James Howell: A pastor of kin

At some point most clergy wind up playing chaplain for non-churchgoing family.

Running late, the phone rings right as I’m walking out of the house. It’s my cousin who I love dearly and grew up close to, but see only a few times a year now -- and she has shocking news. Her brother’s wife, far too young, died suddenly.

I’m absorbing the news and grief -- as a cousin -- when she asks, “Can you come and preach the funeral?”

At various points, most clergy probably wind up playing some sort of chaplaincy role for kin who aren’t connected to a church, or are, but don’t feel the closeness they long for. So when I met with my cousin, we cried, and I offered funeral counsel and a prayer -- but was I being cousin or minister? What are the linkages or disconnects between the two, not only for me but for them? What about my own dad, attending the funeral in support of his nephew, seeing not a minister proper but his own son holding forth in the pulpit and by the graveside?

In this instance, my cousin is a religious person, prayerful, certainly Christian, but not part of any congregation at the moment. That description probably described quite a few others in our extended, large family -- and many who showed up as friends for the funeral. We clergy sometimes feel some kind of affront from those who aren’t members anywhere, as if they are slackers, not serious about their faith -- but I am kin to and love a crowd who are frankly humble, good, faithful, relatively holy, devoted to God and one another, but don’t know a pastor by name and aren’t on the rolls of a church. They need a pastor, I know they need a church. But what to make of their feeling -- that their only real connection to God during such a moment is through cousin James?

I wonder if not being the minister might be a better idea. I know that when my children marry I shall want to be the dad, not the officiating minister at the wedding -- but many of my friends have performed their function, to everyone’s comfort and delight. Somebody else baptized my children -- but many of my friends have applied water and prayers to their own sons and daughters.

As I contemplate being the unofficial chaplain to the extended Howell family, having buried aunts and uncles and cousins, and having performed weddings for cousins (and my own mother!) -- I think of my more immediate family who have the peculiar Christian existence of going to church and not sitting with dad, not because he is absent, but because he is just so very present, so visible, the guy doing the praying and talking. My poor wife really has had just two ministers in her entire life: her own dad and now her husband. She knows whatever bits of holiness and integrity I might truly have behind closed doors, and she knows my foibles, my darkness, my most wicked craziness. Am I her pastor? Who is her pastor?

I suspect many clergy have negotiated these issues and have come to some peace or confusion, some distance or some boundary, in order to embrace this lovely but peculiar part of ministry.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.