Members sent cards and letters, some came over to keep her company when I was at work, and one elder even mowed the lawn for us! Their gestures of support and comfort meant a great deal to us and will never be forgotten. It has been my good fortune over the years to be the pastor of three other churches where my family and I received the same kind of love in other crises in our lives.
We all know what pastors do: call on shut-ins, make hospital calls, pray with and for members who are sick or in trouble, visit prisons and jails, do extended counseling, etc. On many occasions pastors go out in the middle of the night to help people who are dying, give up study leaves or vacations to come back home to do a funeral, assist those who are in trouble with the law. Illnesses and tragedies do not come at convenient times. Pastors are on call on holidays, when there are family parties or gatherings, and when they have to face problems and illness of their own. I recently performed a funeral for a member even though my mother had just passed away two days earlier. If you ask your pastors about their experiences, you might be surprised by their stories of dedication and service.
One time when I attended a seminar on pastoral care the main speaker said that we should always take care of ourselves, that no matter what happened to our members during the day, our soup should always taste the same at night. Frankly, I was never able to find the recipe for that soup. When members of the church cried, so did I. When they grieved, I was sad too. It is called sympathy and compassion, being the “wounded healer.”
What do we do when the pastor needs pastoral care?
Certainly, he or she can ask other members of the presbytery for help, seek the advice of a professional counselor, or take a break, like a trip. But if the pastor is fortunate he or she can also turn to the church family for solace and support. When members pray for their pastors, good things happen. When pastors themselves face illness or tragedy they hurt as much and are as vulnerable as anyone else. In some ways, they may suffer more, because they might feel guilty for depriving the church of their services, for not being able to do their very best.
What matters to pastors at such a time are the same things that are important to anyone else: phone calls of concern, cards and letters, continual prayer support, bringing dinner over to help the family with everyday chores, even offering to do the laundry or weed the garden! The session can help by giving extra time off, finding someone else to take over the burden of preaching for a few Sundays, making sure that the elders listen, try to understand, and become part of the healing process.
Healing and comfort come when the members of the church pray for one another and offer to help those in need. To paraphrase the Book of Order (W-6.3005):
The church offers pastoral care to pastors in the special needs and crises of their lives. When pastors are ill, church members respond with prayer, visits, and other acts which express love and support for those who are sick and their households, their families, and their friends. When illness is critical or prolonged, those offering pastoral care will give special attention to the needs and stresses experienced by everyone involved.
Extending pastoral care to all members of the church, including the pastors and their families, is part of being the Body of Christ, of being a loving member of God’s whole family.
Earl S. Johnson Jr. is pastor of First Church, Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.