Buying a Tombstone…

I’m shopping for two items: an Apple watch and a tombstone. One seems more exciting than the other, but I want to buy both. With the watch, I look forward to more enjoyable runs, sending and receiving messages, checking on news and weather, and looking at emails. With the tombstone, I’m reminded I won’t be alive for another 71 years. I need to take care of the details now.

Gail and I planned our funerals several years ago. We shopped for caskets, listed songs and pallbearers, and made other suggestions. Now, we want to buy a tombstone and have it set.

Why? I think it’ll be helpful to us and our family to discuss the next phase of life — death. At the monthly business meetings of our storage and apartment business, I’ve asked my son, Jerrie Wayne, “What do I need to do to make it easier for you to operate when I’m gone?”. Last month, we talked about user IDs and passwords for important websites.

As it’s uncomfortable for some to discuss their funeral and where they’ll be buried, preachers and elders rarely discuss how they will leave their roles.

My friend, Jeff Smith, replied to my last blog:

Jerry, I’ve learned from you and others that preparing to leave is as important as choosing who comes. In my case, I am 6 years from retiring from my current status, and will probably move closer to one of the boys. I have spoken this to my “inner circle”. The questions and or fears I have are these, 1) Will I have the courage to leave a town I’ve been in for over 26 years? 2) Who will replace me? [ In my opinion, he cannot be far “left” or “right” he must be in the middle.] 3) What will I do with the sense of abandonment I already feel just thinking about leaving. [I still have a little “savior” complex in me] Perhaps from your experience you could write a future article that goes into some of these things. I confess, “leaving” is a tender topic for me.

Jeff’s doing things I think are essential for preparing to leave:

  1. He’s discussed it with his “inner circle.” He started early.
  2. He’s aware of his resistance to talking about a painful subject. Confession frees me to do what I resist. I’m releasing what I’ve been hiding.
  3. He’s labeled his fears and questions. Now he can work on each, decide what’s in his control and what isn’t, work on what he should, and let the rest die — shop for a tombstone, have a funeral.
  4. He’s confessed his “little savior complex.” I’ve heard more than one preacher state, “If I were to leave, this church would fall apart.” I can identify with all these after making a transition from “full-time preaching” to interim ministry in the Spring of 2007.

My shepherds at Berry’s Chapel asked for more definition about 4 years before I left. Before I came, I discussed with the previous elders my desire to do interim ministry. When new elders were appointed in 1995, I informed them of my intention to leave Berry’s Chapel to work as an interim minister at some point. Their statement was I could stay as long as I liked, but they’d like to know when I had an idea of the date. They said, “Your contract calls for 90 days notice. We want longer to make a smooth transition.”

My first response to the approach was hurt. Even though I initiated the subject 10 years earlier, I thought I’d bring it up when I got ready.

  1. How will they make it without me, and why would they want to?
  2. What if nobody wants me to work with them as an interim minister?
  3. Will finances work out?

Within a short time, Gail and I discussed our departure and came back with the suggestion of April 2007. We announced it to the congregation in June 2004. Our departure was smooth and encouraging. I appreciate the elders and the congregation for Apple Watchmaking our time enjoyable and our leaving as painless as death can be. I’d rather shop for an Apple watch than a tombstone. The timing was great. We’ve enjoyed 9 years of interim ministry and hope for more.

My Suggestions

  1. Shepherds and preachers discuss this process at the beginning of the relationship—before the new preacher delivers his first sermon. It’s easier to talk about it before marriage and honeymoon than after the first or fortieth “family fuss.”
  2. Discuss how long the elders and preacher want the next preacher to stay and how you want to end this relationship. This is especially helpful when the church has a rule that they change preachers every 5 years but don’t share the family rule until 4 years and 9 months after he starts. Will you give each other adequate notice? Will the preacher leave peacefully, even if he’s disappointed and doesn’t agree with the elders’ decision? Will the elders be as wise when they decide it’s time for the preacher to leave as they are at the invitation to begin the work? Will you give each other time to work through the grief of the congregation, the preacher, and his family on the preacher’s departure?
  3. Discuss in detail how you plan to prepare financially when the preacher is unable or chooses not to be a full-time preacher. Incentives of matching retirement funds would be one way to do this. Discuss and encourage this often.
  4. Return to this discussion at least once a year and update expectations. There is less stress and emotion when the casket is selected months or years before death than the day after death.
  5. Plan for the preacher to take a sabbatical 7 years before his transition. I plan to write more about sabbaticals for preachers, elders, and others later. This allows the preacher to experiment with retirement and the congregation to experience functioning without the regular preacher.
  6. Discuss these issues every time the eldership changes: when one or more elders leave or are added. There’s an assumption that things will continue as before, especially if you have a contract. Assuming isn’t good communication. You have a different eldership. They didn’t develop and sign the contract.

Jesus is an example of how to prepare for leaving: “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Matthew 16:21, NKJV). When He brought up the subject and repeated it several times, they were afraid, disputed about who would be the greatest in the kingdom, and declined to discuss it further. But He continued to repeat the reality.

Shopping for a tombstone doesn’t evoke the most enjoyable feelings. But it’s better than leaving for others what I need to be doing about getting ready to die.

What are you doing to make a good transition?
Please comment below:

(Visited 1,417 times, 70 visits today)
Jerrie Barber
Servant of Jesus, husband to Gail, father to Jerrie Wayne Barber, II and Christi Parsons, grandfather, great-grandfather, Interim Preacher, Shepherd coach, Ventriloquist, barefoot runner, ride a cruiser bicycle

9 Responses to “Buying a Tombstone…

  • What a great attitude and analogy! I like that you are keeping up with (or staying ahead) the technology and looking ahead, but also balancing that with inevitable realities. Very useful, practical ideas for personal and church ways to find that balance.

    • Jerrie Barber
      8 years ago

      Keith, Thank you for your encouragement on Mondays, Tuesdays, and other days!

  • Rick Kelley
    8 years ago

    Jerrie, I appreciate your willingness to discuss the topics that are often avoided. When we left Kentucky in 2014, we spent a whole year in transition, from May 2013 to May 2014. I believe some providence was involved, but it also involved the preacher here in Massillon letting the eldership know a couple years in advance his wishes to remain if possible, but step back to part-time, which he is still doing. After meeting with the eldership in Massillon fortuitously, we met again to discuss possibilities. After a couple months, I informed the eldership in Kentucky of my intention to leave in 9 months’ time. That was odd, and at times uncomfortable having that much time of vision ahead of us – it seemed surreal for much of that time – but I wanted the eldership to have as much time as possible to secure a replacement, and as it turns out, I ended up taking on the role of interim minister. I even informed the elders that I would gladly visit other congregations when other men came to interview. They asked me to stay. As a result, I not only participated in the process, but built bonds with some good preachers as well. As it turns out, by April, they had a man ready to come, and we moved near the end of May. I had a chance to spend some time and even share the pulpit for a month with the new preacher who was taking my place, and we formed a close bond. He is still there and the church is doing very well.
    The transition here in Massillon is complete as well. I spent a year working in various capacities, teaching, education, young adult ministry, etc., as well as filling the pulpit one Sunday each month. Thanks to the eldership and the minister here preparing well, it has been smooth. I relay this not to boast, but because I think you will find it of interest, and also because I think people could learn from it. Two elderships, two congregations and three preachers crossed paths in transition and actually lived to tell the tale! And both congregations never missed a beat, but are healthy, maybe even healthier than before.
    But I really tell you all that to tell you this: I was just thinking last night, “I’ll be 39 this year. I need to start preparing this congregation and myself for the next phase after me.” I have long subscribed to the mantra that you should always be preparing people for your absence, intentionally and regularly. I soon will announce to the congregation here the stunning realization that they will be looking to replace me, and it will need to be considered more than the day before it happens.
    Thank you for the shot in the arm, and forgive me for the length. In some ways, we are kindred spirits. There is nothing more loving to do than to provide others for the eventuality of our absence. When a preacher allows the church to be tied to his influence to the degree that it will not be healthy without him, he has essentially undone all the good he sought to do. God bless and thank you again for all you do.

    • Jerrie W. Barber
      8 years ago

      Rick, Thank you for the excellent example of what I was writing about. When this process is done, it makes interim ministry by bringing in another person unnecessary. I am writing a blog and hopefully blogging a book on interim ministry: . I plan for my last chapter in the book to be, “When You Don’t Need an Interim.” What you are describing is living in the reality that every Christian and every preacher is an interim minister. We are “sojourners and pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11). Somebody came before us. Somebody will come after us. Our opportunity is to make it better for the ones who will follow.

  • Thanks so much for introducing a conversation that many of us need to begin with our families.

  • Brian Gregory
    8 years ago

    Jerrie, as always you are on point and provoking many great and needed thoughts/ discussions. I truly appreciate you and the work you are doing. You are a great encouragement to the church overall. I know when your tombstone is finally in use, your work will continue on. Thank you so much.

  • Robert Gribble
    8 years ago

    Very useful and practical suggestions! Jerry, we truly appreciate the different ideas that make us really think as to how we may become better shepherds.

    • Jerrie W. Barber
      8 years ago

      Robert, Being in the funeral business, do you think of other pre-arrangements that preachers and elders need to make?

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