Ministry means never knowing what the next phone call will bring. A complaint? A word of praise? Or soliciting? News of a birth, wedding plans, or a death? You never know. That's the nature of church ministry. We recently had two ministry-defining calls back to back.
One day I switched on my cell phone, and it immediately buzzed with an incoming text message. It was from my wife: SAD NEWS ABOUT MISSIONARIES. CALL.
That's when I learned that two of our long-term members, Warren and Donna Pett, had been shot to death in Uganda. I was stunned. Just a few weeks earlier Warren and Donna had stood before the congregation, explaining what they would be doing during their next term in Africa, and then we prayed for them.
A few days later, we gathered for their funeral, the two mahogany coffins shipped from Africa at the front of the church. Two coffins for two 49-year-old people. It is always shocking with more than one casket at a funeral. Usually it's because of an auto accident. This time it was because some utterly wicked people aimed their guns at two of the nicest people I've ever meet.
In some ways a church can never prepare for such a moment. Every tragedy is different. The people involved are different, their connections in the church are unique.
In other ways, however, the church is the one place where we prepare people for the unexpected but inevitable moments of tragedy.
The real story
Since I was out of town when the news came, it fell to other leaders to react and respond. One pastor went immediately to spend time with the children and parents of the slain couple. Our worship leader worked with several of us to determine how to handle this in Sunday's worship service; we all decided that night to change what had been planned in order to minister to a shocked congregation.
Another staff person became the point person for the phone calls coming from the newspapers, tv stations, and because of the interest in the story, the national media.
Warren and Donna were local farmers and much loved as neighbors, friends, and members in our church. They were involved in our youth ministry, frequently having groups out to their farm. But everyone was surprised when, about ten years ago, they said they wanted to go overseas as missionaries.
The local newspaper ran an article about these farmers from Mukwonago who were going to Africa. In Uganda Donna and Warren taught agricultural and other practical skills at a school in a remote region. Talking to a friend one day, Warren held up a handful of dust and said, "It's not like farming back in Wisconsin."
Late one night, seven men in military fatigues with guns came to the compound. They set a truck on fire, set some huts on fire, and went looking for the American missionaries. One of the Ugandan students tried to warn the Petts to leave and was shot and killed. Other students fled into the bush with bullets screaming past them. The men set the Petts's house on fire and, as soon as they emerged, shot them dead.
In the days leading up to the funeral, the media seemed to be most interested in the Petts's personal story. Who were these people? Why did they go? Why is the reaction in the community so strong? These were important questions. The best questions. And I was glad that the media chose to take an interest in the personal side of the story rather than the political. This was not primarily a story about a crime. The real story was about two people living and dying for their faith.