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Pastoral care has never been one of my strengths.
On many occasions, my wife has told me "People think you are caring, but you are about an inch deep with empathy." I always knew that she was telling the truth, but justified myself by thinking of the times that I had demonstrated empathy, even if it wasn't felt. After all, I made phone calls and paid hospital visits to those who were sick (though admittedly, I wasn't excited about it). I sent cards and flowers to those who were hurting (eventually). I even emailed or texted people that I didn't want to talk to when it was absolutely essential. I fulfilled my pastoral duties, all the while telling myself that the days of "old school" pastoral visitation were over.
I thought I was doing a good job. I even encouraged my congregation to care for each other. "Stop thinking only about yourself and reach out to your brother or sister in their time of need," was a common message. "Surely this is what Christ wants from his church."
But to be honest, I was disappointed when one of our members was hospitalized or in assisted care and only a handful of people visited him or her. I felt as if, the congregation was waiting for me, the "hired gun," to represent them at the bedside of the afflicted. This often left me frustrated. I reasoned that maybe the problem was with me. Maybe I wasn't making my point clear enough for the congregation to understand. Maybe I was not the leader that I thought I was. Or maybe, I was dealing with a group of cold hearted people. Looking at the issue from that perspective took the pressure off of me, and that felt a bit better.
Then I got sick. Really sick.
I am still not sure exactly what happened. I was preparing for my third short mission trip to Uganda. I had applied and received my visa. I had raised most of my support. I had cleared my schedule to accommodate my two weeks away. The last step that I needed was a typhoid fever vaccine.
Three days after my shot, I could not eat or drink without everything coming back up. I was struck with vertigo so severe that I could not even walk two steps without falling. I was dehydrated and eventually spent 30 hours in the hospital attached to an IV. After being released from the hospital, I spent the next four weeks in the house trying to regain my balance, appetite, and visual focus. I was living in a surreal place that I have since termed "Loopy Land."
Let me tell you, Loopy Land is not a nice place to visit and it is a terrible place to live. But my time there was not a total waste. I emerged from my trip to Loopy Land with a much better understanding for the plight of the sick, and far more understanding of what it takes to do the ministry of visitation well. Here are seven things for pastors to keep in mind to ensure that their ministry to the sick is a blessing and not a burden:
1. Not everyone should visit the sick …
In my four weeks of agony, well intentioned people paid me visits. Some visited more than others. I greatly appreciated everyone who took the time to stop by the hospital or my home to see me. However, not everyone that stopped by uplifted my spirit. In fact, some individuals actually drained me. I felt worse as a result of him or her coming to see me. I now understand the importance of the gift of mercy. Not everyone has it. Not everyone should visit. A few good visitors are better than bunch of bad ones. Do what you can to connect those with mercy directly to the sick, and gently steer those who don't have it in other areas that they can help the person in need.
2. …But everyone can and should communicate care and concern.
In the era of electronic media, everyone can send a text, email, e-card or leave a voice-mail message communicating their care and concern. I was amazed at how many people knew that I had fallen "off the grid" but didn't express their concern until I was back "on the grid."
I have a co-worker at the seminary where I work who has had several operations in the last couple of years. His procedures have taken him away from work for weeks at a time. I kept thinking about all the times he was out and I didn't express my concern until he was back on the job. The first thing I did when I returned to work was ask for his forgiveness.
How much time does it take to send an email expressing your concern? Hold on. I'll answer that for you. It takes approximately … two minutes out of a 1,440 minute day. That's a little time investment that can mean a lot to someone.
3. Touch can be more important than words.
While I was in the emergency observation room waiting to be admitted into the hospital a number of my family members stopped by to see me. It was good to have them there. Since I was in unbelievable pain, I greatly appreciated the support of my family. As well, I had a great doctor and a great nurse waiting on me. They were very pleasant and engaging.
However, what I remember the most was my wife and my mother's touch. Except for the doctor and the nurse, only my wife and mom approached the bed and actually touched me. I kept wondering, "Why won't anybody else come close to the bed? Why won't anybody else grab my hand?" I was reminded of all the pastoral visits that I have made where I stood at a distance from the patient as if whatever they had was going to leap off the bed and attached its self to me. Unfortunately, the person I came to see was no longer a person, but an object to be prayed for and pitied, but not touched. Lord, forgive me for my ignorance.
4. Responding sooner is better than responding later.
I was out of commission for over four weeks. Although I heard from a significant number of people during that period, some responses carried more impact than others. What made the difference? Let me explain.
One of my friends found out about my condition during the third week of my ailment. He was in a staff meeting. Someone asked, "Have you heard about Pastor Moore's condition?" He hadn't. As soon as the staff meeting was over he called me. He wanted to let me know that he just found out and that he would be praying for me. Another friend of mine found out about my condition during the fourth week of my ailment. He was on his way to Sunday morning worship service, but soon as he heard, he called me.
On the other hand, some knew of my condition during the first days of my illness. However, I didn't hear from them for three or four weeks. I appreciated the concern, but it didn't have the same impact. It's not that I thought they did not care. I know they did. However, they did not care enough to allow my situation to disrupt their daily routine. People want to know that you care enough to allow your life to be disrupted on their behalf. That's what communicates more to them than your words even could.
5. Your spouse or ministry partner cannot substitute for you.
I've always had this warped opinion that my spouse can "fill in" for me. In other words, when I do not have the time (or make the time) to call or visit, my wife can substitute for me. She and I are one, right? That's what the Bible says. So, if she contacts the person in need that is as good as me making the contact. Especially, if she says, "The pastor wants to let you know …." That makes it official.
It wasn't until I was sick that I realized that the spouse doesn't count. All it communicates is, "My wife cares about you and I don't (well, maybe a little)." This does not mean that I have to call everyone who becomes ill. Neither does it downplay my wife's role or ability to care. My wife may still call. However, an email, a text or a message left on voicemail from me will go a long way, simply because of my position in the church. Another option is a nice card with a personal note written in it. My personal response states, "I genuinely care."
6. Don't send the cheap cards.
This is an extension of the previous lesson. Don't let this sound petty, but take some time for cards or tokens that you send to the sick. All of us have purchased the 5 cards for a dollar at one of the local drugstores. Or we've received the variety of free cards in the mail from the charity asking for a donation. We have them arranged in our files by subject matter; sympathy, congratulations, missing you, etc. As soon as an event happens we're ready to lick a stamp and send it out.
In my sickness, I received a significant amount of cards. What struck me the most was the five for a dollar cards. I know them when I see them. They have the generic look. You cannot tell if the picture on the front is a rabbit or a kangaroo. I have some of the same cards in my file. They are the I'm not going to spend the time to find a card specifically for you cards. I received a few of these cards with not even a personal note written inside. The cards shout, "I am just fulfilling my obligation of sending you a card!" It isn't even signed, "Love."
On the other hand, I received cards where it was clear that the person took the time to find a card that they thought would minister to me in my suffering. If you send a generic card, please take the time to write a caring personal note on the inside. Otherwise, send a meaningful one.
7. Ask God for genuine empathy.
I am not sure why the Lord allowed me to go through this ordeal. However, the one thing that I do know is that I did not have deep empathy for those who were suffering with illness. My wife was right. I was very shallow in that category. I got to see it, and feel it, as I experience the actions of others in my illness. Before, I had never been ill other than the usual cold or flu. I never knew what it was like to be in a situation where I was totally dependent upon others for my well-being. Now I know, and there's no replacement for that knowing.
I'm not saying that you have to get sick to minister well to the sick, though. Begin by asking God to help you empathize with those under your spiritual care.
I am still convinced that every church member should reach out and demonstrate compassion to the sick. However, each should do what God puts on their heart to do. Some should visit, some should call, some should send cards, etc. But all should act with empathy. As far as I am concerned, I will respond as the Lord leads. I am not the "hired gun." I am a man given a wonderful gift of empathizing with those in need.
And maybe that gift made my trip through Loopy Land worth it.
Eric W. Moore is an Assistant Professor in Pastoral Ministries at Moody Theological Seminary-Michigan. Along with his duties at MTS-Michigan, he is the Pastor and Co-founder of Tree of Life Bible Fellowship Church of Southfield, Mich.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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