Survival mode

Sometimes, in this vocation, I have to go forward in survival mode. What I mean by that is that there are periods of time when only the essential tasks get done. We plan worship and get out the bulletins and notices and update the web site. We make sure the building is open and conduct the required meetings to keep the institution healthy, but there is little or no time for creative thinking, planning ahead or crafting vision. This is a survival mode week. We have two funerals in our church this week and a third that deeply affects our church. My time has been focused on caring for families in the midst of grief. Grief care is something that the church does very well and I’m pleased that the congregation understands the importance of this work.

Meanwhile there are things that get put on the back burner or delayed until after those essentials are addressed. And this week, the weather hasn’t exactly cooperated. It isn’t all that uncommon for us to cancel evening meetings in February. We are used to icy roads and slippery conditions. Yesterday’s blustery weather resulted in our cancelling things earlier in the day than usual. It didn’t help that some of our staff were feeling under the weather. Our bell choir director was home from work with a virus. I’ve been wrestling with a sinus infection. Some of our confirmation class members had been suffering from minor illnesses and injuries. When we assessed our situation, we decided that it was in everyone’s best interests to simply cancel Wednesday night programs, keep folks home and safe, get some rest and go at it again today. Add to all of that having one of our administrative colleagues traveling out of state this week, and we aren’t quite covering every detail of our routine work. It is a bit easier for me to accept those decisions now than it was earlier in my career. In general, I am still reluctant to cancel any church programs, but this week we’re in survival mode.

Today will be all about preparation. Then there will be a funeral on Friday, another on Saturday, regular worship on Sunday and a funeral on Monday. We’ve packed them even tighter in the past. We’ve done two funerals on the same day. The schedule is not impossible. It just doesn’t leave much time for other things.

Funerals for our congregation require a lot of work. We don’t just read services from the book. We craft individual services with a lot of personal information. We choose music that is right for the grieving family and community. We recruit ushers and plan lunches. There are plenty of phone calls to coordinate all of the work. There are meetings with grieving family members during which we both provide grief support and learn more about the kind of funeral that we want to craft. Most funerals require multiple meetings with family members. And when I’m working on more than one funeral at at time there is the process of keeping all of the stories straight. I use a complete manuscript for a funeral. It is a once in a lifetime occasion for the grieving family - far too important to risk a slip of memory or a mistake in what I say. The first draft of the manuscript for Friday is complete. I should have a draft of Monday’s service done sometime today after I have a second meeting with that family.

For some funerals we have some guidance from the person who has died. Some people leave behind written instructions, listing favorite scriptures, favorite music and other preferences for their service. While we try very carefully to take those instructions seriously, we do have to have some flexibility. I’ve read funeral instructions requesting that a minister who is no longer living officiate. The instructions were written years ago, perhaps around the time of the death of a spouse, and circumstances have since changed. We often read requests for music that we cannot find. People don’t always remember the names of hymns and simply put a line from a hymn in their instructions. Sometimes I can discern what they meant. Sometimes we have to just try to get as close as possible. I’ve even read instructions directing us to read a specific verse from the bible, that turns out not to be from the bible at all but from Shakespeare or another source. We can usually work the requested text into the service, but sometimes we can’t find the source at all.

Sometimes we are able to laugh over the instructions we receive. Sometimes we aren’t yet ready to laugh. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure. A request for “a rousing negro spiritual” is a challenge for a mostly white midwestern congregation. We have a few spirituals in the choir music library, but our style isn’t quite the same as that of an African-American congregation in the inner city. We have a real bias for live music and try to avoid using recordings as much as possible, but there are times when we turn to recorded music to meet the needs of the family.

All of this takes time for research, coordination and execution. We understand how important funeral services are for families and we never take that responsibility lightly, but we are only human and there re only 24 hours in each day.

We will survive this week. We will defer some usual tasks to the next week or even later dates. We will have a few details of our lives that are a bit less organized than usual. But our priorities are clear. Worship and caring for grieving families are more important than some of the other tasks that sometimes occupy our attention. Survival mode is appropriate for the grieving families as well. They aren’t expected to have energy for every little task or the focus to keep all of the details under control. Their job is to survive.

We are all survivors and survivors gain strength through endurance. Being in survival mode isn’t the worst that can happen. Sometimes it is even good for us. It helps us keep our priorities in order.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!