One of the challenging aspects to a long pastoral tenure within a community is that one forms very close relationships. This is also one of the great advantages to a long pastoral tenure, of course, but the downside becomes apparent as well when it is time for funerals, and for the annual observation of All Saints/All Souls. You see, in the olden days of my denomination (your humble blogger is a United Methodist) you could count on 2-4 years in a congregation before being moved on to greener pastures. I won’t bore you with the many advantages and disadvantages of that arrangement, except to point out that one never had to bury a close friend in those days.
Not so today. And never so for most Christian denominations, where the value of longer pastoral tenures was never eclipsed by other concerns, as it was in the denominations of the Methodist movement. Today we bury people we have known for years and years, and we remember them on All Saints/All Souls. This is a challenge to those of us who prefer not to exhibit strong emotions in public. Sometimes we can stiffen our upper lips and soldier on in the face of personal grief, allowing our sense of responsibility to the larger community to help us suppress our emotions until we are alone. But sometimes not. Sometimes the chest constricts, the throat thickens, the voice (even if nothing else) betrays that we are not superheroes of resurrection faith, but rather humans, as prone to sorrow and tears as any other.
In 2009, Kathryn Barba Pierce reminded readers of Homily Service that mere humanity, and a tendency to tears in the face of grief, is a trait that we worship leaders share with Jesus.
Rather than being the stoic Lord, which is what Mary called him, he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He allowed the experience and pain of Mary to touch him, to change him, to bother him. And in response, he wept too. He didn’t feel like he had to stifle his emotion or his pain, whether it was his own feelings of loss or his empathy with Mary. He let himself feel the pain of death, even while knowing that he held the keys to the end of death, even while knowing he had the power to raise this dead man up from death. We see, yet again, his humanity and his divinity playing out in this amazing and compelling story, and we are humbled. We are humbled by the very real and raw emotion found here in this story of life and death.When we celebrate All Saints/All Souls, … Tears may fall. Tears may be, and most of the time are, a part of this celebration of life and death. Tears are okay, even for pastoral leaders. Tears are full of humility and full of grace, and we need both.
What are your thoughts on the appropriateness of liturgical leaders exhibiting obvious emotion? So you try to reign it in, or do you just go right ahead? When you are a member of the congregation rather than a leader, are you comforted or discomfited by a display of emotion in liturgical leaders?
Kathy Barba Pierce. “1-2 November 2009; All Saints; All Souls.” Homily Service 42:4, 104-5.
Kathy Barba Pierce is Associate Pastor for Adult Education and Spiritual Formation at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Highpoint, North Carolina.