The Ministry of Presence


This month’s synchroblog focuses on helping Christians know what to do (or not do) and what to say (or not say) when others are going through times of personal tragedy. Links to the other writer’s contributions are listed at the end of the post.  You will want to check them out.

Ironically, on Good Friday, I had the memorial service for the 31-year-old son of one of my best friends. He left behind a beautiful 4-year-old daughter, a sister, a twin brother, a heartbroken mother, and a host of loved ones. Apparently, there is irony even in death because a few years ago Andy’s dad died the same way in a one car accident in which he hit a tree.

My wife and I dropped in on the family shortly after they got the news while they were still in the dark cloud of raw, surreal grief. I had nothing to say. Anything I could think of would have been trite or uncaring. Calling the room full of family members to order for prayer in a deep pastoral sounding voice seemed like a stupid thing to do. I sat in silence for a long while. Finally, we hugged, reassured our friend of our love, and gently steered the conversation away from the immediate trauma to stories about Andy and one another.

I was a pastor for over twenty years, but have been out of the “business” for about twelve years now. There were things I loved and hated about being a pastor. I loved be the go-to-guy, it fit my ego needs. I loved the idea of creative communication and the theater-with-a-purpose, called the Sunday morning service. But funerals were one of my least favorite things because I have no magic words and because I needed to grieve along with the other mourners. It is not a time in which I want to perform or to be “on” in some formal clerical capacity.

Over the years, I have had funerals for people who died in lots of different ways. There was college kid who hanged himself with the cord of his dorm room window blinds. There was wife and son of my wife’s cousin who were hit by a semi while parked on the side of the highway.  There was the thirty-three-year-old guy that dropped dead on the loading dock at work. In every one of the countless funerals where I was the officiating clergy, there was at least a moment in which the gravity of what had happened hit me. Even in the ones where I was not well acquainted with the deceased or the family, it would happen.

The weight of the grief, the reason that death is part of the human experience, and the spiritual narrative behind it; all of this would hit me at once. Usually, I would quickly recover and no one would know of my near emotional meltdown. Since it is more than a little unseemly if the guy in charge of comforting the loved ones loses it, I would suck it up and cry when I wasn’t on the clock.

This one was different though. Debbie and Freddie were the first people to reach out to us when we came to what seemed to us like a God-forsaken place, called Chicagoland. We quickly became best friends. We got to know each other’s kids and parents. Now, we are at least somewhat acquainted with each other’s grandchildren.

When a lot of crusty old church members thought I was crazy (or evil), they stood by me. We shared a beautiful vision for what the church could become and commiserated through setbacks and strained relationships with cranky congregants. We shared each other’s sorrows and joys. Debbie even endured my bossiness as my volunteer administrative assistant.

In the last few years, Andy would occasionally IM me on Facebook and we would get together at a coffee shop overlooking Lake Michigan. He would always impress me with his enthusiasm for life and his desire to be a stellar father. Andy lived life with the throttle wide open, full of honesty, fueled by enthusiasm for what he was doing or what was next.

I broke down when I was telling my wife about some of the sweet things his daughter had said to her grandma about her daddy in heaven. As I was trying to recount the incident her, I had to stop, or I would have balled like a baby.

Way too often I see the dramatic public wailing of people in some faraway place when a loved one is killed by a terrorist or a drone strike. I think, get it together. What the heck? These people seem so primitive, so foreign to me. Suck it up! Get on with life!

Yet, sometimes we just need to grieve! If we don’t, that grief will affect us in other sneaky ways. I tell grieving people to cry, find a trusted friend who will listen, write, pray, express the depth of your emotion to God; be very honest. He can take it.

I tell those around the grieving to stop talking and just listen and not try to find something to say when there is no earthly way to make sense of something we don’t understand.

At the death of each of my wife’s parents, I don’t remember a thing that was said at either funeral, from the podium or from loved ones, but I do remember who was there. Hence, the term, “the ministry of presence.”

We need to simply be there and weep with those who weep.


Synchroblog links:


About Glenn

Glenn Hager is a blogger, former newspaper columnist, and author of two books, An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith.
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  1. Pingback: Mourning with those who Mourn | Till He Comes

  2. Written from the heart, Glenn.

    You reminded me of a funeral I once took, a friend had taken his own life and I’d had no idea that he was even on the brink. And he left a note asking me to manage and speak and help his wife and kids on the day.

    And you reminded me of the night my wife died, years ago now. My parents had come down to spend the last day or two with us and our daughters were there. And the night she died, after the doc and the undertakers had come and gone we looked at one another and I said, ‘Let’s watch the latest Nick Park comedy cartoon’.

    And we did! Judy would have loved it and had been looking forward to it. I’d recorded it from the TV (VHS, remember those?). And we thought fond family thoughts of her as we watched, and we laughed and laughed and then slept soundly for what remained of the night.

    Sometimes, what is appropriate can be very unexpected. We must find it in the moment, I think.

    Thanks for stirring old memories. They are important.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. We do need to allow space for grief – weeping with those who weep. And yes, the ministry of presence is powerful. In those raw stages of grief, we just need to know others are grieving with us.
    The link to the memorial service post didn’t show up – I’d love to read it.

  4. Pingback: what seems to help in the midst of pain | kathy escobar.

  5. Pingback: What He Told the Hometown Crowd | Full Contact Christianity

  6. Carol – I fixed the link.

  7. Great post.

    Weeping with those who weep is so critical. It shows empathy with the person in their pain. It is communication beyond words. It allows you to enter into the pain of another.

  8. Pingback: what seems to help in the midst of pain « Geography of Grace

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