There is a little saying that pastors use when we find ourselves facing a situation that is unexpected or requires a skill we don’t have. It is:
“They never taught me THAT in seminary!”
Seminary is the school a lot of us attend to train for vocational ministry. We learn a lot of important things about how to study the Bible, how to prepare sermons, and how to lead. I loved my time in Seminary, and I learned things that have been invaluable for me. But, of course, like any training, we always find ourselves facing things we couldn’t anticipate, which is when this handy saying comes in…
Pastor One: Today, I had to fill out a grant application and I had no idea how to do it.
Pastor Two: Well, they didn’t teach us that in seminary!
(Laughter, knowing nods, etc.)
Another example (ones like this are more common):
Pastor One: This week I was trying to help a family through a crisis when it came out the husband was having an affair with his wife’s best friend and now she is pregnant and they battled infertility so it is extra painful and it turns out the wife was also cheating but they want to work on it and also their oldest child just got admitted to hospital after a suicide attempt.
Pastor Two: They didn’t teach us THAT in seminary.
(Knowing nods, no laughter).
There have been lots of things that I didn’t learn in Seminary that I have faced over the last fifteen years, and I don’t hold it against my school. Ministry is unpredictable, and we could never learn how to do everything, whether that be learning how to balance a church budget or how to deal with a confrontational church member. But of all the things for which I wasn’t prepared, there is one that I truly didn’t expect.
What happens when people from your church die.
I don’t mean how to navigate the journey of dying and death. I learned how to provide pastoral care at the bedside of the dying. I learned how to lead a funeral. I learned basic grief counselling.
But what I didn’t learn was how it would feel when people died that I loved.
I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like to bury someone that had mattered to me.
I wasn’t prepared for the way I would have to learn to fight my own tears as I comforted a grieving family.
I wasn’t prepared for how my heart would ache as I buried someone who had attended my baby showers, who had sent me meals when I was sick, who had shared with me in ministry. That I would be burying people with whom I had inside jokes. That had encouraged me. That felt like family.
I didn’t realize I would have my own grief.
This summer we said good bye to a woman from our church that had been a support to me ever since I started at our church. She gave our kids gifts for Christmas and their birthdays. She took us out for pastoral appreciation month. She prayed for me EVERY DAY. She made me laugh.
A lot of people felt this way about her and so the week after her death was surrounded by grief for our whole church. And I knew my job – to lead people through it, to support them, to create a space to mourn and to celebrate her life. This, I could do. This, I have learned.
But the day before her funeral, I suddenly found myself flooded in tears. I sat down and cried and cried. I was getting ready to help others grieve, but I realized – I was grieving too. I had lost someone I loved. I was helping a community grieve even as I grieved myself, and that was complicated and beautiful and very real.
And, I admit, I thought to myself: “Nobody prepared for this!”
THEY DIDN’T TEACH ME THIS IN SEMINARY!
Nobody warned me what it would be like to love for years and years and then have to say good bye again and again.
Nobody gave me a heads up that some funerals it would take all my emotional energy to get myself through it.
Nobody told me that the longer I was in ministry, that the longer I served in a church, that each funeral would hurt more. That each time I would feel it more deeply. That I would feel the loss more acutely because I had had so much longer to love them.
Nobody told me that I would need to allow some TIME after funerals. That when I got home, and when I had taken off my funeral blazer and put the tray with the leftover triangle sandwiches in the fridge, that I would find that all I could do was collapse into my own loss, and ask God to heal my heart alongside all the others for which I was praying.
And, also, nobody told me – this would be good.
It hurts to lose people over and over. In a church, which is a family, there are all ages and all kinds of health situations. People will die. And it will hurt. It will hurt to have loved them.
But with that hurt comes one of the greatest honours of my ministry, the thing that is hard but somehow a great gift.
I get to bury people that I love.
I get to tell their stories.
I get to encourage the people they loved and that loved them.
I get to celebrate their goodness.
I get to share how God used them.
I get to honour people that I loved, in their death, with hope for their new life.
In Seminary, nobody told me how great that would be. That even though I would need to be sure my funeral blazer had a pocket for tissues, that I would never regret needing it. That loving would make the grief harder, but that I wouldn’t want to change it.
If you are new to ministry, I kind of want to warn you – with more time to love, comes more loss to grieve. It won’t be easy. And…
You won’t want it any other way.