As a pastoral minister for the past 10 years I have had my share of experience ministering to those facing a crisis. However, what I learned dealing with our own crisis in these past two weeks will affect the way I minister for years to come. I share my insights here in hopes that they will serve you in your own ministry, either in a formal pastoral setting or when your friends or family members are facing a difficult situation.
On June 22nd, we nearly lost our 4 year old son Gabriel. What seemed like just another toddler mishap while running around with friends, wasn’t. By the time we realized that Gabriel had hit his head and might have something seriously wrong with him it was almost too late. Praise God, through the fast action of the medical team who identified an epidural hematoma, he got to surgery just in time. I’ll post the full story and an update soon, but he is doing much better now.
Here are some of the lessons I learned during this time of crisis to apply to my pastoral ministry.
Lesson #1: Pray. Get others to pray. Pray out loud with those involved. Share reminders of God’s power and faithfulness.
As a lay minister in the church I know that prayer is important, but I was reminded of it time and again during this crisis. Countless people stormed heaven for our little boy and we can’t express how grateful we are for that support. I could see the power of God working through the medical team and in Gabriel’s miraculous recovery. We could feel the power of those prayers. Those moments when a visitor took a moment to pray out loud over Gabriel were particularly meaningful.
We all need reminders of God’s power. Some of the most comforting words in those first few hours came from our pastor, Fr. Carmelo. I was going over and over in my head the events of that afternoon, so upset with myself for not realizing the gravity of the situation earlier. Fr. Carmelo said it reminded him of when Lazarus was dying and Jesus said “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) That phrase continued to echo in my ears in the following days when we saw Gabriel get off the ventilator, start talking, walking, remembering and even smiling. To God be the glory.
Lesson #2: Make contact without expecting a personal reply. Offer to communicate with others if needed.
At the beginning when things were happening so fast and I was just trying to process it all. I appreciated the text messages and Facebook comments assuring us of people’s prayers and support. We didn’t have time to connect with everyone personally or respond to each message, but it gave me comfort to know we had that support system. I appreciated those that helped spread the word to the rest of our loved ones and kept them up to date.
Lesson #3: At first just listen. Let those involved vent or express concerns. Empathize. Don’t offer advice yet.
I remember being aware during the first day or two that I was incapable of thinking or having a conversation about other things. My entire being was wrapped up in processing what had happened and in Gabriel’s recovery. The most helpful thing people did was listen, empathize with how I felt and just accompany us in our pain. I wasn’t ready to hear of other people’s stories or similar experiences. I knew they were not exactly the same as Gabriel’s and at that point all I wanted was to focus on him. After a few days the intensity lessened and I was able to have conversations about other things and even welcomed the distraction.
Lesson #4: Think practical. Offer specific help and availability.
The practical things were so helpful! When your world turns upside-down so suddenly, meeting the normal daily needs of your family becomes overwhelming. People who have spent time in the hospital knew to bring snacks and drinks. Some gave us cash or gift cards for the extra gas and eating out. Others brought meals after we got home, knowing that cooking and getting groceries were the last things on our minds. Those that offered to help and then gave concrete examples of what they could do or when they were available were invaluable. Even if I didn’t need anything at the moment, it made it easier to ask for help later. For example, if I knew someone was free the next afternoon and willing to watch our baby Isaac for a few hours it was a relief. Although I appreciated the comment “call me if you need anything,” it was harder to follow up on.
Lesson #5: Follow up regularly. Keep visiting and offering help. Remember each period of recovery brings new challenges.
For me as a minister I think the hardest part is remembering to follow up with people after the crisis is over. I’m realizing through our own experience that this is still very important in the weeks and months to follow. Our lives will never be the same. It will be months before the doctor and therapy appointments are over. We both still have to take a lot of time off of work to take turns supervising Gabriel and making sure he doesn’t do anything to reinjure himself during this critical healing time. It will take a long time to find our new normal. In the meantime the friends and family that have continued to check in, come visit, send meals, offer child care, etc. have been priceless.
I know God will continue to bring good out of this very difficult situation. I pray that the lessons I’ve learned can be useful to you as well.
What insights have you gained from your own challenges? What advice would you give pastoral ministers for how to help during difficult times?