Pastors are constantly planning. Whether it be sermons, worship services, counseling appointments, Bible studies, or other meetings, the pastor is certainly no stranger to planning. But they can’t plan for the unexpected death of a church member.
Grief ministry is a crucial part of pastoral ministry. When death touches your congregation, you must be prepared. The family will be hurting, sometimes even crushed by their loss. It will always be a challenge no matter how long you have been pastoring.
Following the death of a church member, there are a few things to remember during the grieving process.
Phone calls and texts have their place, but you should be there for the family in a moment of crisis and loss. In most cases, you should drop what you are doing and pick it up later. Your presence is most needed.
When you arrive, listen patiently. Don’t try to make the family better immediately. Too often, the pastor shows up on the scene with a clear agenda to provide comfort and guidance through his many words. Though well-intentioned, this strategy usually fails because it devalues the power of “presence.” What the family most needs during these crisis moments are not platitudes and clichés but empathy and compassion.
We have heard about Job’s “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) and how they failed to speak into his suffering. We sometimes forget that they started well. After hearing of his tremendous woes, they sat with him for a whole week without saying a word (Job 2:13). Their presence was enough. This is a great model for pastors and everyone involved in grief ministry.
When you feel it is appropriate to speak, remind the bereaved that God is with them in their pain and grief (Psalm 34:18). As they process everything that has transpired, it is not unusual for them to question God. Remind them that God is present in this crisis, and He will use it for good (Romans 8:28). It is not your job to defend God, but empathetically remind them of the character of God – his love, grace, mercy, and compassion.
2. Passage of Scripture
The Bible is full of beautiful promises that can comfort the grieving. It is your job as a pastor to point them to the relevant passages. One such passage is 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Other passages include Psalm 46, Matthew 5:4, John 16:33, and 1 Peter 5:7. It is always helpful to memorize scripture that pertains to grief ministry. You want to show up prepared.
Sometimes you don’t know what to say, but God’s Word is powerful (Hebrews 4:12)! It will minister to the bereaved in ways you cannot comprehend.
3. Present Christ
Sometimes we take for granted that Jesus entered into our humanity, even our grief and suffering. The Bible describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). When Lazarus died, Jesus could have intervened to spare the family from their deep grief. Instead, Jesus delayed his visit by a couple of days, and when he arrived, He empathized with Mary and Martha. Scripture tells us that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) before raising Lazarus.
Jesus is a kind and merciful Savior. Remind the family that Jesus knows exactly what they are going through (Hebrews 4:15). Christ suffered, bled, and died for all of His people, and now he lives to intercede for them (Romans 8:35, Hebrews 7:25).
One of the most important things the pastor can do is to pray. Certainly, prayer before and after your visit is critical, but your prayer during the pastoral visit is vital. It doesn’t have to be long. You shouldn’t turn it into a mini-sermon but take the magnitude of your actions very seriously.
Your prayer should be one of comfort and hope that points the family to Jesus and the gospel. It should serve as another reminder that God is near amid their pain and that He is the God of all peace and comfort.
5. Point them to good resources
My wife and I love to recommend books and resources to those around us, but there is a time and a place for that. Don’t be too quick to hand the grieving a book or a pamphlet. They often feel paralyzed and unable to do much of anything. Being given a book may seem cold and insensitive. However, it is often appropriate to point them to helpful, gospel-rich resources after the family makes it through the initial trauma.
One of the most helpful books I’ve found dealing with this subject is James White’s Grieving: Your Path Back to Peace. Another valuable resource is Bob Kelleman’s Grief: Walking with Jesus, a 31-day devotional. Our church has been hosting a GriefShare ministry for over a decade, and it has been an enormous help to dozens of people in our area. If there is a GriefShare or a similar ministry in your area, be sure to recommend it.
There are undoubtedly people in your church who can empathize and care for the bereaved in meaningful ways. Do all you can to encourage those interactions. Practical support, like providing meals and transportation for the bereaved family, can prove invaluable.
A dear lady in our church battled cancer for over a year before succumbing to it just a few months ago. During that time, she and her husband received over 400 cards, mostly from our church family. I can’t take any credit for this. It simply happened organically.
Within your church, strive to create a culture of care where the Body of Christ can be deployed. Those deep in grief need the ministry of the whole Body of Christ, not just the pastor.
Finally, don’t forget to follow up with the family. Offering an initial burst of support without maintaining contact over the long haul falls short of our biblical calling. Sometimes the hardest seasons of grief are not the weeks that follow but the months. Be there for them as much as you can. Remind them that they will make it through by the grace and sustaining power of Jesus. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
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