Ministry with those who are ill and dying is an important part of the work of United Methodist pastors. In times of illness, death, and grief, pastors offer the hope and peace found in Jesus Christ.
On his deathbed, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, spoke and repeated these final words, "The best of all is, God is with us." In ministry with those who are dying, United Methodists continue to share that good news. In our life and in our death, the best of all is, God is with us.
Ministry with the dying and their families
While some Christian denominations offer last rites, extreme unction, and anointing of the sick, The United Methodist Church does not have sacraments specific to the end of life. The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) however contains resources to assist pastors in ministering to the dying and their families through these difficult days.
"Ministry with the Dying" (BOW 166) includes prayers for use as a person is dying and a commendation for use at the time of death. The resources also encourage pastors to consider offering Holy Communion, and a time to reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant. Baptism is the sacrament through which we are initiated into the church and begin a lifetime of discipleship. Holy Communion provides spiritual nourishment for our journey of following Jesus.
Another section of The United Methodist Book of Worship called "Ministry Immediately Following Death" (BOW 167) offers prayers to use with family and friends gathered at the time of death. The prayers acknowledge feelings of loss and grief, request God's strength in these difficult days, and proclaim our hope in resurrection and life everlasting through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A Service of Death and Resurrection
A funeral or memorial service is held soon after death. The purpose of these services of death and resurrection is "to praise God and to witness to our faith as we celebrate the life" of one who has died (from "Greeting" of A Service of Death and Resurrection).
The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, former director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, explains that the service "is the opportunity for the community gathering in response to the death of the person, to proclaim our solidarity with each other through this time of grief." But more importantly, he continues, "to proclaim our faith in the resurrection of the dead and the hope of new creation, promised by Christ."
As in celebrations of Holy Communion, confirmation, weddings, and at times of ordination, the baptismal covenant is affirmed and celebrated during a service of death and resurrection. At the conclusion of a lifetime of Christian discipleship into which one was initiated at the time of baptism, the congregation celebrates God's faithfulness in Christ Jesus beyond our lives on earth.
"As in baptism Name put on Christ," the pastor says during the words of gathering, "so in Christ may Name be clothed with glory."
The service acknowledges the grief of those gathered, even as they proclaim faith in the resurrection and life beyond earthly death.
Services of Healing
The United Methodist Church also provides resources for services of healing for body, mind, spirit, and relationships (BOW 613). One should not consider a healing service as a service of curing. "God does not promise that we shall be spared suffering," the introduction to the service states, "but does promise to be with us in our suffering."
The laying on of hands, anointing of the forehead with oil, receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, and the reading and proclamation of God's word of restoration, provide "an atmosphere in which healing can happen. The greatest healing of all," the Book of Worship continues, "is the reunion or reconciliation of a human being with God" (BOW 613).
This feature was first published January 11, 2016.