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I’ve been to more funerals and memorial services than I originally planned. Before becoming a youth minister the majority of funerals I had attended were for very old family members and people that I had little to no emotional attachment. It was easy to deal with the emotions because I had little to do with the emotions of others. Maybe it was consoling a sibling, a parent or a friend, but it was manageable. The first funeral I experienced as a youth worker was more than overwhelming. I did not know my place, my role nor did I know what was expected of me. Because of this lack of experience and wisdom I became an observer. While the funeral and services leading up to it were beautiful and faith filled, I failed to minister to any teens that might have been affected. I failed to show the family that the young church really did care about the loss of their child.
I don’t know if it’s possible to perfect the death/memorial/funeral area of youth ministry. It would be morbid to think that someone has; however, there are steps we an take to handle this fragile situation. As a youth ministry we need to be present to the family, the teens in your ministry and the overall community. When you think about it, it is overwhelming; however, by being available we can create an environment where people can lean on God and His church.
Therefore, to prepare you need to make sure you:
- Have A Loose Plan In Place – You’ll never have the perfect plan because death is so personal; however, having a loose one in place is better than none at all. For us it’s to 1) Notify Leaders, 2) Contact Family And Offer Availability, 3) Gain Info On Community Impact. Again, it’s not detailed because one person is going to have a different impact on the community than another. You also might find that the family wants privacy, and wishes only for your prayers.
- Lean In No Matter How Hard – There might be fear of not knowing what to do and I get it, death isn’t something always on our minds. In these times it’s important to just lean into God, sit in prayer and allow Him to guide you through the process. If death is difficult lean into someone like a fellow youth worker who has dealt with these situations. When we lean in we also show the family and community that we are present in the chaos and as advocates for Christ, so is God.
- Gauge The Community – If it’s the death of a teen chances are it will hit your community hard. If it’s the death of a parent it’s going to be more personal to some teens than others. Use your leaders to help you get a sense of how others are feeling. You want to make sure you are available; however, not overwhelming. When it comes to death some of us need the comfort of others; however, some just need to be alone with our thoughts and God.
- Follow Up As Time Passes – During the days leading up to the funeral the family will be surrounded with loved ones, neighbors and friends. If there is a wake or a memorial service it’ll bring people in from around the community. However, there is a period of mourning that happens days, weeks, months and years after we say goodbye. Not that we can check in on every person affected; however, it’s important for us to find time to follow up, especially if we notice the behavior of a student changing.
The best way to prepare for death in your ministry is by creating an environment filled with strong relationships. The more positive relationships we can surround our teens with the more we can rely on the strength of one another to walk through these dark and difficult times. You can also prepare by incorporating message series focused on death, heaven, hell and the after life. Giving wisdom and knowledge to our teens is a more proactive and can serve useful in the future. Lastly, do not beat yourself up over a missed opportunity; but, treat each situation as a learning experience.
How do you handle death in your ministry?