Every pastor knows what it’s like to be asked to do a funeral for someone who does not attend your church. Most of us have plenty of weddings, funerals, hospital visits, counseling sessions, conflict resolution meetings, “I’m concerned about the church” sessions, staff challenges, etc. that sap our emotional strength. Our schedules are already committed to people who attend the church, let alone those who don’t. So, finding the time and the emotional resources for authentic empathy in yet another emotionally draining encounter can be difficult.
It’s understandable. As pastors, we are frail beings with our own human limitations and emotional boundaries are essential. Certainly Jesus possessed them. In one example in Luke 7, shortly after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus enters Capernaum. Here, he has mercy and heals a centurion’s servant. Then, he witnesses a widow in a funeral procession for her only son. Luke tells us, “When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her...” (Luke 7:13). The phrase “he felt compassion for her” could be rendered “his heart went out to her”. In the evening after these events, Jesus is invited to dine at a Pharisee’s home. Yet again, he shows mercy to a broken, emotionally-needy woman who falls at his feet in tears. But also at the very same occasion, Jesus confronts his host, Simon the Pharisee, for his lack of mercy and hs hardness of heart.
In amazing fashion, Jesus could give his heart to those in need, choose not to meet every need that he encountered, and then in yet another moment protect his heart from ruthless people (religious leaders) who sought to wound it. How did he do this? It was only through his ongoing intimacy with the Father. Those moments of relationship with his Father allowed Jesus an emotional capacity to give and to withhold— with the ability to choose yes, no or not now.
In response to the demands we face in ministry, many of us draw clear boundaries about what we will do and not do in ministry. We make strict rules about our use of time and in general these rules serve us well. This “margin” allows us to continue healthy in ministry, and stave off burnout and inauthenticity in our care for others. However, if we are to remain sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s prompting (which we must be), there are rare times when rules should be broken as led by God.
I remember a time just a few years ago that a woman left a message at the church office requesting that I perform the upcoming funeral for her mother. Her mother had not yet died, but was in her last days in the hospital. The woman who called had attended the church maybe 2-3 times in a period over ten years. She and her family were believers, but had difficulty making time for church and understanding the priority of it for living. They were simply “that family” we all know about as pastors. Obviously, this is one you say no to.
Yet, the situation was not completely stereotypical. Five years ago her husband was diagnosed with ALS. I’ll never forget that meeting in my office when they told me this news. This man’s heart was broken knowing that he would be leaving this earth and leaving his family behind. Back then he had a two-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. “I know I’m going to heaven, but leaving my family is more than I can bare”, he said. He wept and wailed in my office with such grief as I had never seen.
ALS is the most heart-breaking kind of disease that I have witnessed in over 25 years of pastoring. The deterioration of the body (slowly losing all control of muscles and the ability to speak) while at the same the mind being fully in tact, is particularly gruesome.
Back then, I gathered some men of our church and told them the story. We all felt a calling to minister to this family. Since they were a family with a very modest income, we devised a plan to remodel their home in a way to help them deal with the illness. Our men entirely replaced the bathroom equipping it with handicap designed shower, tub and toilet. We tiled floors in the kitchen and bathroom and replaced carpet. We widened the doors of the home so that a wheelchair could move through the home. We replaced cabinets, painted, cleaned and repaired just about everything. It was a labor of love that truly reflected the heart of God and brought these men together in special way.
I witnessed this man’s demise over 18 months. I was with him just a few hours before his death and then performed his funeral. I had some phone conversations with his wife afterwards when I would check to see how she and the kids were doing. But within a few short months, I did not see or hear from her again until she called the church that day of the request for her mother’s funeral.
Despite the shared pain and experience of five years before, when I received the message that she called I automatically went to my default boundary mode: “This is not something I have time for.” I had not even seen her for years and honestly I was disappointed that after all our church had done, she was absent. (I know… not the best thought in the world, but an honest one that I think most pastors have had).
Thankfully God interrupted my thoughts and plans. I felt convicted to do the funeral and in the end, I believe it was the right call under God.
In this instance I was able to find in my heart a desire to minister and do the funeral. Not a “have to”, but a “want to”. And not an obligation because of her husband, but just a genuine desire to help. In another context, I might say no and that would be the right decision for that specific instance.
I’m not saying I’m super spiritual or altruistic. I’m saying the exact opposite! I’m naturally a task-oriented person and I don’t like interruptions. Which is probably why God brings them to me!
In fact, I remember one time driving in my car, in a hurry and late for a meeting. I’m at a red light and all of the sudden a funeral procession crosses in front of me. A large, long one. The light turns green, but car after car keeps coming. I think to myself, “Of all the days for a funeral in front of me!” Then, great conviction came over me. Did I have a single thought about this family and set of friends who had just lost a loved one? Did I have any compassion for a grieving wife, husband, son or daughter? No. Quite different from when Jesus witnessed that funeral in Luke 7, huh?
My point is that we need to hear from God despite boundaries, schedules, demands, and even past negative experiences. There are moments, as we tell our people, when God interrupts our lives and prompts us to do something beyond our natural schedule, rules and to-do list. That’s living a life of faith and we need to practice it as pastors too. Because if we’re not careful, demands for constant care can lead to callousness of heart. Where we see objects, not people. Where we forget why we got into ministry in the first place—to serve. Let’s not allow that to happen. Let’s not let a good thing like boundaries lead us away from the prompting of God’s Spirit. Say yes and say no, say them confidently, but do them both in faith.