why run a course on dying?
It’s important to reflect on your motives before you begin.
why do you want to do this?
Perhaps you have been inspired by attending a talk or workshop on preparing for death and dying; perhaps you have been intrigued by materials such as those produced by the Church of England Funerals Project or the Roman Catholic Art of Dying Well Project or secular organizations such as Finity
Perhaps you’ve been feeling frustrated that your pastoral ministry isn’t quite getting to the heart of things or touching important questions, or that it’s getting stale and you want to refresh it. Perhaps you see this as a way of drawing more people into your church or conversely of reaching out in service to the wider community. Perhaps someone has simply asked you to do this. Each of us will have our own answer to this question.
Reflecting critically on your motives will help you gauge your degree of commitment to this particular form of ministry or whether something less demanding of time, energy, and emotion would do the job. If you decide to go ahead it will help you in designing and publicising the course.
It will also help you evaluate its ‘success’. For example, you may find that the course didn’t attract any new people to your church but that you got to know and value some of your existing congregation in a new and deeper way or made new contacts in your local community. The course would have been unsuccessful in one respect but successful in another, and your evaluation of its overall success would depend on your motives at the start.
why should any church do this?
A second rather different question is ‘Why should any church consider doing this’ to which there’s an answer that applies to us all: the certainty of the resurrection is what gives Christians our identity, and the message that we proclaim and try to live out is that of life in the midst of death and hope in the midst of loss. We have something significant to say on this matter. What’s more, the resurrection is our ‘USP’. None of the secular groups that specialize in preparing people for death, good as many of them are, can offer hope of eternal life.
Of course, we will each have our own personal take on what ‘resurrection’ and ‘eternal life’ mean for us. Most people who have run Well Prepared courses say that they develop a deeper sense of this through honest conversations with others that involve wondering, reflecting, explaining, telling stories, and listening.
Talking with folk about our common mortality, being alongside them in the ‘valley of the shadow of death’, and offering a message of Christian hope is part of the calling of all Christians – it’s not an optional extra. Clergy from many denominations make a more specific promise at ordination to ‘prepare the dying for their death.’ This has traditionally been interpreted as deathbed ministry, but we are all dying from the day we are born and we do not know when our hour will come, so it’s never too early to prepare.
Perhaps the clearest finding of our research is that older people in particular are very keen – ‘desperate’ is perhaps not too strong a word – to talk about death and dying, both the practicalities and the spiritual aspects. Yet they all too often find that others are reluctant to have these sorts of conversations, and it’s ironic that most churches don’t offer this opportunity either.
some of the benefits
Running a formal structured course is only one of several ways of doing this, and you may decide that it isn’t for you at this time. But if you do go ahead with your eyes open our research suggests that this will be one of the most rewarding things you’ve done in ministry. Some of the potential benefits include:
- Achieving a deep sense of intimacy with course participants
- Regaining a sense of what Christian ministry and service is all about
- Having the experience of meeting a pressing human spiritual need
- Developing your pastoral skills
- Broadening your knowledge-base in this area
- Gaining confidence in talking about big theological questions
- Being held and supported by a structure that others have tried and tested
- Learning to appreciate the life wisdom and spiritual insights of course participants
- Allowing yourself to receive care from others (course participants and co-facilitator)
- Growing spiritually through articulating and owning your own authentic perspective on these issues and seeing where more work might need to be done
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