The Most Important Ministry Advice I Ever Received

It was March of 2004 and I had been a parish pastor for less than three months.

A call came from a funeral home that there had been a death. A 22 year-old young man had been killed by a drunk driver. He had been baptized in our church as a child, and it sounded as though it was the last time he or his family had ever been there.

Of course, I went.

What do you say when you walk into a house full of grieving family members? How do you begin to comfort devastated parents and siblings and cousins? How do you begin to make funeral arrangements for someone’s boy, who a day ago was in the prime of his life?

As a new pastor, a baby pastor, I felt so woefully unprepared — not because I was ill-equipped in seminary, but because these moments push us beyond the limits of words, of knowing, of skill — all the things you think you went to seminary to get. In the face of grief, which is numbing and maddening and heartbreaking all at the same time, those things quickly fall away.

For the next couple of hours or more we, at least it felt to me, clumsily and awkwardly talked about their son, about their family, about what they wanted for the service. I left feeling so inadequate, so helpless to be of much help to them.

A few days later we had the service, the committal, and the reception. And at the reception, one of the family members — I think it was a brother-in-law pulled me aside and said this to me:

“Thank you so much for all you’ve done. That first day when you came to the house — you were the only thing that made any sense. We just hung on your every word. It made all the difference.”

It’s the single most important thing anyone has ever taught me about ministry. It’s all about showing up and trusting that somehow and in some way that you don’t and may never understand the sheer act of getting in your car, turning the key, driving, and walking into their living room, or opening your office door and remembering to grab a box of tissues on the way in — turns out to be enough. It’s mystery. It’s grace. It’s always a miracle.

I don’t know about you, but I have to constantly remind myself of this. Constantly. Every day. As I’ve become more experienced and more skilled as a pastor over the intervening twelve years I somehow keep expecting to finally have the right word at the right time. I don’t. I just know to show up.

In every pastoral encounter since — sitting bedside as someone breathes their last breath, holding a hand before surgery, heartbreak and swollen tears over divorce, unemployment, mourning the death of a parent, a child, or a friend — Every. Single. Time. — I think of what he told me that March afternoon and it reminds me that there are no perfect words, there is no perfect timing, or prayer, or sermon, or anything else. When everything is stripped away, what we have is our shared and broken humanity. All we have is each other and God. And that always turns out to be enough.