People are fragile.
Illness, depression, family tragedies, sexual temptation and sin, terminal diagnoses, adultery, mental health crises, redundancy and unemployment stalk everyone, and Christians aren’t immune from any of them.
For every ten happy faces you see on a Sunday morning, ten others come bearing the marks of stress and anxiety. Look closely enough, and at least a couple of those smiling faces are actually etched with tension. We are a great mix and all of us, at different times, feel overwhelmed or even crushed by life’s problems. Then church must stop being a club or a nice place to spend time in, and become a community where there is real care. That’s where pastors come in.
Being a pastor means trying to help people in their deepest needs We deal with people when life collapses in on them. Here are some reflections on pastoral care for strugglers.
1. Pastors must be at the forefront of care. The study is not a place to hide out in while members of the body are in pain. Our sermons must have hands and feet – and at times of suffering, they’re our hands and feet!
2. Pastors mustn’t suppose that they are to give all the care. There may be others better qualified to help, in the church family or beyond it. We mustn’t be so foolish as to think that it’s all down to us.
3. Caring usually goes beyond prayer, but never goes without prayer. Pastors need to schedule extended times of prayer for people who are really going through it. As well as praying for their strengthening by God’s grace, we pray for insight into how we and the church body can care for them.
4. Pastors are often very unsure how to help, and sometimes hesitate in helping others for that reason. We’re so concerned to look as if we have all the answers and gifts, that we shy away from sufferers out of fear that we’ll look clumsy. That is sinful pride, and must be repented of and overcome.
5. Pastors have no magic wands, and no magic promises. How many Christian people have been damaged long-term by easy-breezy spiritual assurances given in the face of horror by their so-called shepherds? Sometimes suffering sticks for years and years. Hearts go on breaking. People need us not to make shallow, unbiblical promises.
6. Pastors are fellow strugglers, not action-heroes. Pastors should beware of the temptation to feel indispensable when sufferers need their care. There is only one Special One (that is Jesus, not José Mourinho!).
7. Pastors and those who try to help sufferers are fragile, too. If pastors are in a long-term and costly form of care-giving, they should make sure that others are looking out for their welfare. Churches by and large need to work a lot harder at supporting and encouraging their main care-givers.
8. Jesus wept. That means that we’re allowed to. Sometimes, that’s the very thing we should do.
9. Pastors must plan not to forget people’s suffering. We need to write down significant dates somewhere. Anniversaries of losses and tragedies stab at the heart and tear at faith. We need to reassure our people when those times come around each year that God is always good, and that his grace is sufficient.
10. Some problems never get solved. Ministry is not the inside track on miraculous grace. It is, though, God’s way of bringing strengthening grace to his people in their trials. Our willingness to visit, encourage and support those who suffer through months and years speaks volumes about the Lord’s commitment to his own, even if he doesn’t remove all their pain in this life.
11. Talk about heaven often with those who suffer. This is not a cop-out, it is indispensable to true Christian hope and present discipleship. Always, always, always encourage strugglers with the certainty of their future home.
12. One of the best snippets of wisdom I ever heard when it comes to caring for others is this: ‘walk towards the pain’. In other words, make people’s problems your priorities. Pastors, refuse to be indifferent, and refuse to be a coward. And church members – love your pastors.
Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!