Shepherding a Church through the Loss of a Shepherd
Over time, we pastors grow accustomed to going straight from labor and delivery to the hospice floor. At the end of a worship service, we learn to grieve with those broadsided by tragedy only to laugh a few minutes later with those who want to share something with us that was really funny. These are roles we are expected to play. And if we are not careful, we can play the part well simply because we have done it so many times.
Recently Patrick McGoldrick, a friend of mine who served with me as an elder and pastoral staff member, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He died the day after Christmas, barely a year after diagnosis. This was my friend, my brother, and my colleague. He moved to Detroit (imagine that) in order to serve in this church, never realizing that he would die here and leave his family to our care. We served together for over 12 years. My children spent many hours in his care in his home, on mission trips, on camping trips, and at retreats and conferences with him and his wife and kids. My son served in an internship directly under his care.
So, when Patrick was diagnosed with this disease, it seemed surreal, but not for long. It was real and I needed to think about how to shepherd a shepherd who is dying.
SHEPHERDING A DYING SHEPHERD
Paul Tripp addresses pastors’ temptation to allow the ministry to define our identity (Dangerous Calling, 21). It is also a temptation for pastors to view other pastors that way. Was Patrick my friend only because we served together? Did I care for him because he was able to make such a worthwhile contribution to the church? Or, did I really cherish him as a brother, no matter what he could or couldn’t do? If I ignored him now because he could no longer perform, then it would be clear that I was not treasuring the gospel and that the church was no different than any other corporate endeavor, and perhaps worse.
So, I determined not to let Patrick be isolated. He should not go home and wait to die. Instead, taking a cue from John Piper, I sat down with Patrick and talked with him about how not to waste his dying. He was already thinking in that vein. Out of that conversation and subsequent talks he decided to start a website in order to keep the congregation updated. I asked him to preach one last time before he lost that ability. I told him that he could stay on the staff as long as he wanted and that his office was his for as long as he desired. He was welcome to come to staff meetings, elder meetings, and anything else as much or little as he wanted. My goal in all of this was to treat him as he is: a brother in Christ, nothing less.
The disease advanced rapidly. As Patrick’s ability to speak, walk, type, and even whisper eroded away, I attempted to keep him informed of what was going on at the church. I informed him of what we were discussing among the staff or the elders. I asked for his opinions and relied upon his counsel. I began to weave in stories of how he had impacted the lives of people. On other occasions, I would just stop by his house to watch a football game.
SHEPHERDING A CHURCH THROUGH THE DEATH OF A SHEPHERD
As Patrick drew closer to the end, our talks became more direct. I prayed with him and read the Word to him, sometimes through tears. He was a pastor who needed a pastor, a brother who needed a brother. He was a friend and a co-laborer who allowed me into some of the most intimate parts of his life. He and his wife told me and my wife of his diagnosis before they told just about anyone else. And I was one of the last people he would see before he closed his eyes for the last time. It was a huge gift of trust that he gave to me, a gift I will cherish for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, I had a flock who were hurting as much as I was. I needed to consider how to shepherd a church through the death of a shepherd.
This I found challenging. It has been said that every church has a choice: we can be a bag of marbles or a bag of grapes. Marbles only affect each other when they happen to collide. No marble changes shape, color or design. No marble really affects the life of another marble, and it really does not matter if there are 149 or 150 marbles in the bag. What’s one marble? But a bag of grapes is different. When a bag of grapes are in that bag for a while, the skin begins to break down and the grapes themselves begin to mesh with each other until every grape becomes part of the whole. Eventually, you cannot tell where one grape ends and other begins. If you took one part out, you would take out a part of every grape that was originally placed in there.
Now, that sounds attractive until you realize that every grape that goes into the bag is rotten. The whole thing can end up being a stinking mess. Pastoral ministry is living inside this mess, as one of the stinking grapes.
There are few things in life that will put you under such relentless scrutiny like the ministry. People talk about you: what you wear, what car you drive, where you live, how your children behave—or don’t behave. People scrutinize your hair, weight, choices, habits, vacations, schooling decisions for your kids, and hobbies. There is no way you can please every single person. Neither can you handle every situation in a way that will keep you from disappointing someone or shield you from criticism.
When that truth eventually hits you, it can be devastating. Your inadequacies are displayed before what seems like the whole world. What is the natural reaction to that? Most people would want to run and hide. I do not want you to see my inadequacies and weaknesses. You do not want me or anyone else to see yours. So, instead of being a bag of grapes, we choose to be a bag of marbles.
How then is a shepherd supposed to die as part of the congregation? It is not easy to live in full view of the flock. Do we have to die that way too? How much information should be shared? Does everyone really need to know every detail? How can well-meaning but at times un-informed people provide care so that it truly is care? I determined to give the congregation opportunities to express care for Patrick while protecting him from an onslaught of visitors that would not be helpful. The nature of the disease and other factors are going to call for different responses. But for us here is what we did.
- Patrick and I announced his diagnosis to the church at the end of a morning service. We took an extended time that morning to inform the congregation, then to read the Word. On that day the words of 2 Corinthians 4:16, “So we do not lose heart,” were etched on our hearts. It would be a phrase that we would return to over and over in the coming months.
- As I mentioned earlier, Patrick preached a sermon before his ability to speak was completely gone. This afforded the congregation and many other friends an opportunity to see and hear from him in an extended period of time.
- With the help of his wife, Patrick started a blog to let people know of the daily aspects of his life, and of his hope in Christ. Both the sermon and the blog became wonderful resources for people to share with unbelievers.
- Because Patrick had been our Student Ministries Pastor, on the Sunday when we would normally honor our high school graduates we had a student from every graduating class that had been under his care stand in order of their year of graduation. We had prepared a runner’s baton with the words of Hebrews 12:1-2 engraved on it. The graduate from last year took the baton from the current class and handed it to the representative from the next who handed it to the next until all of the classes were covered. At the hand-off each said to the other, “Press on, pilgrim,” until the last one handed it to Patrick and admonished him to “Press on” as well.
- Patrick, his wife, and I pre-planned his funeral service. We covered every detail that we could think of ahead of time so that when he died, we were able to put the plan into place.
- When Patrick died, I interrupted my series and preached the next two Sundays from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. I did not want to waste his dying, nor his death.
This whole situation was made even more complicated by the fact that Patrick was a staff pastor, in the employ of the church. So what does a church with a dying pastor do about the logistical details like salary, health insurance, and all of the additional expenses? Our church budget, like many others, affords little wiggle room. On the one hand, you cannot cut a brother off financially, and yet how can you hire someone to serve in the now-unfilled ministry capacity when you do not have extra funds? Thankfully, we were spared some of that angst because several years ago our finance team took out a disability policy on the pastoral staff members. This proved to be extremely helpful. While it did not cover all of Patrick’s salary during the time of his illness, it covered a lot, and the church made up the difference as a gift. This enabled us to care for Patrick and his family and replace the position on staff at a reasonable time.
But even so, we found out that the level of detail we had to provide insurance companies could be exhausting. So, we had to learn very quickly to put things in writing not only for them but for us. If we made a commitment to “take care of that” we needed to write it down so that we all knew exactly what we were talking about and so that there were no hidden assumptions.
SHARING IN CHRIST’S SUFFERINGS
Ministering to my friend allowed me to experience a depth of pastoral care that I believe was helpful to him and satisfying to me. To get that close to someone is not only an opportunity to show them Christ, it is an opportunity to know Christ and to share more fully in his sufferings. It was also a much-needed reminder of the personal care that every member of the flock needs.