Unexpected minister

I’m going to a funeral (well, memorial service) today.

I don’t end up going to funerals very often. I’ve planned to go to funerals not infrequently—I’ve been a part of my worshiping community for over 20 years, so several of my church-friends have died—but somehow I never end up attending. This despite firmly believing that funerals are important occasions worth honoring well. My best guess is that the switching-cost is higher than my value for the ritual…but that’s not what I’m talking about today.

***

About, we’ll say, five years into my position as communications specialist at my church, my boss made me see a responsibility I hadn’t noticed I had.

Backing up a little: one part of my church’s communications is the printed newsletter. I would compile, lay out, edit, and print 600-some copies of our periodical, and then the manual labor began. A team of volunteers would arrive on the specified morning to fold, seal closed, and address (via sticker) each mailpiece. Since the newsletter averaged about 12 pages, the crease was no mean feat, and the US Postal Service was fussy about the sharpness of said crease.

DL handled the crease.

He was a sturdy man then, though mostly confined to a wheelchair due to complications from Type II diabetes. One lower leg and foot was gone; the other was profoundly swollen. But that had no impact on his ability to nail the crease, and flip that mailpiece down the table to his crony to seal. One of his other cronies handled the address labels. They would chat, and gossip, and laugh, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. Each month (we did this monthly then) I would bring them all the materials, plus a supply of fruit, cream cheese, and bagels
and then pretty much leave them alone.

I mean, I would chat a little… but the dominant flavor of their conversation was complaint, and I’m not good with that mode. (By “not good,” I mean “irritates the snot out of me and I might not be able to stay gracious.”) And part of what they enjoyed about each other was that they remembered far back into the life of our church, much farther than I had been able to experience.

I had nothing to contribute, and I felt extremely uncomfortable. Though they were nice enough to me. They did their thing; I did mine.

And then one day in our staff meeting we performed our periodic exercise of “reviewing the members.” I think my boss would feel an itch between his shoulder-blades and decide: today is the day we find out who’s been in touch with whom since when. He would grab a handful of printed directories (we did that then, too), scatter them across the big table, and we would start with Aardvark and go to Zzygy. The name announced, we would pipe up with our last-seen dates…some folk getting all the voices around the table, some with a couple, some with one or none. The nones got a special note, and the pastors would later make plans to contact each one. Church is a relationship enterprise; people join churches to be in relationship. Even if what they want are tenuous ones.

We got to DL’s family. I mentioned his most recent newsletter-crew day, commented that (as usual) I hadn’t seen his wife, though she’d dropped him off. I don’t recall now why we staffers were in a season of being especially mindful about ministry, but my boss turned to me and said:

You’re his minister. You are the face of our church to him, because you are the one he interacts with. He doesn’t come to worship; he no longer participates in leadership, or serves on any of our mission projects. The newsletter is his connection.

Me?? Youhavegottobekidding.

***

I don’t remember now whether that was before or after one of my crew had a sudden, catastrophic eye condition—a sort of eye aneurysm, as I recall—that left her essentially blind. It was a few years before the other crew-member confessed that, now that she was in her middle 90s, the work exhausted her and it wasn’t worth coming.

Regardless of how that tiny tight-knit community came unstitched, I’m grateful I was snapped into paying a different kind of attention to DL and the other members of my crew. I quit worrying about my outsider status. I will confess to shaping different, less complaining, conversations while I was with them…but it didn’t seem as if they minded. I could instead bring them stories of my daughters, whom they’d been watching grow since infancy.

And as new members of the crew came on board, and the dynamic shifted, I became the longest-tenured church member besides DL. That ministry, of “do you remember when?” was one that I happily shared until I stopped working there, and handed the ministry over to my successor.

I haven’t seen DL since, probably, 2014. I tried once or twice to catch the crew as I would leave my Monday morning class, but most of the time they’d long since finished their work and disappeared. And so time passes.

But as his minister from 2005-2013, I will bear witness at his memorial service. May he be racing once again.

And may I honor him henceforth by being a little quicker to realize when I’m the unexpected minister