If I could teach pastors one thing from the point of view of people in the pews it would be to remember that what clergy do and say is not – and should not be – about them.
Rather their work is about others, and thus requires an enormous commitment to the Benedictine virtue of humility.
This first became glaringly clear to me 25 or so years ago when one of my former pastors came back to town to eulogize one of his close friends, who was also clergy. The eulogy was all about the man giving it, not about the deceased. It was terrible to sit through, and made me angry.
More recently, I heard a pastor offer an unnecessary and far-too-long homily at a funeral service where a homily already had been given by a guest preacher.
Worse, her unasked-for and repetitious remarks were mostly about her and not about the woman whose life we were there to honor. Still worse, she took the opportunity to mention to the nearly 500 people in attendance that she has a life partner of the same sex.
As my regular readers know, I’ve long favored the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. So my distress at hearing words about this woman’s domestic partner had nothing to do with opposition to gay clergy.
It was just that there was no reason to raise the matter in this context, especially in front of so many guests who were not members of that congregation or the denomination of which it is a part.
Especially at such life-event times as baptisms, weddings and funerals, the question clergy need to ask is this: “What is the most loving thing I can do to meet the needs of this family in this situation?”
Generally that will not require the pastor to tell lengthy stories about suffering when her own mother died or about how his first marriage ended in failure. Personal stories can work well in sermons, but especially at special services they must be at the service of a greater good.
Similarly, a local church’s own tradition of doing this or that at funerals and weddings may be rich and helpful, but there simply must be flexibility to meet the special needs and requests of the families involved – so long, of course, as those requests don’t violate the essential tenets of the faith.
Clergy who insist on their own way violate the Apostle Paul’s very definition of love, and when they continue to insist on doing things exactly their way, they drive away the very people who have opened themselves up to the possibility of hearing the Gospel.
Even car sales people know that if someone is wandering the showroom floor checking out the stock, you don’t move them into an office cubicle so you can get out catalogs and pitch them on some particular model. That’s not radical hospitality.
When a family is grieving a death or is full of both trepidation and joy over an impending wedding, the job of the clergy is to be a healing presence, not the source of self-referential anecdotes.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.