written by: Michael Catt
As a pastor, I’ve done a number of funerals. Some have been for people I have dearly loved. Others for relatives of members I’ve barely known. A few have been for total strangers. Funerals are a vital part of a pastor’s ministry. I know pastors who don’t do funerals. I think they are missing an incredible ministry opportunity. A recent study reveals that increasing numbers of Europeans are being buried in unmarked graves because they feel life is meaningless, worthless, and there is no afterlife. At a funeral, we can talk about the hope of the Resurrection. If we leave funerals to the funeral homes, we are missing a gospel opportunity.
Given the chance, I’d rather do a funeral than a wedding. At a wedding, everyone’s thinking, ‘Get this over so we can go on the honeymoon.’ I’ve done a few weddings where the ceremony was nothing more than a necessary preliminary to have legal sex. At a funeral, the family wants to hear words of comfort. Even lost people realize the importance of a funeral as more than just a preliminary to burial.
Funeral ethics need to be taught in our colleges and seminaries. Pastors need to teach their staffs how to conduct a funeral. There is an ‘art’ to this and few seem to know it. The funeral should be viewed as a time when people’s hearts are open to the gospel, hope and truth. It’s not a time for the minister to talk about himself.
Here are a few principles I believe ministers need to know and embrace if they are going to be involved in serving others during a time of bereavement.
ONE. The family should receive a visit, if at all possible, within thirty minutes of the church being notified. The visit should be brief. During this visit, the family is still in shock. The minister needs to be sensitive as to how long he stays. Another reason for this initial visit is to find out what the family needs. At our church, we provide a meat tray and all the trimmings so families can have sandwiches, paper products and snacks in the house. We don’t want them worrying about food at a time like this. We also contact their Bible Study class to get food organized for the days ahead.
The minister should leave every method available to contact him if there are any questions or issues that arise: cell phone, email, church phone and home phone. The minister should also make it clear that the church is available if the family would like to have the service or a meal after the service in the church facility.
Regardless of the spiritual state of the family, the minister should ask if they could gather for prayer. It is important that we lead the family to lean on the Lord during their time of crisis. The key is not to be profound (either in the conversation or the prayer) but to be available.
Another aspect of ministry is the follow up. I usually write a note to the family on the one month and one year anniversary of the death of an immediate family member. It’s what we do after the grave is cold and everyone has gone back to their ‘normal’ life that is important.
TWO. Upon returning to the church, someone should be responsible for contacting the Bible Study class, the deacon of the week and anyone else in leadership who has a connection with that family. The information is added to our Intercessory Prayer Ministry and to our telephone prayer line.
THREE. Let’s talk about who does the service. First of all, I believe the right thing to do is always include the pastor of the church in the service. Even if it is a large church and the family is close to a particular staff member, the pastor should be invited to read Scripture and pray or do the grave side. After all, he is the pastor. Our policy is the staff member asks, “What part would you like the pastor to play in the service.”
This is very important. Our church has two former staff members who’ve left here in the last twenty years. Both are still in the area in other ministries. One is a pastor and the other operates a para-church ministry. Both have been called on to do numerous funerals for our members over the years. Both, being very familiar with our policy have chosen not to respect it. Lacking ministerial courtesy, this has led to hurt feelings and misunderstandings at times. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Why didn’t they ask you to have a part in the funeral?” It’s hard to answer that question and it should never have to be asked . . . or answered! If you are put in that situation, bite your tongue. A bulldog can whip a skunk, but it’s not worth it.
In addition, the pastor I followed often comes back for funerals. He lives two states away but has no problem coming back to preach a funeral here. He’s never given me the courtesy of a phone call or asked us for assistance. He blows in and out of town leaving us to deal with the dust. Although I’ve had him speak on two different occasions, he never honors the current leadership, pastor or staff. To me, that’s wrong, flat out, 100% wrong. I wonder how he would feel if someone did the same thing to him?
We have a dozen staff members, and me who are equipped to do funerals. These former staff members seem to revel in the fact that they have been asked to do the funeral. Like the Lone Ranger, they ride into town and leave their silver bullet and then gallop off. In my opinion, it is unethical for a man to return to a former church (be it a former pastor or staff member) and not have the common courtesy of talking to the present staff or pastor about the service.
When you leave a church, leave it. You can be a friend, but you are no longer called to minister in that church. They have a new staff member or a new pastor. The new staff members need to be given the opportunity to connect with the members and minister to them. If you feel you have to go back every time you are called, you have a superman complex. Get over yourself and realize you are just an earthen vessel. When the vessel moves on, it’s also time to let the church move on.
I personally have a policy that I will not do a funeral in a former church unless the family has asked the pastor if it is okay. I believe if I’m going to stand in another man’s pulpit, I need his permission. This way, I can honor the family’s wish and honor the current pastor as well. Even if the pastor says it is okay, I want him to have some part in the service. This is fair, right and should be the standard. The only reason a person would not want to do this is ego.
Families can use whom they wish for the actual funeral but a minister should have enough integrity and respect for the current pastor or staff to know better. I estimate we’ve had close to seventy-five funerals where our church and staff have ministered to the family, provided food, visited daily in the hospitals and yet, no one from our staff was included in the funeral.
Just last week, one of these former staff members did a funeral for a life deacon in our church. He mentioned in the service that the former pastor had called and expressed concern for the family. Of course, he never mentioned that I had (a) stood by the man when we had to take his wife off life support, (b) visited the man while he was in the hospital and (c) sent numerous prayer notes to him while he was ill. Apparently, what I did wasn’t worth mentioning. Or, this former staff member set it up to make me look bad. You be the judge and put yourself in my place.
While we provided the ministry, we were shut out of the opportunity to minister at the service. Ministers who understand ethics and just plain, old common sense would know to remedy that with the family. These former ministers blow in, do the service, take the check and leave. We are here to continue serving the family.
FOUR. How about the check? Personally, I never expect a check from a family for doing a funeral. I figure it’s part of what I get paid for. I’ve heard more than one minister gripe about not getting paid for a funeral. To me, it goes with the job description. If they want to pay me, fine. Usually, I’ll give the check to the church and designate it to some ministry. Don’t expect to get paid, consider it a privilege to serve the Lord by ministering to others.
One related side note. One of these former staff members said to a current staff member (when he was doing a funeral for one of our members), “I don’t know what I’m going to do when my members start dying and I have to do a funeral for someone I care about.” Really? They are asking him because they think he cares. Apparently, he doesn’t give a rip. He’s just using people to get what he wants . . . attention and money. This was apparent when he was on our staff. It’s painfully apparent now that he’s a pastor and there’s no one to keep him in check.
FIVE. What do you say? I believe a funeral service needs the personal touch but some ministers only talk about the person. Where’s the gospel? Where’s the sermon? One minister that I’ve shared a number of funerals with does basically the same sermon every time. I can’t believe people haven’t figured this out yet. Maybe nobodies listening. In every sermon I’ve done with him, (somewhere over one hundred) he says the same thing, “He (or she) loved their family, loved their church and loved the Lord.” I’ve been on the platform and known some of those people and sometimes I wondered who in the world they were talking about. It couldn’t have been the deceased!
There’s nothing worse than lying in a funeral. The friends and family know the truth. This same minister has preached some people into heaven that were as lost as a goose. No, I’m not saying you should tell people their loved one is in hell, but don’t lie to them and preach a gospel that would appeal to a universalist either.
I’ve listened to sermons where it was anything but the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. When in doubt, go to the Word and let the Word speak and don’t try to add to the text. There is great comfort in the Word. You’re there to speak to the family and friends. The deceased is gone.
I remember one minister telling me about a wife who came to him and said, “Say anything you want, but don’t say he was a good father. His kids will know you are lying.” That’s an honest widow. Reality is reality. One should not air dirty laundry in a funeral but one shouldn’t whitewash a rotten fence either.
Be Biblical. Stay true to the Word. Don’t apologize for the Scriptures. We have so much new age spirituality in this post modern world and so many weird ideas, and it’s important that we speak with the voice of authority. I often do funerals for a funeral home that is owned by a Jewish family. I never back away from preaching the Gospel and Jesus as the only way. I have a very good relationship with these people. I know they don’t agree with me, but they respect where I’m coming from. In fact, almost every time I’m there, they tell me they watch us on television.
SIX. Don’t talk so much about yourself. I’ve heard preachers talk about themselves more than the deceased. It ends up being a testimony to how loving, caring and great the preacher is. Sometimes, it’s couched in false humility. The first words in the book, The Purpose Driven Life are priceless, ‘It’s not about you!’ Remember that preacher. Some preachers need to tattoo Second Corinthians 4:5 on their forehead so they can see it every morning when they stand in front of the mirror.
SEVEN. Be professional. Look professional. Dress well. Act like you’ve been there before. It’s your job to be calm when others are falling apart. If you are close to the family, you’ll have to exercise self discipline and put them first instead of your feelings. I’ve buried some dear, dear friends. I’ve buried my father-in-law, my best friend and others who were like family to me. I’ve had to ask God for the grace to get through the moment. For the minister, it’s important that we are a calming force in a stormy time.
I served a church in another state and the first funeral I did as pastor, a staff member showed up to do part of the funeral in a short sleeve shirt, a tie tied too short and had a Star Trek novel in his pants pocket. He looked stupid and was an embarrassment. He started reading the novel on the way to the grave side, I told him to put it up and if he ever did that again, I’d fire him. He could have cared less about what he was there to do. He’s no longer in ministry. I heard he’s been spotted at several Star Trek conventions dressed as a Klingon.
EIGHT. Don’t be a windbag. Be brief. I’ve conducted funerals where there were two or three preachers. It felt like the great American preach off. If you are sharing the platform with someone, keep it short and simple. You’re not there to impress the other minister. I was in charge of a funeral of a dear friend in ministry where there were seven ministers who were asked to share briefly and then I was to do the main sermon. I told them if they went over their allotted time, I would come stand by them and thank them. They stayed within their time frame and the service was less than 90 minutes. It can be done, if you’ll check your ego at the door. A sermon doesn’t have to be eternal to be immortal.
NINE. Stay around for a while at the grave side. Don’t rush off. Mix and mingle with the family and friends. You never know what ministry might arise out of those situations. It’s important that you and I connect at times of crisis. This is one of the window’s God gives us to impact people’s lives. I usually stay around for at least twenty minutes after the grave side service is over. It never cost you anything to love people.
By the way, as a side note, don’t take off your coat, it doesn’t matter how hot it is. I learned that by watching a funeral director in Oklahoma when it was 104 degrees. I took my coat off. He came over and politely rebuked me for being unprofessional. I got the point. Look like you are in charge. Act like you are in charge. Dress like you are in charge.
TEN. Use the Word. Again, I’m talking about the sermon. What I mean here is, don’t always use Psalm 23 or John 14 unless the family requests it. When I preach a funeral, I try to use a text that somehow reminds me of a character quality of the person and preach Jesus from that text. Every funeral is different. Every person is unique. The funeral message doesn’t need to sound like it came off the Internet or that you just inserted another name in the blank.
When my mother died, her pastor did the service. He did a good job. He asked me if I wanted a copy of the sermon. When I got it, it was a sermon he had done for another lady, verbatim. The other lady’s name was marked out and my mother’s name was inserted. I mean, he didn’t even bother retyping the message or make a new copy off his computer. What’s that all about? What I felt was a good message suddenly made me feel cheated. Was he really talking about my mom or was it the other lady who had died four months before?
Just a thought, there are people who still go to funerals because they feel it’s right to honor the deceased. What are you going to do when they figure out you’ve only got a couple of bullets in your gun? I’ll tell you. You’ll be the Barney Fife of the ministry. One bullet and you don’t use that one like you should.
Preachers, let’s do a better job. I’m part of the Baby Boomer generation. Our population is aging and the opportunity to have meaningful ministries in the coming years is enormous. Let’s not miss it because we have failed to use our heads.
I’ve written this article, partially out of frustration and partially as a warning to younger ministers. These are issues that are important. If you are ever put in a position where you are on the other side of the situation, you’ll understand. I have firm convictions about right and wrong when it comes to professional ministry ethics. It’s important that we maintain the highest level of professionalism and common courtesy. Your pastor friends will think better of you. Those who follow you at your current church will think better of you. Ultimately, you’ll feel better about yourself because you’ve done the right thing.
©2004 Michael C. Catt. All rights reserved.
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.