the shape of leadership

God Speaks Into the Tender Moment

Four lessons that will change the way you do funerals

Scott Wilson on September 30, 2019


When people lose someone they love, they feel more than hurt. They feel vulnerable, exposed and, often, more open to God than at any other time in their lives. As pastors, we have the opportunity to walk with them in this tender moment. If we’re present — physically, emotionally and spiritually — they’ll never forget we were there for them. If we’re not, they’ll never forget that, either.

Over the past decade, God has led me to change the way I approach funerals. Four principles I’ve learned have revolutionized the way I relate to grieving families.

First, like most pastors, I invest in preparation by having extended conversations with family members and perhaps close friends. I want more than facts; I want to hear the details of life-changing moments when the deceased person made a difference. I ask questions like these:

  • What memory is most precious to you?
  • What story best illustrates the kind of person she was?
  • What memory of him makes you smile — and maybe laugh?

As we talk, I write down the important points of the stories and the names of the people so I can refer to them in my message. From these conversations, I ask God to show me a central, compelling theme of the person’s life. Sometimes, two or three qualities stand out in the stories. I ask God to lead me to a passage of Scripture that reflects these themes. The interviews and the passage form the heart of my message at the funeral. In other words, I don’t have a canned funeral sermon.

Second, I let the family members “preach” the message. Throughout the talk, I refer back to specific stories and the people who shared them. I may say, “Philip was a courageous man. Bethany, you told me about the time your dad risked his life to save a man in a burning car. I know you’re so proud of him.”

I try to include all the family members and their stories. In some cases, that’s possible; in others, there are far too many, so I try to group the comments and mention everyone’s name at some point in the message. (From time to time, I don’t get much from family members or there’s little to praise about the person, so I preach a message of hope.)

When I focus on pastoring the family, I pastor everyone else in the room.

Third, I don’t speak to the crowd at the funeral; I speak to the family. In fact, my heart goes out most tenderly to the family members who are most affected by the death — the spouse or parents or children. I trust God to give me His compassion for them so I feel their pain. I stand close to the family, and as I tell the stories they’ve told me and mention their names, they feel honored ... connected ... treasured.

I’ve discovered that when I minister directly to the family, everyone else leans in like they’re overhearing the most private and precious conversation — because they are. When I focus on pastoring the family, I pastor everyone else in the room.

From time to time when I’m sharing stories the family members have told me, I step back (literally) from the family, look over the audience and say, “Isn’t that true? Haven’t you seen that kind of courage (or kindness or generosity or some other trait) as you knew Margaret?” At that point, everyone feels included, and I step forward again into the more intimate conversation with the family.

Of course, sometimes a dear family member doesn’t know Jesus. I make sure to tell that person’s story just like the others, and I make sure to look at him and call his name when I tell it. He probably had never met me before our talk a day or two earlier, but at this moment in the service our hearts connect in a powerful way only because I listened to him, shared something precious to him, and honored him by speaking his name.

Finally, as the service concludes, I move among the family and speak prophetically over them. Then I say, “You know, if Harold could come back right here, right now and have five minutes with you, I know what he’d say. He’d hug you so tightly and look each of you in the eyes and tell you, ‘I love you so much! I love you so much!’ Then he’d back up and tell you what’s on his heart: ‘Give your life completely to Jesus. He’s all that counts ... here and there. Give your whole heart to Him and get involved in His mission. Get right with God. Live for Him. Nothing else matters. Believe me, nothing else matters.”

I close the service by saying that the deceased person’s story hasn’t ended, and in fact, the words he’d say if he came back for five minutes can be a message that’s more powerful than any other he ever uttered. And I pray that God would make it so.

To see an example of how God has used this approach, visit The family has granted permission for me to share this video.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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