The gift of a ministry of presence

It was impossible to go to all of the breakout sessions at the CBF General Assembly in June. Because of this, my wife and I chose sessions that would be most applicable to us as a pastoral couple getting ready to start our second year in the pastorate in a small North Carolina Baptist church. One such session I attended was titled “Setting Deacons Free.” Meanwhile my wife attended a session on grief ministry. Little did we realize how much these two sessions would work together to help us come to a better understanding of ministry in general.We also did not realize that we would get as much out of them personally as we did for our church.

My session explored the difficulties of the “family deacon ministry plan” which requires all deacons to provide everything a family needs in times of crisis and times of celebration. The problem is that not every deacon is gifted in bereavement, hospital visitation, physical labor, and ministry in transitions, among other ministries that deacons are called on to do. Even pastors struggle to fulfill all of these responsibilities well. While Tom Stocks was speaking, he relayed a story of how a deacon approached a young couple after having a stillborn child and told them not to worry because they “could have another child.” Not only did this story remind me of the need to let deacons serve where they are gifted, it reminded me of a very personal situation in which very similar words were spoken to my wife and I:

I awoke one January night, shortly after our first anniversary, to the sound of my wife rushing out of the bed to the bathroom. The sight and smell punched me in the gut telling me something was seriously wrong.

Just a few weeks before, my wife’s face was adorned with the biggest smile that I had ever seen. She handed me a card telling me that I would soon be a daddy. Our immeasurable joy was short-lived.

The 40-minute drive to the local hospital was a nightmare. I drove my frightened young bride to the ER while she sat shivering in pain in the seat beside me. She was physically in shock. I was afraid.

Fearing the worst, my dreams were quickly fading away with each minute that passed. I was worried about my unborn baby, but more than that I was worried for my wife. My mind raced in so many directions. What if she was hemorrhaging? What if I lost both this tiny life as well as my wife?

No answers came. No answers would come. There are no answers when mortality rears its ugly face.

We arrived at the hospital waiting room. Every staff member in the hospital wanted to separate us, we wanted nothing less than to be together.

We were brought back for an ultrasound and saw what looked to be the image of a baby. I sat in silence. She sat in stillness. We sat in despair.

The only thing that broke the silence was a female nurse coming in with a deep commanding voice, saying, “the baby died.” There was no inflection of compassion in her voice. Once again they separated us.

I sat in the waiting room with a close friend we called prior to leaving our apartment. My wife sat all alone. Alone. I wondered why I could not go back. I pleaded with the nurses to let me join my wife. She wondered why I wasn’t there. If the decision was mine, I never would have left.

She awoke in the hospital room. I was there holding her hand, but the medication kept her from noticing. Even with my wife now in the room, I felt alone. The inner questions I was now asking, still had no answers. What do I do now? How do I care for my emotionally wounded wife? How do I gain access to my emotions through the abundance of tears I was crying?

Even the seemingly, well-intentioned, people offered hasty comments. “You are still young.” “You can have another baby.” “At least you know everything works.” I wish that I hadn’t been so overly religious back then. Religion did just as much to hurt as it did to help.

Have faith that this was God’s will, I told myself. I will let God take away my tears. I will see my baby one day.

That is the reality of miscarriages. You never get to hold your baby. A part of you will always be missing. A part of your heart will always be broken.

We sat in church service the next Sunday on the back row pew, an unfamiliar spot for any minister, to hear the words, “How sweet to hold a newborn baby and feel the pride and joy he gives…” My wife left the room and no one followed her. I felt guilty for not trying to let those words sink in.

Even though many said the wrong thing, there were a few that came and said the right thing. Nothing. There are no words to fill in the empty gaps in one’s life when someone is faced with tragedy. The message of silence acknowledges the void felt in one’s heart when they experience loss.

I have overwhelmingly realized that God is not one to prematurely eradicate grief in my life, but to sit with me through periods of grief in order to fill in only the spaces and cracks that I invite Him in.

Those who have experienced a miscarriage do not need to be placated by empty words or false hopes. No one is capable of bringing the miscarried baby back to life, so one should not try to rescue others out of the grieving process or to ignore the loss altogether.

I thought that God had taken away my tears. The quick announcement of Kim being once again pregnant was the perfect anesthetic to get through Father’s Day. Our due date for our miscarriage came and went like the date was not allowed on my calendar.

My wife gave birth to our beautiful daughter in December and one month later, the anniversary of our miscarriage passed without words being spoken between my wife and I.

Time kept ticking and years passed before the subject of our miscarriage was ever approached. My wife and I began the conversation, believe it or not, nine years after it happened. Each of us had been waiting for the other one to make the first move.

We decided that we wanted to name the baby we lost. Not knowing whether our baby was a boy or a girl, we chose the name Selah Josiah, meaning, “rest, for God is my salvation.”

Grieving a loss is such a difficult process, one that requires grace and understanding because none of us are perfect. In fact, we are all perfectly flawed at grieving. For us, it required boldness and vulnerability to address this loss in our life so long after the fact.

Well-intentioned family, friends, church members, deacons, and even ministers can halt the grieving process in someone’s life when tragedy happens. The ministry of presence speaks the loudest even when no words are spoken. This is a task that pastors are incapable of doing alone. That is why we all need a community around us, each exercising their own gifts.

In the session my wife attended it was discussed how ministry is not about asking, “Is there anything I can do for you?” or “How are you doing?” These questions are often asked without thought or meaning by people who have no intention to be present or really listen for the answers. Ministry says, “What do you need?” Ministry says, “I know you are hurting, and it is okay, you are not alone.” Ministry responds by providing multiple meals that are well choreographed, physical labor that keeps the yard clean and the car washed, an active prayer ministry that is engaged in intercession, offering to pick people up from the airport or bus terminal, and offering to stay in the house of the people needing to go to the funeral home to field calls and visitors that may arrive, is most valuable to the family and to the life of the church.

It is essential to realize that the funeral is not the end of the grieving process. For the first year after a person’s death, the family is exceptionally vulnerable to constant reminders of the person’s life including: their birthday, major holidays, anniversaries, and major life events such as weddings, births, or graduations in their families or the church community. A phone call, a card, or an understanding word can go a long way in acknowledging that tears are okay, as well as happiness. We all grieve. The truth is if you love, you will experience loss. May the way that we respond well to others when they experience grief be the way that we are treated when we are confronted with our own losses.

Brian Miller

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Brian Miller is the pastor at Richfield Baptist Church in Richfield, NC. He is a recent Master of Divinity graduate of Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, NC.

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