supposed to lean on us. And there’s a great deal of important truth there. All pastors need friends and loved ones outside of the church in whom we can confide. Yet at the same time, there is something profoundly holy about being with my congregation not just as a pastor, but as a person. A person who is overwhelmed by grief and by piles of moving boxes. A person who cries and who laughs. A person who needs help and care and is sometimes vulnerable.
As a solo pastor, I have a rather arrogant tendency to believe that I am indispensable to this whole “church” thing. Obviously, the body of Christ cannot function without my presence, my efforts, my striving, can it? As it turns out, the church can and did survive in my absence. When I had to be gone to care for myself and my family, people jumped in to fill the pulpit, to lead the meetings, to care for God’s people and to keep congregational life running smoothly. They don’t need me nearly as much as I think.
And yet, they want me here. When I came back from all my travels this summer (the two funerals, plus already-planned vacation and study leave), I couldn’t count the number of people who said, “We missed you! We’re so glad to have you back!” After my grandpa’s funeral, I came back to see that someone had carefully printed out his online obituary and pinned it to the bulletin board where we post news about our church family. They’d never met him, but this small gesture said that my family was theirs, too. My grief was their grief.
As a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I’m ordained as a “Teaching Elder.” It’s my calling to teach others about Christ through the gifts of preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. But the church teaches me, too. I preach that none of us are truly self-sufficient or independent, that we are created for community and that we need God and one another, and then the church turns around and teaches me that same lesson.
As Dee stood there in the sanctuary doorway pondering the enormity of two deaths at once, her face lit up with an idea. “I know what you need to do!” she exclaimed.
“Oh?” I asked.
“You need to go see Ghostbusters,” she told me. “I saw it, and it was really funny, and it will help you feel better.”
She was right again.
Sarah Ross is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and serves as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Adrian, Michigan. She is currently serving on the board of The Young Clergy Women Project. Sarah lives in Adrian with her odd but lovable rescue dog, Molly.
Image by: Sarah Ross
Used with permission