Job Description for the Dying Pastor

This is an original post by Dale Goldsmith, co-author of Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death.

Dale Goldsmith (PhD, University of Chicago) taught for several years at McPherson College and at the Baptist Seminary of Mexico. He is the author of New Testament Ethics and lives in Amarillo, Texas.

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© Corliss Metcalf

When a pastor knows she or he is dying and wants to stay on the job, what should that job description look like?

If that question seems like it is irrelevant or a joke, I would suggest that if you have a dying pastor, it is a most relevant question. Admittedly, while my knowledge of employed but dying pastors is limited to about a dozen, every one of whom I know insisted on working right up to the end.

And in every case, their churches allowed and supported them. The tacit job description for the terminal leader was as follows:

Keep on doing whatever you want to do and can. The church will support you in your fight to recover, so you will not need to address any issues of dying. The church program and preaching should carry on as usual, and your (excuse the use of the term) dying need not be addressed in any way—not even in informing the mission, ministry, or teaching of the church.

The appalling result was that the pastors’ struggle with death never (with one exception) factored into the sermons or into improving or expanding the ministry of the church to address issues of dying.

In Speaking of Dying, we were told stories of ten Christian communities in which dying was happening before their very eyes, week in and week out (in one instance over a five-year period), and nobody seemed to notice it—or if they did, no one suggested that the congregation’s life of study and mission be informed by the first-hand experience that they were having with life’s final labors.

This is where the dysfunction of these churches found, if not its beginning, then at least its fertile ground. Churches ignored the dying part of the dying pastor and, in focusing on the pastor, lost focus of pretty much everything else. In Speaking of Dying we report some of the major catastrophes that befell these churches.

Dying and death are not topics that Christians can avoid; indeed, the resources accessible in the great treasures of the church give us both technique and content for addressing dying in the most helpful ways.

In addition to our christological, biblical, and ecclesiastical resources, a dying pastor’s experience gives practical resources to bring the congregation into the valley of the shadow of death in the most remarkable ways. For pastors with terminal illnesses who want to continue in ministry, their uninvited yet permanent guest need not instill the silence of terror or avoidance. Instead, pastors and their congregations—can offer the hospitality that leads to deeper understanding and appreciation of the guest.

As Dr. Craddock points out in his chapter on preaching on dying, the congregation can co-minister with the pastor as its members assume responsibility for acknowledging and discussing dying. The dying pastor and the caregiving congregation need not spend their final time together denying death. To the extent that all are open and honest, their fears and sorrows can be shared, and their ministry can reach out to all of the rest of us who can ignore but never evade life’s final moment.

The job description for the dying pastor can be a new covenant with the congregation:

We will support one another as we proclaim the gospel of Christ, the kingdom of God, and the strength of the Holy Spirit in these days of uncertainty.

I (the pastor) will, with God’s help and to the extent I am physically, mentally, and spiritually able, faithfully live my vocation as the pastor of this congregation:

attending to the priestly (administrative) duties of the church
giving care to the pastoral duties for those in need
committing to the prophetic (preaching, teaching) opportunities given to me

We (the congregation) will, with God’s help, support the pastor now compromised by a terminal illness by making ourselves available for those tasks for which we have the gifts and training and resources. We will be ever conscious that our covenant, while eternal in love, is contingent on the weakness of the flesh, and that the time will come when our working relationship as pastor and flock will terminate. This termination will be the result of our regular mutual conversations.

I (the pastor) accept this covenant and commit to it as long as I am able and according to the guidance of our mutual decision-making.

Facing dying with honest and commitment from all participants will surely result in a ministry full of hope for all.