A member of the Clergy Project wrote a great piece for the Rational Doubt Blog that gives an inside look at what pastor go through when we’re called to a hospital visit when someone is dying. Everything in this article hit me square in the chest. This is my job, this is my experience.
Here is the author relating an experience of sitting with a woman who is watching her grown son die:
She tells me about him as a child, how he related to his sisters, how smart and artistic he was. She lets me see the tear slide down her cheek when she tells me that she just can’t leave this room. She takes her meals here, and sleeps in the recliner, which she says is quite comfortable.
I reach over and pat the top of her hand. I’d like to do more. I’d like to hold and perhaps kiss her hand, but that would be too forward. Actually, I’d like to hold her and whisper that it will be okay. But that wouldn’t be right either. I’d like to promise her that I’ll take care of her, but I won’t be able to. I’ll have to move on to another room in another hospital in order to not quite adequately care for someone else who watches a loved one die.
As a pastor I’ve watched a number of people die. I’ve sat with their loved ones in the awkward silence and the even more awkward meaningless conversations as people pass the time waiting for someone to pass away.
Once you’re a pastor for a length of time you get to know the older members of your congregation quite well. They’re the ones with all the free time during office hours. The retired guys at the church tend to be your biggest volunteers and helpers, fixing things here and there for the church. I was quite young when I became the pastor of this church (10 years ago) and so the old guys took time with me and even treated me like one of their family.
I haven’t had to pay for a lunch in 10 years, though I almost was able to steal the bill last week.
When my wife was pregnant, the older ladies showered her with gifts. These people buy my kids Christmas presents. They sometimes take my wife and I out to dinner, while other times give us gift cards for date night. You win over the older members of your congregation and you never find yourself without a friend, and vicarious grandparents for your children.
We become close with these people. But them being older, they get sick and they pass away. And so you watch the man who gave gifts and candy to your children every week, waste away in a hospital bed. You visit them as they are in and out of surgery centers. You see their complexion change. You see a once healthy person who is now no longer able to walk. You witness the dread of their spouse, as everyone knows what’s coming soon. With tears in their eyes they thank me for coming and praying with them. Eventually they’re too weak to show up at church anymore, so their first question is always
So what’s new at church? Any big plans pastor?
And I humor them. I spend a lot of time talking about Children and Youth ministries so they know their beloved church will continue on in their honor. Aging dying people love it when there are babies in church. They’ll then ask about my kids. And we go on and on about the future. The future we both know they won’t see.
Many of those who pass tell me how much they love me and my wife. How God clearly had a plan on bringing us to them. There are tears. And then one day I get a call:
Pastor, grandpa is back in the hospital. He’s not responding anymore. Can you come and pray with us?
So I come, and I sit. The agony of watching someone stop breathing, then starting again. As breaths get further and further apart. I often would pray that they would just pass. But sometimes it takes too long.
I’ve considered it a difficult honor to perform my friends’ funerals. And as I was leaving the hospital yesterday of another friend who is slowly heading down that path I turned to my wife.
Me: I’m not going to be doing my friends’ funerals anymore.
Wife: What do you mean?
Me: Well, we’ve talked about this. There are people at church who are counting on me to be the one to do their funeral. To be the one to talk to their kids and grandkids. They’re expecting me as their friend and not just their pastor, to be there when they die. But, I’m not going to be. I’m not going to be there for them, at least not like that.
Wife: You could still do their funeral. Wait? You’re not thinking about telling these people you’re an atheist are you?
Honestly, I kinda was. I was thinking it would be great to be openly secular. But she’s got a point too. The older generation simply will not understand that I don’t believe anymore. I will be a disappointment. I can see them trying to reconvert me while they’re on their death bed.
I’m going to heaven John and I want to see you there.
Some of them are going to feel absolutely betrayed. I’ll be a liar to some of them. But above all, I won’t be the pastor of their church. Some other guy is going to have the privilege and responsibility of supporting them and their family when the time comes. Some other guy is going to be behind the pulpit on the stage decorated with flowers. Some other guy is going to be “pastor”.
And that, that makes me sad.