Those of us in pastoral ministry work in a myriad of situations. Besides the obvious need for prayer and preparation for our preaching and teaching ministries, there are numerous other areas in which we serve. A church congregation is often called a "flock", and just as a flock of actual sheep require a shepherd, so does a church body. A shepherd's duties basically fall into two main categories - to feed and to lead the flock. But the care of the sheep also requires individual attention from time to time.
One of the most sobering responsibilities of a pastor involves ministering to individuals and families in times of critical illness or death.
If the pastor is fortunate enough to have the seminary educational experience, some of his ministry classes will have taught the basics of counseling and grief ministry. However, nothing in the academic realm truly prepares the young pastor for the real thing. When that call comes in the wee hours of the night, it could be a number of possibilities. Perhaps there has been an accident. Perhaps a stroke or heart attack. A loved one has died, or is lingering near death, and the family calls for spiritual support. It could be an elderly person. It could be a child. It might be someone in the very prime of his life. Every situation is different, but no matter the particulars, there is grief, sorrow, and fear - and the pastor is being called for support.
The hardest thing this young pastor faced in early ministry has probably haunted nearly every other pastor in similar circumstances. "What can I say? What can I do? How can I possibly help these people?
The feeling of inadequacy is overpowering.
We know how to pray. We have memorized certain scripture references which are prescribed for the various situations we may face. We know that we must certainly depend on God for guidance, but the fact remains that we often feel the human pressure to "perform". After all, we tell ourselves, the patient or the family is depending on us. None of us relish these particular ministry situations, but I found myself dreading them terribly. The pressures I was putting on myself were crippling my efforts and I just wanted those situations to disappear, but of course they will not go away. They are a very real part of what a pastor has to do.
On a particular day, about 20 years ago, God finally got an important point across to this pastor. I was on my way to an emergency hospital call. The father of one of my church members had suffered a severe stroke, and was lingering near death in the local hospital. "Can you come?", the lady cried into the phone. I assured her that I would immediately be on my way.
In the car, the feelings of inadequacy were again flooding over me. "What does she expect me to say or do? How can I possibly ease her pain?" Then God spoke to me. Not personally, but this time through the radio ministry of Chuck Swindoll. My car radio was tuned into a local Christian station and "Insight for Living" was on at the time. Swindoll was teaching on the subject of being a steward. Although his message had nothing specifically to do with what I was facing at the moment, God used 1 Cor. 4: 2 to speak to my heart. That familiar verse says, "Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful."
Suddenly the light bulb came on over my head! It wasn't up to ME to handle the situation. I didn't have to provide all the answers. Yes, I was the lady's pastor, but I didn't have to be brilliant, charismatic, or perform in any profound way.
All that God required of me was to show up!
If I was faithful to be there, He could use me to help the grieving church member. We prayed together. I shared scripture with her and I held her father's hand as he slipped away from this life and into the presence of His Savior. The prayer was important. The scripture references were comforting. But I truly believe that the most effective thing I did that day was just simply showing up and being there for someone who was hurting beyond human understanding. We sat quietly, and I'll admit that I shed some tears with the lady myself. God used that experience that summer afternoon to radically change how I perceive that aspect of my ministry. I've spent hundreds of hours since then in hospital rooms, ICU waiting areas, private residences, and funeral homes with individuals and families who were dealing with unbearable grief. It's never easy, but the dread is gone.
Do I look forward to those emergency calls now? Of course not! But, I thank God that the "pressure to perform" is gone - replaced by the assurance that it's not about me at all. It's not about what I choose to say or do. It's just about being God's undershepherd, and caring for His sheep.
Every pastor, young or old, needs to understand that simple truth.