November 26, 2020

A Central Part of the Mission

NOTE FROM CM: It was back in Nov. 2009 when I wrote my first piece for IM, an interview with Michael Spencer about pastoral care for the dying. The timing was ironic, for it took place right before Michael became ill with cancer. You can read the entire interview HERE.

Today, in light of several personal situations I’ve encountered recently, I’d like to revisit one question from that article, to challenge myself and others to take up one central aspect of the work of Jesus with new vigor. I have edited this to reflect my experience as a hospice chaplain since that 2009 interview.

* * *

MICHAEL SPENCER: I first thought of this interview when it occurred to me that evangelicals don’t seem to have anything close to the resources of other traditions when it comes to pastoral care of the dying? Am I right?

CHAPLAIN MIKE: In my experience, most people and churches in the evangelical world have their focus on fellowship and activism. The kind of work I do as a hospice chaplain doesn’t fit the model very well.

I can’t tell you how many times I have had an evangelical friend or pastor ask me, with a sour look on his face, “Do you really like doing that?” They recognize that caring for those who are seriously ill and suffering is a part of life, but it’s a part they would rather avoid and deal with only when absolutely necessary. Not a regular part of the “mission,” you might say.

They know how to put people on the prayer chain. They know how to make a meal and bring it to a family that is going through a hard time. If there is something active they can do, like get a list together of folks to help the family with errands or cleaning house, etc., they might be able to organize some practical assistance. These things can be quite helpful, and should not be looked down upon. However, beyond that, there’s not much in the paradigm, especially if you’re talking about pastoral visitation. And we haven’t even talked about ministering to dying people who are outside the church, which is not even on the radar of most pastors or congregations.

It certainly was not an emphasis in my education. We had few pastoral care courses in my evangelical Bible College and seminary. Nor is it emphasized in churches. Some evangelical churches make use of mainline-generated programs like the Stephen Ministry for equipping believers in caring ministry, but that is a costly and time-intensive program and few are willing to invest in it. People generally expect that it’s the work of chaplains and others in health care organizations. It’s not really considered a central part of the church’s mission. I obviously disagree.

With regard to care for the dying, most pastors and people have been taught to see that it is a good use of their time, that it is Christ-like and genuinely helpful, to simply sit with people, actively listen to their feelings, and not feel like you have to give “answers.” There is this expectation that it’s our Christian and pastoral duty to put the situation in an understandable theological framework so that folks might know the divine “reason” behind what is happening. But look at the Book of Job. When his friends sat in silence with the suffering saint, God said they were doing well. It was when they opened their mouths that they got into trouble. Bottom line is, we talk too much and value silence too little.

However, even when it comes to words, evangelicals don’t usually have a great deal of good language with which to pray for these folks, either. Spontaneous prayers can be really thin when praying for someone in serious trouble. If there is any time when we need to make use of the wisdom of the ages, it is in these situation. And sadly, it may be the rarest of things to find an evangelical worship service (or even funeral service) that contains rubrics for lament or recognition of grief and loss.

Don’t get me started on mega-church pastoral care. From what I’ve seen, it’s non-existent.

Now, I don’t want to be too hard on evangelicals here. One of the chaplains with whom I work is part of a large evangelical church that has an extensive pastoral care program. The senior pastor has made it a requirement that everyone who is called “pastor” is responsible to be part of caring for the sick and needy. Each minister on staff carries a cell phone and pager and takes turns in an on-call rotation. They are trained and expected to participate in responding to pastoral care needs.

I have found that this is rare. Some large churches may have one or two pastors that are known for their skills in this area, and they rely on them. But the work is too great. Nor am I saying that this is the duty of ordained clergy alone. However, as the church’s “shepherds” it is their responsibility to make sure the flock receives the care it needs, and I don’t think anyone can truly be called a “pastor” if he or she does not take some active part in personally caring for hurting people in addition to organizing systems of care that make use of the congregation’s gifts. As Mark D. Roberts put it, “pastoring is personal” — by nature — it’s just part of the definition of the calling.

Other traditions have more experience and better tools for being pastorally present with people, but that doesn’t mean it always happens. Mainline pastors often drop the ball here too. I’ve seen many a Roman Catholic priest do a perfunctory anointing of the sick and never really connect personally with the family. One can read the most beautiful prayer from The Book of Common Prayer without feeling or expressing any empathy whatsoever. Nevertheless, I have found that pastors and parishioners in the older traditions at least understand that this is one of the things the church and her ministers should be doing.

Ultimately, in my view, this is another area where the church (at least in the white, suburban culture with which I am most familiar) has become conformed to the death-denying, suffering-averse, productivity-centered world we live in.

How is sitting with the dying gonna help build my church?


  1. Do you have any resources you would recommend to pastors for care of the dying.

  2. CM,
    Wonderful word, at least for me. This is exactly why I’m working on my MDiv in my middle fifties. I look forward to reviewing the resources you post.

  3. Today over at Rachel Held Evans’ site there is an “Ask A ….” and it is a funeral director. It might be worth the visit for some more thoughts on the general topic.

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