Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Writing Condolence to Clergy

My husband and I know a lot of clergy and, just like the rest of us, they experience deaths in their family. We sympathize with their losses and have even traveled out of state for funerals. Contemplating a condolence note however, elicits a pause in the best of letter writers.

It is natural to feel hesitant or even intimidated, thinking:

  • They're an expert on counsel and comfort
  • What can I say that they don't already know
  • They have a deeper wisdom and inner strength
  • What if I say something that doesn't fit with their doctrine of beliefs
  • I am not a member of their church
  • I do not follow or practice their religion
  • Maybe my note would be an invasion of privacy
  • I didn't know their family
Mt. Hope 
Congregational Church
The Condolence Coach posed these hesitations to Rev. Dr. Steven B. Schafer, pastor of Mt. Hope Congregational Church in Livonia, Michigan. Rev. Schafer is the author of Funerals for Strangers, A Resource of Compassionate Care for Those Who Grieve. He has officiated at hundreds of funerals for families who do not have a church affiliation, but still want a prayerful and spiritually uplifting service for their loved one. Rev. Schafer meets with each family, attentively gathering a rich profile of the deceased's life in order to craft a heartwarming eulogy.  

Rev. Schafer cautioned that he "can't speak for all clergy," but I think his remarks will deepen your commitment to condolence writing.

We hesitate to write to clergy because...


1. You're an expert on counsel and comfort; what can I say that you don't already know?

Rev. Schafer: You can't say anything they don't already know, but that is true for everyone we might want to express sympathy to. We all know the "pat answers." 

2. You have a deeper wisdom and inner strength.

Rev. Schafer: Pastors are just as human as anyone else and feelings run just as deep. Yes, the inner strength may be a bit deeper, yet when grief comes, that often fades away and we are as vulnerable as anyone else. We've learned to put a distance between ourselves and the deaths we face in our congregations simply because that is expected and called for. When we lose someone we love, though, we hurt as deeply as anyone else. We cannot put those emotions on hold, nor should we.

Sarah Klockars-Clauser

3. What if I say something that doesn't fit with your doctrine of beliefs?

Rev. Schafer: Don't worry about our doctrine in times of crisis. We've had people hold differing positions from our own all our professional lives and unless it is heresy we just let it go in times like this. 
Don't say: "At least he's in a better place." Theologically a minister may not believe that to be the case and we don't want to discuss that with sympathizers. Unless the deceased is a person of faith, you'll never hear a minister using that phrase. 
Don't say: "It was God's will." Yes, we believe God is sovereign but that isn't the same as God's will always being done. We've seen God's will thwarted often in our lives and ministries. 
Say something like: "I'm so glad his suffering is over," or "It must have been so hard these past few months, watching him struggle," or "It must be difficult to imagine life without him now." These express empathy without stepping into theology.

4. I am not a member of your church.

Rev. Schafer:  Not a member of my church? Wonderful! I need an "outsider" to minister to me. My own flock are the people I minister to - even when I am, myself, in grief. If someone else loves me enough to express sympathy they are ALWAYS welcome.

5.  I do not follow or practice your religion.

Rev. Schafer: Different religion? Again, I appreciate having an "outsider" care about my feelings and situation. Don't pretend you know all that I believe. Just be there. Say you are sorry for my loss. Give me a hug. 

6.  Would my note be an invasion of privacy?

Rev. Schafer: A written note is NEVER an invasion of privacy - unless you expect a reply.

The Condolence Coach:  Rev. Schafer has a quick wit, but there is truth in what he says. A condolence note is not an 'exchange.' Your note is a gift that requires no thank-you from the bereaved.    

7.  I didn't know your family member.

The Condolence Coach:  That is never an excuse from writing. See my suggestions in the steps listed below.

5 steps for your note to grieving clergy 

  1. Use simple stationery or a card with a simple design. If there is a printed message on a card, it should be brief and kind but not syrupy.
  2. Find out and use the name of the deceased: it's okay to ask the person you are writing to, "what is your mother's name?" Your goal to recognize the humanity of clergy can be achieved by commenting on the relationship (mother, father, sibling, grandparent...) and sharing a parallel experience if you have had that loss.
  3. In addition to the sentiments suggested by Rev. Schafer, the Condolence Coach offers Keys To Comfort expressions such as: "I hope you are having a chance to share stories and memories with others in the family," and "many people are probably thinking about ______, and how she touched their lives."  
  4. Your note can improve its ranking as 'memorable' by using these Keys to Comfort: Sharing a personal memory and/or Appreciation for survivor's (the clergy you are addressing) personal qualities.  
  5. Don't over-think it, but a simple closing should mirror your familiarity with the clergy person: 'Sincerely' or 'Take Care' is always appropriate. Writing to your own minister or church staff invites deeper feeling such as 'Keeping you in my prayers,' or 'May God bless and comfort you.'
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