When you can't let the dead bury their own dead

January 10th, 2017

My grandmother, Miriam Harris Goldberg, just passed away at the age of 100 years old. I cancelled meetings, a dentist appointment, phone calls, lunch with one friend and dinner with another. Saying goodbye to my grandmother and being with family is my top priority now. Everything my husband and I had planned is on hold — to be rescheduled or simply released.

We haven’t been to a funeral in over a year, so death hasn’t impacted us too much recently. That’s not the case in many churches. One pastor I know of has performed 48 funerals in 6 months. It takes all her time. And, all the emotional energy of the congregation.

How can you lead a congregation into a new future when dealing with death is taking all your time? Jesus recommended letting the dead bury their own dead. Seems heartless. What do you do when you can’t?

According to George Bullard’s Life Cycle and Stages of Congregational Development, thriving churches are propelled by vision. A new and exciting future calls them forward. They’re busy with new life and new possibilities. Dying churches, however, are framed by a different set of realities. Aging members, burgeoning conflict, fewer new people, a shrinking base of people to carry out programs and a desire for the church to be there to bury its remaining members are the chief concerns of congregations that have crested the hill.

Can these bones even live again? I believe so. Here are five possibilities.

1. Expect resurrection. Even Jesus’ death brought new life. How can the deaths in your congregation do the same? It’s easy to get discouraged when you see your base dying. Instead, watch for signs of new life. Make this question a focus of hopeful prayer.

2. Multiply yourself. Jesus trained his disciples and apostles to do what he did. They were well-schooled in teaching, healing and casting out demons. The message of the kingdom didn’t die when he did. Are you multiplying yourself? Mentor others now in leading, teaching, praying, visiting the sick and crafting vision. Teach your lay leaders to do the same.

3. Be like Moses. Don’t even try to do it all yourself. At Jethro’s prompting, Moses used other leaders around him to manage the impossible tasks that were before him. Ask retired pastors, Certified Lay Ministers and Lay Speakers to conduct funerals or graveside services where appropriate. This frees you up to keep the congregation moving forward. It also uses the gifts and graces of others who are eager to serve.

4. Practice both/and. It’s hard to move forward when you’re immersed in funerals. If you must conduct all these funerals yourself, use regularly scheduled times — such as prayer meetings, joys and concerns, church council–to pray for new vision. Refuse to let burying the dead be your only ministry. Make space for new life to flow in the midst of dying.

5. Don’t bury the dead before they’re dead. When my husband’s uncle was in the nursing home, dying of COPD, he grew very discouraged. “Why can’t I just die?” he asked. I countered with, “Why do you think God has you here? What is there still left for you to do?” The question hit home. He took on a new interest in his own life. He became more vigilant about doing physical therapy. He began to visit more with other residents. He wasn’t a praying person but he used his life to make the lives of others more enjoyable. Can you shift the conversation in your own church from aches, pains and ailments to what God is still asking them to do?

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com. She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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