The local church is confronted with death and the resultant grief on a consistent basis. There are approximately two million funerals in America per year or about 5,479 funerals that take place per day.
What does the God and church leaders have to say to those who are dying and experiencing grief? How can clergy be a source of comfort to an individual who recently was diagnosed with a terminal diagnosis of cancer? What advice can clergy offer to an individual that has to decide whether or not to elect the hospice benefit and transition from a curative plan of care to a palliative care of plan? These are relevant questions that must be addressed in order for the church to provide holistic ministry to its congregants. In my role as a senior pastorI have observed that clergy are actively involved in the pastoral care of sick and dying members. Hospital visits are made on a regular basis by clergy and other congregational members, get well cards are sent, the sick individual’s name is placed on the sick and shut-in list, and intercessory prayer is offered on their behalf. These events continue going on as long as the individual is sick.
Upon death, if at all possible a clergy member visits with the family at the location of death. The church assists the family with the preparation and planning of the funeral program. The church facilitates the funeral service and “sends” the deceased home with a celebratory worship experience. A procession journeys to the cemetery and the body is deposited back in the earth. The clergy member commits the body with the age old saying, “For as much as it has pleased Almighty God, in his wise providence, to take out of this world unto himself the soul of our deceased brother (sister), we therefore commit his(or her) body to the ground earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Following the internment of the body, everyone returns to the church fellowship hall for repast and fellowship and share memories of the deceased loved one.
After the funeral services, the bereaved are left to grieve by themselves. Lack of follow up and bereavement care hinders the church from providing effective ministry to the bereaved. Little to no information is provided to assist the bereaved loved ones in their journey through grief. They often travel this journey alone. No one considers how the bereaved person will feel when they return to the church where the funeral was held for worship on next Sunday. The bereaved drops off the radar and clergy and the congregation move on to the next death or crisis.
One of the clearly identifiable problems is clergy are not equipped with the necessary tools to lead congregants through a good death. Since a good death does not occur, the loved ones of the deceased more than likely will not experience good grief. A lack of a clear and concise theology of death and minimal exposure and training to pastoral care has handicapped clergy and their ability to facilitate good deaths. In order to facilitate a good death, tough and uncomfortable questions must be addressed to those who are dying and their family or caregivers. Most often clergy avoid asking these questions. Why does this occur? Does the clergy member know to ask these questions? Is the clergy member apprehensive or fearful regarding broaching the subject of death and dying?
My introduction to spiritual care for the dying took place in the crucible of trial by fire. As a young preacher, eighteen years old, my pastor was travelling and unable to be present at the bedside of a member who was actively dying. Green and untrained, this researcher entered into the hospital room of a patient hooked up to numerous machines with medical staff changing fluid bags and checking vitals. The family members and loved ones gathered around holding a vigil were scared and uncertain of the outcome. Uncertain of what to do, sacred scripture was read, prayer was offered, and encouragement was shared. By the grace of God, the visit was meaningful and comforting to the patient and family.
This is the plight of many clergy every day, untrained and uncertain how to provide spiritual care to the dying and bereaved. What are the symptoms of spiritual distress or anxiety? What should be the focus of the prayer? When someone is actively dying, is it theologically correct to ask God to heal them or ask God to help them accept whatever God’s will is for their lives? How does a person of faith reconcile faith with acceptance that God may not heal the patient? How important is ritual in the life of the patient?
What questions can be asked? What questions should be asked? Is it appropriate to inquire if the dying person has a will? Will the patient or the patients family members get offended if asked about life insurance or funeral arrangements? Does the patient desire to remain a “full code” or elect a “do not resuscitate (DNR)”? Does the patient have a need for confession or repentance? Is there a need for reconciliation with estranged family members or friends? Has the patient decided to have a funeral, get cremated, or donate their body to a medical college? Has the patient decided to elect hospice? If they have, do they want to remain at home, in a hospice in-patient unit (IPU) or a nursing home? Does the dying person have the support system to continue living at home or is it necessary for them to move to a nursing home? How does quality of life at the end of life look like for the patient? What does a dignified death look like for the patient? These and so many other questions bring a sense of discomfort to the clergy member, the patient, and family members but are very necessary to make the dying process as comfortable as possible.
When these questions are avoided or unanswered the results can range from severe anxiety to protracted and unhealthy grief for the patient and the family. Life changing events, in particular, the possibility of an imminent death causes spiritual assessment and reflection. The uncertainty of death evokes spiritual anxiety that usually results in the summoning of a spiritual leader. The spiritual presence and prayers that clergy provide at the bedside of the sick and dying are invaluable. The ministry of presence speaks volumes and evokes a sense of comfort that comes from a representative of the Divine.
 Edward Hiscox, The Star Book for Ministers, 2nd ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1994), 23.
Rev. Dr. C. A. White, Sr. attended American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated from Cincinnati Christian University, Cincinnati, Ohio with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biblical Studies with emphasis in Leadership and Ministry. He completed his Masters of Arts Degree in Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University and a Doctorate of Ministry from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio in 2016.
Dr. White has a passion for educating clergy and other pastoral care givers in providing care for the dying. He has done extensive research in the special needs that are presented in the context of ministering to those within the context of palliative care or hospice. He also has explored the connections between the hospice and the role of the church in the care of the dying
Dr. White is married and has two amazing children, Chelsey , 19 and Chad Jr. 13. He enjoys reading, golfing, and traveling.