It’s been awhile since I was first asked, “How did you come to decide to specialize in death?” As though it were a career-building decision. Perhaps the best way to explain would be to consider the alternatives I have faced.
As one set of alternatives, some have suggested their own, similar, epithets: “Pastor Death,” or even “Doctor Death” (and that long before I was even enrolled in a doctoral program). Given that “Dr. Death” has referred to both Josef Mengele (for whom concentration camps provided subjects of his scientific research) and Jack Kevorkian (a former physician, convicted murderer, and proponent of physician-assisted suicide), I wanted no confusion over my stance regarding death.
Likewise, others are sometimes confused regarding my overlapping roles as pastor, counselor, educator, and chaplain for several organizations, not least of which is Mayers Memorial Hospital District/Intermountain Hospice. Imagine yourself waking up one morning in the hospital, waiting patiently for the doctor to come and explain what they’ve learned from your test results. But after the nurses and the dietary staff and the others who wander in and out of your room, my face appears at your doorway…with a name tag beneath it: Hospice Chaplain. Your first thoughts might reasonably jump to some grave conclusions. I’m usually there because a family or friend has asked me to check in on a patient. And I do take off the tag if it’s not a Hospice patient I’m seeing. But a good portion of the relatively small population in our area recognize me as Hospice Chaplain, nametag or not. So, the confusion is understandable.
As for the consequence of being known as Death Pastor, the other set of alternatives is of far greater motivation to me. As with all the other pastors I know, there was no training prior to entering ministry (and there is still precious little in Bible colleges and seminaries) on what to do when you receive that first call as a pastor, “Could you come right away? The family asked us to call their pastor. They only have a short-time left.” The first time I was called to minister to a family after the death of a loved one, the only relevant resource on my shelves simply scripted the orders of service for several types of funerals with the only variable being “Insert Deceased’s Name Here.” Whether in their bereavement (having experienced a significant loss) or the process of dying, I determined early on that those I was called to serve deserved better care than I had been trained to give.
In the intervening years, through divine appointments and open doors of opportunity for serving a variety of individuals and families, I have not only sought out training, but have developed training through seminars, workshops, and now through seminary courses designed to equip pastors and other servants how, why, where, when, and what to do for the bereaved and the dying. Most congregations do fine without any specialists on their staff. The majority of American churches are served by solo pastors (or less than solo, in the case of multi-vocational and circuit-riding pastors). Some churches may be privileged to add a Youth Pastor, and/or a Children’s Pastor, and/or a Seniors Pastor, and/or an Executive Pastor, or any number of others with an ever more narrowing ministry focus. Despite the fact that, should the Lord tarry, 100% of the members of the average congregation will die¸ however, I would argue that no congregation really needs to hire a Death Pastor.
But every pastor needs to have an understanding of “Thanatology” (the study of death, dying, bereavement, grief, and mourning), and to know what to say and do when they receive those calls. All that I’ve experienced, studied, researched, and applied, I want to share with those who can provide immediate, hands-on, face-to-face, life-on-life care for the bereaved and dying (and that’s all of us, really) in their communities. So, you can call me Death Pastor.