Two filing cabinets, one with three drawers and one with four. These seven draftsmen contained John Zimmann’s 56 years of ministry: 30 as a full-time minister and another 26 serving as interim ministry and pulpit supply. Seven drawers.
What was Marilyn supposed to do with these rusty sacred cabinets? Inside were kept the treasures of the life of a minister: wedding and funeral liturgies, prayers, calls to worship, sermons organized by the liturgical calendar. Seven drawers crammed with papers, yes, but also family sacrifices, neighborhood triumphs, miraculous births and words her husband had received from above.
Still grieving, Marilyn had decided to downsize and move out of Ohio to be close to her daughter in Virginia. She’d already gone through John’s other possessions, sorting them in piles to keep, donate, or throw away. But the seven drawers have withstood such simple categories. She couldn’t keep them, because space was limited and she already had enough memories. She would be happy to donate them, but to whom? There are so many particularities in the pastoral ministry that these files would not be of much benefit to novice ministers. This left them throwing them away, but how could he discard 56 years of spiritual friendships? Marilyn wasn’t sure she could stand the sight of a truck carrying John’s ministry to her landfill.
Shortly before the move, Marilyn heard about a local paper destruction event. This seemed like her last chance to deal with the filing cabinets before heading east. She then waited in her car in a parking lot while a volunteer took away the documents for shredding and disposal. She tried not to cry. She repeated the mantra, It has to be done, it has to be done. But finally, alone in the parking lot, Marilyn cried.
A few weeks later, settling into her new home in Virginia, Marilyn was enthusiastically leafing through the pages of the new issue of living Lutheran. She had been told that her husband’s name would appear in the In Memoriam section of the magazine and, in fact, she was there, along with 22 other priests of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who had died that month. Her heart sank as she thought of all those other spouses and children staring at their files, unsure how to let go of the religious artifacts of their loved ones’ careers.
For two years Marilyn kept an eye on the magazine’s death notices. In a few months, 45 ecclesiastics from ELCA died; the average was over 30. The numbers shocked her, and this was just a Christian denomination of over 200 in the United States alone. How did surviving spouses and children around the world mourn these losses? What were they doing with the drawers and filing cabinets?
The death of a nurse or Lyft driver or accountant affects families as much as that of a pastor. But not all occupation artifacts become sacred relics. Medical scrubs and Excel spreadsheets are perhaps easier to unwrap than a prayer book used at a patient’s bedside. Furthermore, pastoral care has a way to shape the life together of a family, to set the tone for its values and rhythms. Marilyn remembered the Saturday deadline every weekend …What will the children wear tomorrow? What will they have for lunch after church? She could remember the night she and John were awakened by a phone call at 3am after a parishioner died in a motorcycle accident. A few minutes later, John was dressed and out the door. In a sense, these shapes and tones had been housed in those filing cabinets. In a way, they had been torn apart while she was crying in the parking lot.
Though Marilyn was glad she was able to part with John’s ministry materials, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the trial had been rushed, her grief hindered. She feared that the dozens of other ELCA clergy families in mourning each month ran the same risk.
In late 2020, Marilyn received confirmation that at least one other bereaved person was facing the same dilemma. She received a Christmas card from Jean Uhle, whose husband (also called John) had been her friend since seminary and had died in 2015. The Christmas card led to a full-scale reconnection and soon the two were arguing. of their common pain.
When Marilyn described her experience of emotional and unsatisfying destruction, Jean replied, “I still have five boxes of old John’s church stuff, I don’t know what to do with them!” More than five years after her husband’s death, Jean’s relic boxes stood tall, an even more persistent totem than Marilyn’s seven drawers.
The two began to do some research. They read books and articles and talked to the clergy and sectarian leaders. They considered every idea and option they could come up with or invent, thinking not only of Jean’s healing process but of those of clergy families everywhere. The central question that arose for them was this: How can families get rid of these materials in a way that generates respect for the care, relationships and work of the deceased pastor?
The pastor’s two wives have not solved the case completely. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to all the complicated decisions and processes surrounding bereavement. But they have composed a list of practical recommendations and factors to consider. Their suggestions include giving selected sermons as gifts, checking with denominational venues to see if there is a use for any of the materials, and then, more importantly, inviting family and friends to come together for a time to share memories and let go.
On a cold afternoon in May 2021, it was time. Family members joined Jean around the hearth in his large courtyard. Some were from her own neighborhood in Cleveland, while others were from Alabama. There were also five full boxes by the fire.
As the afternoon stretched towards evening, the Uhle family ordered, read, laughed and cried together. “Although the project was very difficult,” recalls Jean, “we wanted to do it together as long as we had the chance. It was an opportunity to relive many precious moments of John’s ministry. Most of us were blown away by the sheer amount of time it must have taken him to prepare 50 years of sermons! But it wasn’t the manuscripts, notes or sermons that were important. It was an opportunity to be together and to bring these memories into our hearts “.
Although there was a burning fire between them, they did not burn many of the old sermons that night. Each family member selected one or two that were meaningful to them to read, reflect together, and add to the fire as a sign of celebration and liberation. There were prayers as the pages burned. Later one of Jean’s sons took the remaining boxes with him and delivered them to a commercial paper shredder the next day.
But for Jean, the memories remain alight, flickering like a fire in the dark Ohio night.