Crying in church

October 6, 2010

I just spent the last three hours trying not to cry my eyes out in pastoral care class. The topic this week was funerals. I rightfully anticipated a swell of emotions and prepared my heart accordingly. But in class the conversation the stories drifted towards the death of children, the most precarious moment of pastoral engagement. I felt the lump in my chest rise to my throat and before I knew it I was doing deep breathing exercises to control the pain and sorrow of even the idea of my daughter’s death.

Can pastors be criers? This was the question I managed to eek out before actually bursting into tears before Prof Dykstra at the break. Between sobs I got out that my strong reaction was deeply related to child death, not death in general. He gave me some assurance about the role of empathy, especially for grieving parents, the importance of not hiding our emotions.

Nice. Helpful. But could I actually do it? Could I actually stand before the family of a three-year old who died of leukemia and make a convincing case for the resurrection? In all honesty, that I will be regularly conducting funerals has never fully sank in when I consider leading a congregation. I just can’t go there.

This is about the time that I want to call into question my ability to do this job. I am a pretty good mind person. I can grasp fairly complex arguments. I can translate difficult concepts. But most of all I’ve never cried in a course on Christology or Romans. My skill at successfully leading a family through the Gospel proclamation that death has been swallowed up even as our hearts are broken. I mean, how would you like it if the mouse-like pastor couldn’t get through the Gospel, let alone the sermon, at your mother’s funeral? Holy smokes….

I think that most theology types like to think that the really difficult work of the church is figuring out the inter-relationship of the Trinity or identifying the sacramental theology of Aquinas. For me, the really difficult questions are quite different. How do you tell the parent of a child who died in a car accident that you’re not going to be able to lead a hockey themed funeral? How do you physically tear a mother away from the graveside of the child she bore with her own body?

Theologians have it easy.

Originally posted at Sign on the Window, part of the CCblogs network.


Pastor crying at funeral

Melissa, bless your good heart for these comments. I myself think that it would be perfectly fine if you cried, if you felt so moved. We're all in this together; we laugh and weep together. I think the leader-follower model, with the stoic leader on the pedestal, is outdated and not helpful. If you were my pastor, you would definitely have important gifts others don't have, but otherwise we'd be a family.

"Theologians have it

"Theologians have it easy."


And there is a difference between showing genuine emotion while leading worship, and falling apart. Our job as clergy is to point to Jesus and the promise of the resurrection. And this may mean fighting back tears while doing so. As a pastor deeply immersed in the life of the church community, funerals will and do hurt. But we have to deal with our own pain in order to facilitate healing in others. If the preacher can't keep it together, no one is served.

But I also know that the pastor is never alone. I'm not the only one tearing the mom away from her child's grave. Her sisters and brothers in Christ are there as well. Walking with her.


crying in church

I appreciate your awareness of the struggle that is involved in being with people in painful, tragic situations, especially the emotional struggle that is connected with crying. I am struggling, and have some disagreement, with the idea that that your calling as a minister as you stand before the family of a three-year-old who has died of leukemia is to "make a convincing case for resurrection." I believe the witness of God's presence, by your own abiding presence as a representative and messenger of the covenant community, will make resurrection real in the lives of that family.

Presence, not words...

Melissa, thank you for blogging about struggling with funerals. Your compassion and empathy for the families and friends are the compelling witness of God’s love amidst their dark journey, not your theological acuity.

As one who has recently “retired” I can only acknowledge that, day after day, in ministry’s diverse works, what I have to offer is more about my presence (which includes my tears and uncertainties, my words and my silences) than it is about pronouncing theological statements.

As those with whom you minister journey through their pain, denial, doubts, angers and questions, your PRESENCE on that journey will attest to God’s love more effectively than all the words you might speak.

Bob Wallace, United Church of Canada (still learning, after 45 years of preaching)

Theology and Pastoral Care

Melissa, I certainly agree with and have experienced the truth of how difficult and complex pastoral care is. It touches our own vulnerabilities and at the same time it asks us to be present, care for, and guide another to healing, wholeness, and salvation. To be invited into the life story of another is one of our greatest privileges.

I do not agree that theologians have it easier. If they do have it easier, that is a symptom of a problem. I think I understand what you are pointing to - the separation between theory and practice. That separation, however, is devastating for pastoral care.

Being a pastor demands first being a good theologian. It is the Biblical and theological precepts that guide pastoral care and offer the possibility of healing the soul. Pastoral care, then, is the application of those precepts to another’s life and life experiences for the healing or wholeness of that person and the healing of that person’s relationship with God. Unfortunately, that understanding of pastoral care seems to have been forgotten or ignored in favor of a more secularized therapeutic approach in which pastoral care is done in the context of psychological rather than theological categories. Consequently, the pastoral relationship is now generally crisis driven, waxing and waning with the ups and downs of life with the result that pastoral care tends to be pain management rather than healing of the soul.

Theologically based pastoral care is what creates a path away from the graveside offering the mother hope and a way forward. We, as pastors, have the great privilege of walking that path with her.

Thank you for an honest and thought provoking post.

God’s peace be with you,