Caring for the Hurting Soul

Maybe you have a 100% perfect record in pastoral care, but I must confess – my husband and I don’t. Over the years the accusation has been made on more than one occasion that we haven’t cared for a hurting person like they needed.

It’s hard to hear. I always want to defend us, explain all the other hurting people we are trying to care for, or tell them how their expectations are unrealistic – and sometimes they are. My observation is that pain can make even very mature Christians self-focused. But at the end of the day I have to face the facts – somebody I am called to love doesn’t feel loved. When I can own that and confess it to the Lord, that leaves me open and ready to ask some really important questions. First, what keeps us from coming alongside people in their time of need? And second, how can I communicate how much I care when a person is hurting?

My husband and I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of years contemplating and discussing these two questions. We’ve learned a lot, sometimes the hard way, and we’re growing in our ability to help people in healthy ways. Sometimes when we are told that we didn’t step up to the plate relationally, we can question our giftedness in ministry. However, learning to show love to hurting people is like anything else – you can grow in your abilities! Expressing love to hurting people is an art, an art worth learning for decades.

First, what keeps us from coming alongside people in their time of need?

Time Suckers. I’m sure you have a few women in your life who can be best defined as needy.  They may text, call, or even show up so often that you struggle to keep up with much else. I had a sweet sister I loved to pieces who was angry with me once for not checking in with her often enough during a time of crisis. She is not one to reach out and share what’s going on easily. As I thought through how I failed in the situation I realized part of the problem. I had another woman at the time who was not shy to reach out, and I had been trying to keep up with the daily barrage of texts, and in the meantime failed to pursue the quieter sister who was hurting even more. Lesson learned. Don’t let the noisy ones drown out the quiet ones.

Lack of Planning. Sometimes someone pours out their heart to me, and then life happens at its whirlwind pace and I discover a couple of weeks later that I have not followed up. I’ve learned planning is twice as powerful as I first thought. First, make notes to yourself to reach out over the coming days and weeks in whatever form of planner you use. Second, if you can communicate those plans, you can help set up reasonable expectations. I homeschool a tribe of children and meeting with women individually on a weekly basis for an extended time is not an option. But I can text, talk on the phone, and make the occasional coffee date. I have my other ministry responsibilities and deadlines in my planner, why not the relational needs too?

Lack of Genuine Love. This one is especially humbling to own up to. I think sometimes in ministry we can take the gift of people’s vulnerability and openness for granted because we experience it often. Sometimes, when someone feels unloved, on the inside I’m thinking, “How could you possibly feel that way? I’ve been aching for you for days!” I may have been hurting for the person, but the burning question is, “what have I done?”  I John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Genuine love doesn’t just feel, it acts. Genuine love knows that you personally are not the be-all and end-all to hurting people. Humility will let you bring other people into the situation to help when it is appropriate.

Too Much Structured Ministry. Keeping programs and events running in our churches can take a lot of time – and they have very real deadlines. I know by Wednesday at 6:30 I had better be ready for Awana, but caring for needy people can always be done “tomorrow.” And before you know it a couple of weeks have gone by. Every once in a while my husband and I have to look at our administrative ministry commitments and see if they are keeping us from the more unstructured aspects of shepherding. We have to make sure programs aren’t crowding out the more personal side of caring for individuals. If I’m so busy planning women’s events that I can’t ever have people into my home or weep with the one who weeps, then it’s time to hand over the event planning.

So, how can I show I care?

Always, always, caring begins with listening. One pastor’s wife I interned with had the listening thing down to an art form. We would spend a day visiting people and she had this way of listening with her whole body. Her eyes, her focus, her body language, the little noises she made, all conveyed the message that she was hanging on every word. There was no doubting whether or not she was engaged with what was being said. Fifteen years later I still tell myself, “listen like Connie!”  

Often times when headed into a heartbreaking situation we wonder what to say, and we try to search for the perfect words. A few years ago a momma in our church with 5 children passed away from heart failure. As my husband and I rushed to the hospital I kept praying, “God, help me to know what to say!” And then I realized how silly it was to think that they were going to remember anything I said that night!  I do think they will remember that as they stood around the body of their mother, they didn’t stand alone. There is no gift more powerful than presence.

After the listening, though, comes the follow-through. Ideal follow-through may be that you can meet everyday for an hour to talk about what is happening, but I don’t think that’s realistic for anyone! We have to make sure we don’t let what we can’t do keep us from doing what we can. Pray, and take a minute to send a text saying that you prayed today. Maybe you can’t bring a meal, but maybe you can drop off a loaf of bread, or slip them a card after a church service.The ideas are endless if you are creative. Give the woman who miscarried something to remember her baby by. Bring the widow flowers on Valentine’s Day. Volunteer to babysit for the couple whose marriage is in crisis. Tell the new momma you will rock her baby while she takes a nap in your guest room (with a loud fan on!) There are as many ways to love as there are hurting people, but it takes planning and intentionality. We as women plan meals and shopping lists and holidays, but even better, we can plan to love.

Sometimes I feel like I can’t walk through one more dark time with a hurting person, or that remembering to reach out is impossible with this week’s schedule, but Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12 remind me that the goal isn’t to finish this race well-rested, neat and tidy, with crossed off items on my to-do list. “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” (verse 15) We all have unique gifts when it comes to ministry, but those things pale in comparison to the great, grand business of Loving People Well. It’s an art worth giving a lifetime to mastering.

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Sarah Johnson

About Sarah Johnson

Sarah has been a pastor's wife in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in Utah County, the center of Mormonism. She can't think of two more opposite places in the US, but each has been a special joy. She has 5 children and spends most of her time homeschooling and ministering alongside her husband at Fellowship Bible Church. Sarah loves the great outdoors and feeding people and agrees with C.S. Lewis that, "you can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."