One of my seminary professors, who also serves as a United Methodist minister, told my church leadership class not to fear funerals.
We had discussed many of the fears that come with entering our first churches: being compared to the last pastor, wondering how many keys to the parsonage were floating around town, choosing a hymn not in the old Cokesbury hymnal. The women in the class didn't hesitate to ask the female professor about a fear especially present with us: how will a congregation respond to a female pastor, especially the first woman in that role?
She quickly responded, "Just wait till you preach your first funeral."
We exchanged glances. Was she telling us not to fear funerals, particularly our first funeral in a strange, new land among likely strangers?
She sensed our confusion. "With your first funeral, the people will be able to see how much you care. It won't matter if you are a man or a woman. What will matter is that you love them at a very difficult time."
Eleven years and many funerals later (I quit counting after officiating at 40 funerals in my first five years of ministry), her words still ring true. As the poet in the Song of Songs declares, "love is stronger than death." Everyday fears and preferences give way to the priority of the loving care that shepherds must extend to the flocks.
What has surprised me in the best way is how God has used one funeral at a time not only to comfort those who are grieving but to open people's minds to how God is working in the world. I've been blessed in that I have only rarely met resistance because I am a woman serving as pastor. Those few instances of resistance came not from United Methodists but from persons belonging to other denominations.
However, I have sisters in ministry whose roads have been much rockier. People have made comments to them that lower the glass ceiling with each word. They do not feel respected as spiritual authorities even within denominations that ordain women.
Because we need one another's encouragement, I believe it is important to tell stories of how God surprises us with people's open mindedness to the kingdom. Not only do ministers need to hear of the walls of separation coming down, but all of us in various vocations need to celebrate stories of unity, stories where God surprises us and knocks down the stereotypes we've built within our own minds.
My two most recent surprises occurred at funerals. At the first funeral, I was to co-officiate with a Southern Baptist minister whom I had only briefly met. I went into the service with a bit of "armor" on. I didn't want to be blindsided if he voiced a disagreement about women in the ministry.
During the visitation, he came and stood in front of me. He looked me in the eye. I took a deep breath, prepared for a theological dissertation.
"I am not in charge here. We are colleagues. We are a team. We are in this together to comfort this family. I am grateful to work with you today."
The armor fell from my shoulders as I looked into the kind eyes of this stranger who had now become my colleague. I thanked him and told him it was an honor, indeed, to work with him, too.
At the second funeral, a member of the deceased's family, whom I had only met before the service, approached me at after the service. He shook my hand and said, "I am a Baptist. And you can come preach at the Baptist church any time."
Funerals are appropriately called "Services of Death and Resurrection" in The United Methodist Church. We not only mourn the death and celebrate the resurrection of an individual child of God. We also witness the death of mindsets as we experience resurrection of new perspectives. In both of those instances, I recognized a stereotype I had developed due to a few negative experiences: the assumption that Southern Baptists would not respect a woman in ministry. These two gentlemen, with very few words, brought down my assumptions and raised up hope that I now extend to my fellow clergywomen.
Though we may disagree on various issues, let us remember and encourage each other with what we hold in common: that Christ is making us new each day. To what might God be opening your heart and mind today?
all good things to each of you,