Pastoral Reflections on a Tragic Morning
Recently I was faced with the most difficult, tragic situation I have ever had to face in pastoral ministry: a man well known in the church I serve was killed in a jogging accident. That morning I was in a meeting with two other pastors when one of our secretaries came in with a distressed look on her face to tell us that the County Coroners were in the main office requesting our assistance. The woman whose husband had been killed was working at our church that morning, and the coroners asked if we could help them inform her of the death of her husband. As a pastor, I have walked with people through tragedy. I have mourned with families at the unexpected death of a loved one. But I had never before had to deliver the news of the death of a loved one in this type of situation.
I was thankful to share the weight of this tragedy with my Senior Pastor. Together we walked down the hall to the room where the woman was teaching. I was profoundly aware that she had no idea we were coming to talk to her, and that the news we were going to deliver would change her life forever. As she came out of her classroom and back to the office with us, she knew something was seriously wrong. As we came into the office, the County Coroners were there, and together we shared the news with her that her husband had been killed in a jogging accident. As we grieved with her and comforted her in those initial moments of shock, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to surround her and comfort her in this most awful of circumstances. Our office staff quickly began making phone calls, and her family arrived within minutes to be with their mom.
After an hour or so, the family began to gather and left for a nearby home. When I had some time later that afternoon to process all that had happened, I wrote down 9 reflections I wanted to share. The first four of them are reflections on walking with people through suffering from a pastor’s point of view. The next 5 (in an upcoming post) reflect on tragedy from a more personal perspective.
1. In the immediate face of tragedy, compassion should be communicated by one’s presence and actions more then words. It is easy as a pastor to want to speak at a time like this, and I believe there is a time and place for words in these situations. But in the moment, being present with the suffering person and reassuring them of your care for them is crucial. When Jesus encountered Mary in her mourning soon after Lazarus died in (?) says “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus Wept.’ (John 11:33-34, ESV. Emphasis added.) In the moment of tragedy Jesus empathized with those who were suffering, and entered fully into their mourning. There would be a time for words, but before that time came, Jesus was present and caring with those who suffered.
Throughout that morning I was able to do some small things to help the family, getting water, Kleenex, and making phone calls. The times I did speak were in response to questions she asked or memories that she shared. Most of the time we were seeking to reassure her there was nothing she needed to worry about right then, that we would take care of things to help her.
2. This tragedy, and all tragedies, are major life interruptions. Much of the work I had planned to do on Friday was immediately put on the back burner. This reminded me that the sermon preparation process must be begun early in the week, and not left for the last minute. Pastors should not assume they will prepare sermons during tragedy-free weeks. Our sermon prep process must begin early, taking advantage of time early in the week, so that we allow space for interruptions and important events. If I depend on Friday for a large amount of my preparation, then when important interruptions do occur I will not be able to respond to them the way I need to. Waiting until the last minute means that, when interruptions come, my sermon will suffer, my heart will be unsettled, and my family and the church will feel the effects.
Certainly it’s impossible to plan for every interruption; ministry will often demand we leave our offices and preparation behind. But we must be diligent to work hard early in the week as we have opportunity so we will be free to care for our people when the need arises.
3. As I reflected on this situation, I realized that follow up with the family and those affected is crucial to pastoral ministry. As the family left our church that morning, I realized their life would never be the same. This tragedy changed the direction of my morning and the things I had planned for the rest of the day, but it changed the plans and direction of the rest of their life. Holidays, birthdays, and everyday life will never be the same. It is easy in pastoral ministry to be focused and available for people in the midst of suffering, but not to stay involved in the time to come. Families walking through difficult situations need care for more then just the immediate situation. My recommendation to pastors is that as soon as you get back to your desk, schedule some calendar reminders weeks and months ahead to follow up with them.
In tragic situations, we need to be aware of how everyone involved is affected, not just the immediate family. Our secretaries and office staff were deeply affected by what their co-worker had gone through. The County Coroners who came to the church were very emotional. I’m sure that the police and medical units that responded to the accident were affected as well. As pastors we have the opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate the love of Jesus to everyone we encounter. My suggestion is to go out of the way to care for and appreciate the secondary people involved, including police, fire, medic, office staff, and anyone else. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just telling them how much you appreciate their work and their service to the community goes a long way.
4. Finally, as I sat back down at my desk, thinking about the message I would deliver that coming Sunday, I was struck afresh by the fact that sermons must speak to this kind of life. As pastors we can have tunnel vision at times, focused on the series we are in, the points we want to communicate, and the direction we are trying to lead our ministries. Our people need to hear what God’s word has to say in the midst of tragic situations. They need to know the unfailing hope they have in Jesus, no matter what happens. We need to preach God’s Word, realizing that the people who listen are looking to see how this unchanging truth can help them with the daily realities of worries, hurts, fears, struggles, and unexpected tragedies. My encouragement to pastors and teachers is to feed your people solid food, truth that matters, truth about a Savior that will be with them and carry them through tragic situations when they can’t see how they can carry on.