One of the biggest surprises to me since being ordained ten years ago is that there are people who are willing to call me their minister even though they would never, ever step into a church. These are usually nice people who have either left the church for some reason, or have never experienced church or have never lived life as part of a worshipping community. I believe we all minister at times to people who call on us out of the blue and begin to tell us about the difficulties they are experiencing in life right now. Some will ask for help. Others just need a listening ear. And when possible I am willing to provide both without expecting any sort of return. Basically, that is the definition of Christian love. I suppose this is a big part of the reason people reach out to ministers. Plus it’s a safe bet that whatever is said to a minister will not be repeated, because to do so would be to betray confidences.
Ministers have connections too. Of course, we have that one most important connection. And that’s the one we rely on most often. A simple request for prayer is easy to accommodate. At times though, the need can be more difficult. Money might be an issue. The inability to purchase end of the month groceries for a young family after a job loss; the lack of health insurance and the need to visit a doctor; the need for a small sum with which to purchase an important medication and other requests like these are sadly common. Money is not something the churches I serve or know can easily provide. But, on occasion we have taken up a special collection for someone with a special need. Ministers are also generally familiar with assistance that is available through area nonprofits, though these resources run out more quickly lately.
And then there is the support needed when someone faces the loss of a loved one. A store-owner in the town where I live who had no church, had no support and called because a friend told him he would find talking with me helpful. The bond created by these meetings are quick and deep.
The question of protecting boundaries is important in dealing with these surprises. If I’m supposed to be having time away yet someone approaches with a need, I have to be able and willing to point that person in a direction where help will be available. While I might have it on my heart to “be the change”, it’s important to recognize when doing so will be a detriment to me and to those I serve.
In ministry there are surprises. But, honestly, from my own point of view the people who come to me with open faces and arms and hearts needing to share and trusting that they will not be turned away are as much a gift to me as I hope I might be to them.
There are some ministerial tasks that are surprising. Today I experienced one that is sadly all too common for ministers, but it isn’t something our teachers in seminary can easily teach us about.
I spent my morning at the home of a woman who lives near one of the churches I serve. Someone must have reported her to Adult Family Services. We’re not sure exactly how it is that Family Services became aware of her situation, but it’s a good thing they did. She’d received a warning in the mail. ‘Clean up the place or get out.’ And she didn’t know who to turn to so she came to us.
Now granted, her place is messy. And it would be less messy without the bird, but probably only a little less messy. Let’s just say the apartment is very full. And Family Services said they would and could send a cleaning crew on occasion if they could just get to the floor and surfaces (which we knew were there somewhere. We just had to find them.)
I know all this because I received a call from Mrs. Hartford, a Social Worker and a very nice lady. She said, “I’m calling about Helen”. (This is not her real name).
She didn’t have to tell me really, or even explain because I knew immediately why I was being called.
Helen is a ‘saver’. Yes. That is putting it mildly. I suspect that whenever anyone moves out of an apartment or house in the area, she is right there collecting what ever she can. Fortunately, four Saints from one of the churches I serve felt the same call I did to go over to Helen’s place to see if we could help out.
So we arrived in the morning with buckets, detergents, rags, vacuum cleaner, trash bags. We talked with Helen briefly, hoping she’d understand that we were just there to help. And then we prayed with her. I said to her, “You call the shots, Helen. We’re here for you. You’re the boss.” We asked lots of questions about each stack of linens, box of papers or object we handled, and we filled lots of garbage bags- not with garbage but with some of Helen’s precious stuff. It felt a little bit like we were removing a part of her. Her pain was tangible.
I believe we filled about twelve bags, mostly with clothing and linens, explaining that we’d take them with us, launder them and return them. As one of the saints moved toward the kitchen to gather up items we knew Helen could no longer use since she doesn’t ever cook or bake anymore, she became alarmed; understandably. It occurred to me that some of the stuff we were trying to remove was pretty nice but most of it was no longer useful to Helen. Or how many comforters does one person really need?
Helen is someone who loves to help other people. So I suggested we could take all the extra stuff and we could have a rummage sale at church. She’d be providing valuable goods for us to sell and then we could use that money to help the church help someone else! She liked this idea. She liked it a lot. And suddenly it was ok to throw items into the bag to go for the rummage sale. And it was ok to fill bags with linens and clothing to be laundered to either return to her next week or sell at the sale. And it was even ok to throw some things away. Helen has a very big heart. She always has. And it seemed like her mood changed. She felt as though SHE was doing something to be helpful to others.
We hadn’t planned on having a rummage sale at the church, but since we suggested to Helen that we would, well…. why not? Perhaps we can even put the money we earn into an account to use for her, to purchase a bed for her. She doesn’t have one. She’d probably like sleeping on a bed again.
What about the saints who accompanied me today; who reached out to help someone who needed to be cared for? They too are ‘accidental ministers’. It happens to the best of us. And the day was not at all what we expected. We worked really hard, barely making a dent in the job, but it was such a good and loving task for all of us. Most importantly, Helen was able to experience our presence and our concern for her.
We’re going back next Tuesday to give it another go.
About a year ago, the woman who had been office administrator at the church I serve was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and after surgery, brain cancer. She was given up to a year and a half to live. I was with her when she started to forget little details. I was with her when she was in the emergency room and learned of a large mass in her frontal lobe. I’ve sat with her in the office and at home talking about the past and what the future might be like.
As a minister I spend quite a bit of time with families dealing with death. I have loved getting to know families after a loved one has died as we sit down together to share stories in preparation for a service of remembrance. It’s a time that helps me get to know the one who has died better but I also get to know their families so much better too. It is sacred time. It’s harder though, journeying through that death with an entire family.
And this time it’s different. It’s harder. Denise was not just our office administrator. She is my friend. And I’ve walked this walk pretty closely with her. It’s been difficult. I can’t deny that, but it has also been an incredible gift, to journey toward death with someone who means so much to me. This experience, of course, has brought me closer to her husband, her daughter and her son. I’ve been given permission to step into their lives as they each deal with what is probably one of life’s most difficult situations~ caring for someone who slowly disappears as a devastating cancer takes over the brain.
About three months ago or maybe it was six~ the time has gotten away from me, we sat down together, Denise and I, and we started to plan her funeral, just the two of us. She wanted it simple, and not expensive. She insisted that there was no bigger waste of money than going all out for a funeral. I asked her if she wanted me to write her eulogy soon, so that I could read it to her before she died. She said yes, so I did that. She and Tom were both in the downstairs of their condo on the afternoon I arrived ready to read it to her. Tom looked a little stunned at first when I explained what I was doing, but once I started to read he seemed happy for being there. After I finished Denise looked at Tom and asked, “Are you crying, Tom?” Tom said that he was. I think that perhaps this experience helped the two of them. It may have opened a door that allowed them to communicate a little more openly about what was happening.
The hardest part is to begin the conversation about death and about dying. It can become the elephant in the room, and the people who most love the one who is dying can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that this person that they love so much is dying. I know this because when my mom was dying thirty years ago now, we never even mentioned the subject with her. I think that experience may be what has pushed me to become pretty good at being with people who are dying. It takes practice, I’m afraid.
Later, Tom told me that Denise had wondered to him what it would be like to die. He told her he thought it was probably just like falling asleep. You never know when it will happen. When you wake up you never remember what it was like to fall asleep~ you just go away for a little while. Death is like that, he told her, except that you don’t wake up again. But you don’t know that. He said he thought it made her feel better.