Introduction to part 4:
I wrote this chapter on pastoral care, bearing in mind that different countries and cultures have different understandings of what pastoral care involves. Culture often has a huge influence on how pastoral care is given. In western cultures there is usually a high degree of openness between a pastor and his church members and people talk about their problems and vulnerabilities more easily than in eastern or southern cultures. From my many conversations with pastors in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia I have learned a lot about the sensitivities and possibilities that characterise different cultures.
1. Pastoral leadership
2. The pastor’s assignment
3. The goal of pastoral care
4. The role of the church in pastoral care
5. Personal problems
6. Relational problems
7. The five characteristics of a trustworthy pastor
8. Basic pastoral skills
A shepherd does not only lead his flock in the right direction, he also makes sure they stay together and that each individual animal can keep up. In Ezekiel 34:4, God rebukes the leaders of Israel for neglecting this side of their role as shepherds of the people: strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strays and searching for the lost. These things are part of the shepherd’s responsibility as a caregiver; they are what make a leader a true pastor.
In Luke 15:3-6, Jesus shares a parable in which He highlights the responsibility a shepherd has for taking care of each individual sheep. A shepherd leaves his flock of 99 sheep behind in the open country and goes after one lost sheep. A shepherd must lead the flock, but the words of Jesus suggest that when troubles come caring for each individual animal takes priority over leading the whole flock. Even if only a single sheep is missing, or cannot keep up, the flock stays put. In this parable Jesus teaches us that pastoral care is an indispensable part of leadership. Every leader, first and foremost, is a pastor!
This means that, like Jesus, you will go to great lengths to comfort, encourage and support the people whom God has entrusted to you. Pastoral care means not letting go of a person who needs you, but being faithful. In 1 Corinthians 4:2, Paul says that those serving the church on behalf of God must be faithful. They have to be dependable, you have to know they will keep their promises and be as good as their word. In pastoral care, people do not just share their deepest secrets with the pastor, the put their very soul in his care. He is allowed to care for their soul, to touch their inward being. The relationship goes further than a doctor-patient relationship. A doctor touches his patient’s body, a pastor touches the soul. It takes a lot of trust in the pastor for a person to receive pastoral care. He or she must feel confident that the pastor will not just keep to himself what is confided to him, but also that he will know how to handle it wisely. Consciously or not, your church members see you as a representative of Jesus. You come to them in the name of Jesus, therefore they will expect you to act like Jesus would. Your trustworthiness will depend on the extent to which you reflect Jesus in the way in which you speak and listen!
This is what makes pastoral conversations unique. Pastoral care is not like therapy, which focuses exclusively on the person and his or her circumstances. In therapy the focus is inward. Neither is pastoral care the same as preaching. Preaching is one-way traffic: through preaching God speaks to us. In pastoral care there is certainly a place for sharing the Word of God, but first we must listen. As a pastor, you listen to what your brother or sister shares with you and then respond, drawing on the knowledge and experience you have of walking with God. You learn the art of double listening, giving your full attention to the person who has come to you for counselling, while at the same time listening to what God’s Spirit tells you to say in response to what has been shared with you. In pastoral care, then, the focus is not just inward, but upward as well. Pastoral care moves from the inside up, as we take people’s troubles to God.
What is pastoral care?
In order to understand the pastor’s assignment, we must first have a clear understanding of pastoral care. It often helps to start out by considering what pastoral care is not. Pastoral care does not mean you solve all the problems of the people in your care. A lot of pastors have that tendency. Someone will come to you with a certain problem and your first instinct is to start looking for a solution. You want to be there for that person, you want to help. And a lot of people will indeed see you as their last resort. You have to know your own boundaries, especially when it comes to practical matters, such as finances, housing, problems with the government, material or legal issues. What you can do, however – and this may go a lot deeper than mere problem solving – is to come alongside that person in his difficulties. This involves listening to their his story, his complaint, his fears or sorrows. It means empathising, feeling what he feels, and joining him in opening the Bible to seek hope and strength in order to remain standing.
As a pastor you are clearly not called to remove suffering. Jesus did not do that when He was on earth. He healed the sick and helped those who came to him, but he did not take away the suffering of this world. In John 17:15 he prays: ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one’. Jesus overcame the evil and brokenness of this life when he died on the cross, but it will not be taken away until He returns. Until that day God’s children, too, will face suffering, anxiety and sorrow. However, the miracles Jesus performed do show us that He is stronger than sin, that He can heal what is broken, that nothing is too difficult for him. That is how He gave us hope and perspective, showing us that our troubles and cares will not have the final say in our lives, but that he will.
Pastoral care, then, can be defined as follows:
Pastoral care is drawing near to another person in the name of Jesus in order to seek hope and renewal of life together in his or her situation.
To begin with, therefore, it is important that you introduce the presence of Jesus to the situation, as you are there on His behalf. He commissioned you when He said: ‘Take care of My sheep, feed My lambs’ (John 21:15-17). You can only represent Jesus as a pastor if you are truly connected to Him yourself. Ministering to others begins with ministering to your own soul. Paul instructed pastors in the same way: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock’ (Acts 20:28). Being a pastor in Jesus’ name requires that you enjoy intimate fellowship with him. A pastor desiring to listen not only to what is told him by the person sitting opposite him but also to what Jesus may want to say to that person, must first get familiar with the voice of Jesus. Being a pastor means saying what Paul said: ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
This also means that pastoral care is not primarily about what you say or do, but about who you are. You yourself are the most important instrument in the pastoral conversation. The way you are, your attitude in life, is what will touch people. And the first thing you will discover as you walk with God is that what matters is not how strong or brave you are, but that you ‘become like a child’. In Luke 9:24, Jesus shares the most fundamental lesson we can learn in life: ‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will save it’. In pastoral care the deepest and final question is always: do you trust God? Do you trust in his love for you? Do you trust He will take care of you? As you counsel others in this, you will face this question yourself again and again in the secret chamber of your heart, where you meet with God. Only when you have learned to trust God and to receive His love will you be able to pass it on through pastoral care. This is why pastoral care is not so much a method or a technique as it is a way of life. It means living the life Jesus taught us to live by his example: without the Father, I can do nothing. Yet in the power of his Father he was full of compassion for the people he met and was able to draw near them to offer healing, support and guidance. As a pastor, you, too, may draw near to people in the power of Jesus in order to give them hope and new strength in his name.
The goal of pastoral care
A pastor gets right next to people in the name of Jesus with the purpose of seeking hope and renewal in their situation together. If you truly desire to offer people hope and renewal, your pastoral conversations will always be a mixture of confrontation and inspiration. Both of these poles are indispensable if you seek to bring change and renewal to people who are stuck in life.
Confrontation usually comes first – after you have listened carefully to the person who has come to tell you his or her story. And note that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing means you allow a person to tell his story; listening means you make an effort to sense what is driving him, what he is really saying. It means listening for what lies behind the spoken words. Is he trying to vindicate himself, to excuse himself, or perhaps to blame someone else? Confrontation is all about being honest with that person. There are really very few people in our lives who are completely honest with us. Sometimes even a husband or wife does not dare to speak out about what he or she sees in a partner’s life. All too often we cover each other’s mistakes with the cloak of charity – with the result that evil is allowed to fester. This is why James calls on us to be honest, especially when we find one another caught up in difficulties. In writing on how to cope with illness in the church, he says, among other things, that we must confess our sins to one another before we pray for and anoint the sick (James 5:16). If we do not honestly confront the wrong in a person’s life, or the false motives we may discover as he shares his story with us, our pastoral care will remain shallow and ineffective.
Confrontation means placing the other person’s life in the light of God in order to see what has grown crooked or is sinful. This is the prophetic side of pastoral care. Listening prophetically means seeing what is going on deep inside the other person’s heart, sensing what he thinks and feels and then putting the finger on it in the name of Jesus. It means seeing beyond the outward appearance and the fine words and identifying what you perceive in his life. When you confront someone in this manner, it is important to realise that only a confrontation rooted in love for that person will lead him closer to God. Your motive for confronting him is that you desire to deliver him from the bonds in which he is tied up, consciously or unconsciously, you want to heal him from his bad habits, rescue him from negativity. Confrontation must always be aimed at forgiveness of sins and a restoration of the other person´s relationship with God and with those around him. That is the purpose and as pastors we must never lose sight of this purpose: when we confront someone, we are inviting to confess their sin. And when that happens, we may fully proclaim forgiveness (1 John 1:9) and help the other person to step out of the darkness into the light of God´s grace!
Another condition for confrontation in pastoral care is that as a pastor you must never place yourself above the other person, but rather stand beside him as one sinner next to another. A pastor is not a saint confronting a sinner, but a sinner helping another sinner to recognise his mistakes. You cannot point out a speck of sawdust in your neighbour´s eye without recognising the plank in your own eye. This does not mean that as a pastor you will never be able to speak out against anyone unless until you are completely sinless yourself. It does mean that in a confronting conversation you must confess your own sins and vulnerabilities. Then you can stand at the foot of the cross together and be on the same spiritual level. With that awareness you can then lovingly and honestly point out what you see or perceive.
This prophetic listening is really a kind of double listening: while listening to what the other person is sharing with you, you are also listening for what God´s Spirit is telling you, for whatever words or thoughts He may be placing in your heart as you tune in to Him and to the other person. Prophetic listening means listening to a person´s story, while allowing the Holy Spirit to guide your response. It requires that you have become familiar with listening to God´s voice through a life of prayer and meditation on God´s Word. If this is the case, you will receive the right words to speak in the pastoral conversations you engage in.
The other side of the pastoral conversation is inspiration. Inspiration is all about bringing people back to God´s purpose for their lives. It is like opening the curtains and windows in a stuffy, dark and cramped room. People who are suffering can get so caught up in their suffering that there is no room left in their world for anything other than pain, sorrow or shame. Exposing these things to God´s forgiveness and healing enables us to find new space for lifting up our head and looking up again. It enables us to breathe and to look beyond our sorrows and questions in the light of God.
Inspiration means reminding the other person who he is in God´s eyes and showing him his life amounts to much more than his current situation. Inspiring a person means helping him to look at his cares through God´s eyes and bringing him back to life´s essence: do not let your worries rule over you, for you know your heavenly Father knows what you need (Matthew 6:31-32). Jesus ends this encouragement with these words: ‘…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33). Inspiration is all about joining hands in searching for signs of God’s kingdom in the present situation and discovering that He is always in control. It gives us hope and new strength.
Signs of God’s kingdom
In pastoral care, these signs of God’s kingdom usually become visible in any of the following five ways, or in a combination thereof: comfort, healing, deliverance, reconciliation and hope.
The first thing to do when you comfort a person is not to rebut their sorrow or despair, but to acknowledge it. Giving comfort means giving a people space to mourn their losses. By acknowledging their sadness we create space for them to truly face it. Unconsciously, most people sense they cannot get around their problems, but they often try – and are encouraged to do so by their surroundings. A pastor’s task is to provide the space a person needs to sound out the depth of his or her sorrow or loss. You can do this, because you know God is there and therefore your counselee will not be lost in a bottomless pit. You can identify the sorrow and give space to it, precisely because you know Jesus is present in it. The cross of Jesus demonstrated that no misery or sorrow is too great for him. He entered into the world’s misery and carried it. This is the unique thing about pastoral care: a lot of people will try to invalidate a person’s sorrow, either by downplaying it, by offering rational explanations or by holding out promises of a better future. ‘Things will be fine’, ‘You’ll find another partner’, ‘You’re still young’, and so on. Offering this kind of response means you are not taking the other person’s sorrow seriously. So make sure that before you do anything else you allow space for sorrow!
Part of facing sorrows or losses is to give them a name. Mention the name of the person who has died, put your finger on the conflict causing so much anger, name the fear, the anxiety or whatever else it is that is weighing down your counselee. Many people do not dare to do this themselves and in many cases their surroundings prefer to avoid it as well, as it makes the person suffering so vulnerable. But the Bible teaches us we must do it nonetheless. After sharing some of his personal sufferings, Paul says: ‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
To comfort a person is to help him to persevere, to be patient, to keep on living, even when his feelings suggest all has come to nothing. Comforting a person means coming alongside him and encouraging him to keep walking; drawing near him in his suffering and acknowledging it together –not so that he will wallow in it, but, having faced it, will get back up and begin to move on. This is a demanding task for you as a pastor: sharing in the sufferings of different members of your congregation will not leave you untouched. You will taste their
sorrow, allowing it to enter into your own heart. It is the only way you can draw near to them. Often, in fact, it is all you can do.
Being a comfort means becoming like the friends of Job who sat with him in his mourning and stayed there (Job 2:11-13). You keep coming back, you keep listening, you stick around quietly knowing that words will not do. You stay near in the name of Jesus. It is worth noting that the comforting effect of the presence of Job’s friends disappears the moment they open their mouths and start groping for explanations for his loss. This is a trap every pastor may easily fall into: the tendency to try and explain a person’s loss, to find reasons for it. We tend to do this too often and thoughtlessly, making superficial statements and presenting general truths that discredit both our counselee and God. Rather than trying to explain suffering that cannot be explained, we should call out to God together from the depth of this suffering. James says: ‘Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray’ (James 5:13). Psalm 130 is a beautiful example of such a prayer: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy’.
In addition to giving comfort, pastoral care often also involves healing. Many church members carry external or internal wounds and as a pastor you have the privilege of drawing near to them on behalf of Jesus the healer and offering healing. Jesus clearly states that he came to earth to establish the kingdom of God, that is to say, to restore humanity and creation to God’s rule. He did this in three ways: he proclaimed the gospel, healed the sick and delivered those in bondage. Later, when Jesus commissioned the disciples he gave them the same assignment: ‘When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick’ (Luke 9:1-2). The twelve disciples were not the only ones either – another group of 72 followers of Jesus received the same commission and the same authority. They even cast out demons (Luke 10:17). In the Book of Acts, too, we see the apostles and Paul performing many miraculous healings. Healing must have its rightful place in the church of Christ and therefore also in pastoral care.
The New Testament speaks of the gift of healing in the church of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:9). Evidently, some believers are given special grace to pray for the sick, to lay hands on them and to witness God healing the sick. But the ministry of healing is an assignment for the whole church. This is why James offers instructions on dealing with the sick that do not just apply to those who have the gift of healing, but to the entire body of believers.
At the end of his epistle, James clearly outlines how we are to deal with the sick in the church of Christ. ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed’ (James 5:14-16).
Several things stand out in James’ comments. First, we notice the use of oil to anoint the sick. In both the Old and the New Testaments the anointing a person with oil symbolises a Consecration of that person to God. When the elders of a church anoint a sick person, that are visually and physically demonstrating that he or she is being entrusted into God’s hands and given over to his care. The person´s life belongs to God and therefore his or her healing can only be God´s work.
James emphasises another aspect of prayer for healing by connecting sickness with sin. With healing comes forgiveness, too, he tells us. There are many instances in the Bible in which sickness comes as a consequence of sin. In 1 Corinthians 11:30 a large number of church members are said to be ill, some even fatally, as a result of celebrating communion in an unworthy manner. Jesus, when He was healing people, often said: ‘Your sins are forgiven, take up your bed and walk’. When a person comes to God, he experiences not just physical
healing, but complete restoration from brokenness and sin. The divine healer does not deliver half measures! However, we cannot state that every disease is the result of a sin committed by the patient. If that were the case, we would all be permanently ill. When the disciples, on encountering a man blind from birth, asked whether he had sinned or his parents, Jesus replied: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned’ (John 9:2-3). Job’s deep suffering is not connected to any sins he may have committed either. When his friends suggest otherwise, he has the courage to say he is innocent, calling on God as his witness. James does not say that sickness is always directly related to sin. What he says, literally, is this: ‘If they have sinned…’ (James 5:15). He seems to be referring here to specific sins from the past whose consequences are still felt. These consequences, James says, will disappear after prayer and anointing.
Does this mean that every sick person prayed over and anointed by the elders of the church will immediately be healed? In many cases that is what will happen, sometimes immediately, sometimes after a longer time – but always as a recognisable answer to prayer. However, we know that not every sick person receiving prayer and anointing is healed. The Bibles gives us numerous examples of this, such as Paul, who suffered from a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Sometimes God’s purpose is to teach us things through suffering that we cannot learn in any other way. Our only option in such cases is to trust ‘that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). If we live in this awareness, all of our prayers, including those for healing, will be in line with the prayer Jesus uttered in Gethsemane: ‘Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mark 14:36). This prayer reveals a deep intimacy with the heavenly Father. In the very depths of suffering, Jesus calls his Father ‘Abba’, or ‘Papa’. And He confesses that this Papa is the Mighty God who can end the present suffering or heal any sickness with these words: ‘Everything is possible for you’. No problem is too great for God, no sickness is too severe, no suffering is heavy that He cannot lift it. This is why Jesus pleads: ‘Take this cup from me’. Let it end, make the pain, the sorrow and the suffering go away. It is a cry from the depths of the heart! And yet it is followed by a total surrender to God: ‘Yet not what I will, but what you will’. Even in the deepest suffering, we may entrust ourselves completely to God who loves us and is with us. This prayer Jesus uttered in His fear and despair teaches us how we may pray with the sick and the suffering.
In addition to comfort and prayer for healing, pastoral care involves a third element: deliverance from demons. During His time on earth, Jesus delivered many people from the power of demons who had taken possession of their lives. For example, think of the crippled woman (Luke 13:10-13), the mute man (Matthew 9:32), the demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes, from whom Jesus cast out a ‘legion’ of demons (Luke 8:30), or the boy suffering from seizures (Matthew 17:14-18). Many of these demon-possessed people were ill. This does not mean that every sick person is possessed by demons, but some physical and mental symptoms may point in that direction. In this area it is important to ‘distinguish between spirits’ (1 Corinthians 12:10). Well-known symptoms that may suggest demon possession include compulsive or obsessive thought patterns, distorted facial expressions or changes of voice. These symptoms often go hand in hand with an intense hatred of Jesus, the Bible and prayer. Hatred of Christians in general can also be a sign of possession. Again, let me stress that not every person showing these kinds of behaviour is possessed – but such behaviour can be a sign we must take seriously.
The New Testament points out three areas in which demons can be active. They can manifest themselves in the areas of impurity (Luke 4:33), occultism (Acts 16:16) and false teachings about God and the faith (1 Timothy 4:1). Sins in these areas make people vulnerable and expose them to demonic influence. Experience also shows us that curses and ancestral sins can also play a major role in causing bondage.
Jesus clearly taught his disciples that demons can only be cast out through concentrated prayer for deliverance. In Mark 9:29, after they have unsuccessfully tried to cast out demons, Jesus says to them: ‘This kind can come out only by prayer’. This prayer, in the Bible, is always very simple. Jesus prayed for deliverance in this way in Mark 9:25: ‘You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again’. In Acts 16:18, Paul used these words: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ Praying for deliverance, then, means praying in the name of Jesus and commanding the evil spirit to depart and not to return to this person.
It is important to realise that this battle of prayer against the devil and his demons always impacts the person praying, too. This is why it is highly advisable to avoid praying for deliverance on your own, but rather to operate as a team – preferably a team that includes both men and women. That way you can complement each other. The men can pray with a man, the women with a woman. It is also important to properly prepare the person you will be praying with. He or she must know what is going to happen. Both the person being prayed for and the persons praying will know whether the demon has departed after the prayer or not. They will experience an inner lightness and space, along with an absolute assurance that the evil spirit is gone. By no means does this always occur after a single prayer; in some cases, it takes many years of prayer. Why some people are delivered in one go and others only after a long and intense struggle, we do not know. What we do know is that we may always place our complete trust in God.
In addition to offering comfort, healing and deliverance, pastors have another task. In 2 Corinthians 5:19-20, Paul refers to this fourth task as follows: ‘And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God’. This ministry of reconciliation is performed through preaching, when the message of reconciliation and forgiveness is proclaimed, but also through pastoral care, when we share it with people on a personal basis.
In the context of pastoral care, reconciliation, first and foremost, takes place between God and the person to which you are ministering as a pastor. It is a restoration of a broken relationship. Every human being suffers from a breach in his or her relationship with God as a result of sin. Reconciliation with God, therefore, involves the confession of guilt and the receiving of forgiveness: your sins are forgiven you. It is important that the things that have happened in people’s lives are brought into the pastoral conversation and into the light of God. This means there must be room for you as a pastor to ask people about their walk with God. Which place does God have in their lives, does he have the first place, do we love him above all and everyone else? These questions are a vital part of caring for one another. If as a pastor you desire to take God and your church members seriously, you will bring up the topic of their relationship with God.
While the ministry of reconciliation deals with reconciling people to God, it also deals with reconciliation between people. The church of Christ, like any other place in which people live together, can be the scene of quarrels and discord. The unity Jesus prayed for so passionately in John 17 is sometimes hard to find. Most quarrels involve two or several individuals, but in some cases entire churches can get entangled with each other, along with their pastors. These situations go against everything Jesus taught us and they are a terrible testimony to the world around us.
Unity should be the number one characteristic of the church of Christ. Jesus says so in John 13, John 15, John 17 and many other passages. The commandment to love one another is the fulfilment of all other commandments (Romans 13:8,10). God holds it against his children and the church when we fail to live by this love. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says the following about disputes among his followers: ‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your
gift’ (Matthew 5:23-24). In other words, there is no point in praying to God if you are in the middle of a fight with your brother or sister, because God will not listen to you until you have made up. And if things go wrong again, you have to go back and fix them again. ‘How often?’ Peter once asked Jesus. His reply, ‘Not seven times, but seventy-seven times’, means: again and again and again.
Getting reconciled with a brother or sister requires the same step as reconciliation with God: you need to return to your brother or sister. This is the most difficult in situations in which you are convinced you are right and he or she is wrong. But then, too, you are called to return to that person and to ask him or her to forgive you, recognising that things are not right between you. In John 13, Jesus calls us as his disciples to be the least among our brothers and sisters, to wash one another’s feet. Unity is more important than establishing who is right!
What really helps in all of this is to remind ourselves and one another of what Jesus went through to reconcile us with God. He let go of his glory and majesty and became human like us in order to bring us back to God. He took all our guilt upon himself to save us. Considering that, could it be too much for him to ask us to take each other’s guilt upon ourselves? As a pastor, you have the privilege of being the first to put the ministry of reconciliation into practice. It is unacceptable for pastors and churches to be at odds with each other, to malign each other or to openly in engage in quarrels or disputes. A church or pastor that does, loses all credibility in proclaiming reconciliation, forgiveness and grace. Jesus speaks about this in the parable of the man who owed the king a large debt and then had his debt cancelled by the king. The very same day, the man ran into someone who owed him a small amount of money and had him thrown into jail for failing to pay. When the king heard about this, he was furious and the man was punished severely. This is what will happen to pastors and churches who themselves are reconciled by God but then fail to practice the ministry of reconciliation in their dealings with others. As a pastor, you have to set the example in this, helping others to follow.
Whenever we offer comfort, healing, deliverance and reconciliation, we do not just empathise with people in their sorrow, need or guilt, but we may also show them how to move forward. Sorrow is not easily overcome, sickness does not always pass, deliverance from bondage does not always free a person of every fear or anxiety and full reconciliation often involves a long and difficult path. Your job as a pastor is to offer hope to people in the very midst of all these situations. Often they will have lost all hope and they will have given up believing anything will ever change. Your job is to come alongside these people, not to join them in feeling low, but to show them that there is hope, even in their circumstances. Suffering is not easy for anybody, but as Christians we know that God can use it to help us grow, to make us stronger and to teach us life’s most vital lessons.
In Romans 5:3-4, Paul puts it this way: ‘we (…) glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’. Through his own sufferings, Paul discovered that what matters is that we persevere, that is, that we keep going even under intense pressure. To better understand perseverance, think, for instance, of the pillars that uphold a heavy bridge. Perseverance is not just sitting around waiting for things to pass by, but rather it is eagerly longing to find out what God wants you to discover through your suffering. Remember that His promise to everyone who believes is that all things – including your difficult situation – will work together for good (Romans 8:28).
This is the encouragement you can offer to people who have given up hoping: ‘Hang in there, God will carry you through this and you will emerge stronger than ever before’. That is the kind of character Paul is talking about in Romans 5. Character, here, means you have been tested, you are experienced and because of your experience you have become better at coping with the trials and tribulations that come your way. This discovery gives you renewed hope and perspective. You can face your sufferings, you find courage to look beyond your present difficulties. Ultimately, hope does not mean you believe everything is going to be fine; rather, it means you are certain that God is with you, that he will not let go of you and that he will carry you.
He gives each of us the strength we need to carry our cross. Hope is also an awareness that suffering will not have the final say in our lives, but that Jesus will. Paul stresses this point in 2 Corinthians 4:17: ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all’.
It is important that you teach people to hope, that you teach them that God is there and that their suffering is not a bottomless pit, because their lives are in His hands. You will find that some people will recognise this, while others will not. Some will find an anchor in their troubles, others will seem to drown in them. This does not happen by chance; ultimately, it is a choice. As a pastor you have the privilege and the possibility to teach people that their response after the initial shock of sorrow, sickness or disappointment depends on the choices they make. In almost any situation we encounter as human beings, we have two options: we can get carried away by our sufferings, or we can deliberately and hopefully endure them. In order to choose the latter, your church members need to be instructed and encouraged.
The two most important tools for remaining hopeful and even growing stronger in suffering are prayer and forgiveness. Prayer keeps us connected to God, even when we do not understand him, or when we disagree with how he is leading our lives. Think of Job who in his deepest despair kept calling out to God. Or think of Jesus who in Gethsemane returned no less than three times to beg his Father for deliverance and at the same time to surrender to his will. In addition to prayer, forgiveness is also crucial if we want to avoid drowning in the sufferings caused us by other people. Forgiveness will not protect us from physical harm, but it will protect our soul as it will lift us out of the reach of anger and resentment, preventing those enemies from entering our being. Forgiveness makes us stronger than the evil directed at us. This is what Paul meant when he wrote these words: ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. (…) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:14,21). It is also what Jesus meant when he said: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:44-45).
These things will not just happen in a person’s life; they are the result of deliberate decisions made under the guidance of the Spirit of God and with the support of a pastor. These decisions enable a person to persevere and to keep the flame of hope burning. They enable us to emerge from suffering stronger than we were before and because of them we need not suffer in vain.
The role of the church in pastoral care
In many churches the pastor, or spiritual leader, is the main person providing pastoral care. He is either approached by church members seeking counsel or goes out himself to visit, talk and pray with members of the congregation. Pastoral care is a major part of a pastor’s job and takes up most of his time. In my experience, many church members will not feel they or their problems have been taken seriously until the pastor of the church has come to visit. Others may come, such as elders, deacons or fellow church members, but ultimately the person they want to see is the pastor.
It was the same in the early church. In Acts 6, we read that as the body of believers grew, providing pastoral care began to take up more and more of the apostles’ time. The Hellenistic believers felt they were being overlooked and brought their complaint to the apostles. These gathered all the believers together, explaining that their main task as apostles was not to provide pastoral care and practical support, but to pray and to preach. They suggested the church choose seven deacons to serve the church during the communal meals and in other areas (Acts 6:1-7). Interestingly, this proposal was perfectly in line with the advice Jethro gave Moses long before (Exodus 18:21, 22). The gist of it was that providing pastoral care should be made the responsibility of a wider group of people in the church and not be left exclusively to the apostles. So we see that in the church of Christ there are different ministries that are involved in caring for its members. In the early days, the apostles and deacons took the lead. Later on Paul distinguished several other ministries and eventually all of the believers were called on to take care of one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to look after each other. The church of Christ is a pastoral community!
Looking after each other involves inspiration, encouragement, comfort. These, too, are the responsibility of every believer. Throughout the New Testament we come across instructions such as these: encourage each other (Romans 1:12), have concern for each other (1 Corinthians 12:25), serve one another (Galatians 5:13), offer hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9) and carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). This means specifically that when someone is suffering, the rest of us in the church suffer with him, or when someone has reason to rejoice, the rest of rejoice with him (1 Corinthians 12:26).
In this way, the body of Christ forms a pastoral community in which not only the pastor offers counsel, admonition or comfort, but in which every member plays his or her part. The unity Jesus so often speaks about finds expression primarily in our care for one another in good times and bad times. It manifests itself on our conversations and the attention we give each other as well as the practical support we extend to one another. Looking after each other does not just mean talking and praying together, it also, emphatically, means sharing. So if one of us is lacking in something, including finances, the church lends a hand. This is how God’s great commandment that we love our neighbour as ourselves becomes a reality in the church!
The range of problems you can run into in providing pastoral care to individual church members is so wide, it would be impossible to cover them all in this part of the Pastors’ Manual. Besides, as a pastor you don’t have an answer to every question anyway. Your job is to listen and to respond in the name of Jesus, to suffer with your church members, stand beside them and pray with them, thus giving them a glimpse of God´s nearness in their suffering or trials. Having said that, however, we must also realise that the Bible offers many surprising answers to life´s toughest questions and cares.
Many of the problems with which people will come to you can be clustered in certain categories. We´ve already looked at sorrow, sickness, guilt and bondage. In this chapter on personal problems, we will focus mainly on problems that come from within and that are tied up with psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety, self-esteem, loneliness, addiction and spiritual problems.
Many people suffer from negative thoughts and feelings for longer or shorter periods. These dark periods are sometimes related to disappointment in oneself or in others, causing a person to get stuck in a downward spiral. The majority of people manage to get these thoughts or feelings under control, get back on their feet and start again with a positive attitude. But there is also a large group of people who fail in this; they sink deeper and deeper into negativity, until they can no longer get back out on their own strength. They are experiencing a depression and they need good support. You can recognise a depressed person primarily by his gloomy feelings; to the victim of depression, it is as if everything is covered by a blanket of grey.
Depressed people are negative about themselves, they are ashamed of themselves. They are pessimistic, they don’t think anything will work, they have no hope or expectation. Their minds are constant flurry of negative thoughts. They don’t get much done, everything seems too much or too difficult for them, even the smallest tasks look mountainous to them. They are often too tired to get out of bed and nothing – not even their loved ones – interests them anymore. That’s what a depression is like. Sometimes, a depression can have a physical cause, for instance in the case of post-natal depression. Sometimes it is the result of many years of repressed emotions, such as anger or sorrow, or of some crushing experience through which a person has lost him or herself. Depression is also often related to a psychological vulnerability passed on from parents to children, sometimes for many generations.
Many people, especially Christians, feel guilty about having a depression. If you have become negative about yourself and your surroundings, it can be almost impossible to relate to God and faith positively. It is important that as a pastor you point out to people that being depressed is not necessarily a sin – it is a form of sickness that cannot always be helped. In fact, depression is a serious illness that paralyses your mind and your heart. In the Bible we meet numerous depressed people: Job, Jonah, Jeremiah and the author of Psalm 43: ‘Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God’ (verse 5).
This is why it is so important that in counselling a depressed person, you do not issue all kinds of orders and push them to have more faith in God and to try harder to believe. Even more importantly, you must avoid deliberate or unconscious accusations regarding weak faith or a lack of trust. Your depressed brother or sister simply cannot cope for the moment. You wouldn’t tell a person with a broken leg to go and practice jumping over a fence, would you? Neither should you tell a person with a broken spirit to trust harder. What you can tell him is that God will not let go and that even if he feels as though God has abandoned him, He is there and loves them deeply. Keep repeating this time and time again. Regardless of what is happening – or not happening – in the depressed person’s life, the good Shepherd will never forsake him. If he cannot believe, the fellowship must do it for him. If she can no longer pray, you and other believers can pray for her. Stand in for the depressed person and bring him to God, like the four friends did with the paralysed man in Mark 2.
Also, it is important to help him or her take small steps towards becoming active again. Gently encourage him to look after himself, to get out of bed, to get outside. Help him, step by step, to start living again. In this way you will show him there is hope, there is a life for him to pursue.
One of the root causes of depression and other psychological disorders is fear. People go through a lot of things that can make them afraid and it is important that as pastors we teach them how to cope with fear and what the Bible says about it. Fear has to do with losing control. A situation gets out of hand, you don’t know where things are going and this causes physical and emotional tension. You’re constantly on the alert, danger lurks everywhere and the fear of it takes a hold of you. In itself, fear is a healthy response to danger, but if it starts dominating your life it has become a psychological problem. Fear, then, is related to a conscious or unconscious feeling of being under threat. It occurs a lot in countries plagued by war, persecution and danger. The constant tension of not knowing where the next threat will come from, that feeling of having to look over your shoulder all the time can cause a person to live in permanent fear. And this has a huge spiritual and physical impact; it paralyses and exhausts you. In practice, there are three ways to respond to fear: flee, fight or freeze. Which of these a person chooses depends on character, choices made before and mental strength.
Fear has to do with worry. A person can be overwhelmed by the cares, uncertainties and feeling of being out of control. Jesus addresses this issue in Matthew 6:25-34 when talking about fears regarding the future. Will we have enough food, clothing, will our needs be met? Jesus shows us how best to cope with worries that can seem to consume us. As a pastor, you can pass on this lesson to fearful people you encounter. Jesus says this: ‘Do not worry about your life’ (Matthew 6:25). The words He uses here mean: do not let worrying take over. It is not wrong to have concerns, to think about situations, to be apprehensive or even afraid of certain things. But Jesus says: do not let these feelings take over. Do not let your worries grow so big that there is room for nothing else in your mind. It is a fact that life is full of uncertainties, we never know what tomorrow will bring, but that does not mean we must be afraid. Jesus stresses that we do not have to give in to worries or fear, because the Father will take care of us. Just as He takes care of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. So the answer to fearing the uncertainties of life is to keep remembering that our heavenly Father knows what we need right where we are, and that He will provide. Do not focus on what you cannot control, instead focus on who God is to you and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33).
The Bible frequently points out that God deals with all people equally and without favouritism. In God’s eyes all men are of equal value, of equal importance, equally loved. This is why Jesus declares in John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world…’ This also implies that God loves all people. To Him each one of us is so precious that He gave His only Son for us, so that we might be saved. If you consider this, there can be no grounds for people to compare themselves with others. Yet it happens all the time. All too often our self-esteem is directly linked to the people with whom we compare ourselves. If we look up to others, we may easily look down upon ourselves. It is a natural human tendency to want to be better and more than those around us. A person who feels he falls short may easily develop an inferiority complex.
So one of the causes of inferiority complexes and low self-esteem is the comparing of ourselves with others – and underlying that is our desire to be more or better. In Philippians 2:3, Pauls says: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves’. This attitude will help us to avoid comparing and longing to be bigger and better, and instead to rejoice in who others are, while also appreciating our own position as the place in which God has called us to live with and serve him.
Self-denial is the opposite of self-importance. But self-denial does not mean you have low self-esteem or think negatively about yourself. The Bible testifies to the unique beauty of each individual person, created in God’s image (Genesis 2), ‘a little lower than the angels’ (Psalm 8:5). In the summary of the Ten Commandments we are instructed to love God above all else and our neighbour as ourselves. There is a healthy self-assurance, in
which we accept how we were made and what gifts we were endowed with and in which we manage our personal ambitions in a healthy way. As Christians, certainly we may seek to bring out the best in ourselves in order to honour God. The secret is to base our self-esteem on how God made us and not on a comparison with other people.
Not that low self-esteem always results from comparing. Sometimes parents foster a poor self-image in their children by emphasising their limitations and failures. Sometimes bad preaching leads people to believe they are bad and sinful through and through and will never get any better either. Being disappointed in ourselves when we had expected more can also give our self-esteem a knock. All of these thoughts and experiences can eventually create a lasting sense of worthlessness or even self-abhorrence. In pastoral care you will often encounter people struggling with their self-esteem. You can help them, on the one hand, by affirming their beauty, uniqueness and worth. Affirm them in their identity as a man or woman, in their role as a husband or wife, father or mother, brother or sister in the fellowship. On the other hand, you can use the Bible to show them how precious they are to God, teaching them to look at themselves through God’s eyes. This will help them renew their thinking about themselves and their surroundings. If there is one place where any single person’s real value is visible, it is on the cross of Jesus. He gave Himself for each of us. We are so deeply precious to Him that He was prepared to give up everything to reconnect with us!
As a pastor you will often encounter people who feel lonely. Loneliness is that painful inner emptiness we all feel from time to time – that feeling that ultimately you are on your own and that no one really knows or understands you. It is a realisation that there is nobody with whom you are deeply connected. Loneliness is the absence of a soulmate. Loneliness usually has little to do with being alone. The most intense loneliness is often felt in crowds, or even in marriage. It is often a passing feeling, as sooner or later we meet people we can connect with from heart to heart. But sometimes loneliness stays, leaving a person feeling incapable of developing intimate relationships.
Chronic loneliness can have many causes. One common social cause is the distraction provided by television and mobile phones that leaves people with less and less time for quiet conversation and just being together. In cities, people tend to live more anonymously than in rural areas. How a person is raised and reaches adulthood can also influence his or her susceptibility to loneliness. If you were not loved in a healthy way during childhood, or never learned to give, or were never accepted just as you were, your ability to connect with others later in life may suffer. Loneliness can also be a form of escape, of withdrawing from the difficulties of having to be open and vulnerable in friendships or relationships.
As a pastor, you should realise that loneliness is a very common problem, even if it is not often mentioned. The fear of loneliness is one of man’s greatest fears and its roots go back to Paradise, when God saw that Adam had no mate. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’, God said (Genesis 2:18) and He created Eve to be ‘a helper suitable for him’. Then Adam had someone like himself, yet different, with whom he could share everything. Friendships and relationships are vital to us as human beings and as a pastor you must recognize this and have the courage to out the finger on the sore spot if you see one of your church members suffering from loneliness. Pinpoint the problem, search together for possible reasons why there is no soul mate, emphasising that being alone is not necessarily the same as being lonely: a person can enjoy being alone in a good way, provided he or she also has regular heart-to-heart contact with others. The church can play a vital role in this area. Praying, singing and reading the Bible together is in itself a way of sharing our deeper thoughts. It creates a bond and lays a solid foundation for further conversation and friendship. The church should be a place where people living alone are not lonely. But it requires that we are aware of the issue of loneliness. As a pastor you can play an important role in this.
Addictions are another category of problems that can cause intense suffering. Alcohol and drug addiction usually come to mind first, but there are many other, often less visible, forms. Addiction means showing certain behaviour or habits that you can no longer control: you have to do this or that, no matter what. Addiction often begins in small ways, but then rapidly goes from bad to worse until the thing you are addicted to is out of your control – or rather, until it takes control of you. In addition to alcohol or drugs, people can be addicted to work, television, the Internet, sex or pornography, food, sports, smoking.
The Bible addresses the problem of addiction. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul says: ‘“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything’. Anyone who believes in and belongs to Jesus has been delivered from every form of slavery. Sin no longer has dominion over us; we can resist and overcome sinful impulses and desires. In Romans 6:11-12, Paul writes: ‘In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires’. In the power of the resurrected Jesus we can battle and overcome sinful desires and addictions. This is the spiritual basis for the battle against addiction. Our goal is to keep our lives and bodies pure, as the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
With this in mind, you will do all you can as a pastor to help people shake off their addictions, whatever they may be. Here are a few general guidelines for helping people struggling with addiction: 1) Help them to acknowledge their addiction and their need for help. 2) Make sure the addict tells the people around him personally and that they are willing to offer support. Get them to rid the home of alcohol or other substances. Get them to guard the television or the Internet and to watch over the addict both lovingly and strictly. 3) Put into practice the Biblical principle that says, ‘Overcome evil with good’ by encouraging the addict to find positive and challenging activities to engage in that will help him or her to persevere. 4) Again and again, take the situation to God in prayer together, praying that the Holy Spirit will guide the addict and those around him and provide strength to persevere.
Spiritual problems are the one area with which many pastors feel most comfortable. When people get caught up in any of the problems we looked at earlier, their spiritual life is invariably affected. Body, soul and spirit are a unity and each influences the other in profound ways. But even people who are not facing personal problems such as those above, they can experience intense spiritual struggles. Every believer has his desert periods: periods of spiritual drought in which God seems distant, periods of doubt, in which you ask yourself whether what you belief really is true, or whether you really are God’s child, or whether He really does love you.
People can get into spiritual trouble in a lot of ways. Many believers face the additional challenge of living among people who do not believe, or hold different beliefs. A Christian surrounded by Muslims or Buddhists has to have a solid foundation, as his beliefs are constantly being negated or attacked. But a Christian in a secularised welfare state may also have to work hard to keep the faith in the face of the many forces tempting him away from God. Spiritual dryness can also be the result of a lack of knowledge of the Scriptures and of the Christian faith. The many questions without answers can overwhelm you, causing you to doubt. Others get into trouble as a result of being undisciplined: they spend less and less time reading and praying until eventually there is nothing left but a meaningless habit. It should not surprise us that in John 15 Jesus points out that what really matters is that we ‘remain in Him’ and that the way to do this is to remain in his Word.
When someone asks you to help them deal with a spiritual problem, you must realise that he or she sees you as an example. People see you as a representative of God, as someone who knows how things work, someone who is steadfast in the faith. Especially when dealing with people struggling with doubt, it can be helpful to be honest about your own doubts and struggles in your walk with God. This will help them see that their struggles are not out of the ordinary and that you have found a way to cope with similar struggles in a positive way.
Another important thing in talking about a spiritual problem is to rule out any specific causes that may lie at its root. Are there sins that stand between God and this person and that need confessing and overcoming? If such causes are absent, it is always good to ask this question: what might God want to teach you in this period of spiritual difficulty? Is a test of your faith? Hebrews 12 speaks about people going through great difficulties in their spiritual lives and their battle against sin. The chapter is one big call to perseverance. Don’t give up, hold on to your faith, to what the Bible says and to what you have learned about God.
As a pastor – especially in dealing with spiritual problems – you must encourage people to keep reading their Bibles and praying, even if it feels pointless. Psalm 27 says: ‘A day will come when I will once again see God!’ In Hebrews 12:7 we are offered this encouragement: ‘Endure hardship, you are in God’s school learning vital lessons through your current circumstances.’ It is a tough school, but one in which you will learn to keep seeking God, no matter how long it takes. As a pastor, it is your job to help groping believers find Scriptural meaning in their spiritual desert. You can explain what is happening to them and why. By offering teaching on spiritual desert periods, for instance on the basis of the desert experiences of Israel, you will give them a new perspective on their questions and trials and help them to persevere. In every desert, there are both Mara and Elim experiences (Exodus 15:22-27). Your most important tool in all of this, as a pastor, is prayer. Spiritual problems call for spiritual support. Taking time to take a person’s despair to God together is a more wholesome remedy than any other!
In addition the personal problems you may encounter among your church members as a pastor, you will also regularly have to deal with relational issues. Examples include being single, preparing for marriage, marital problems and divorce. We will look briefly at each of these issues in this chapter.
Adam started out as a single, but God soon observed that living alone was not ideal for the man he had created: ‘The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ (Genesis 2:18). Then God created a wife for Adam, named Eva. Most singles feel and struggle with the absence of a partner in their lives. At the same, we must realise that not everyone longs to be married or to have a life partner. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul states that both marriage and singleness are a gift from God. In verses 8 and 9, he says: ‘Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion’.
In the same chapter, Paul, who was single himself, contends for the value of being unmarried. Singleness, he says, is not a pitiful state, but offers tremendous opportunities. Paul even says that if you are not yet bound in marriage, you should not actively seek to become so, because once you are married, you will unable to devote your undivided attention to the kingdom of God. ‘An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided’ (1 Corinthians 7: 32-33). The same applies to women. Paul’s conclusion at the end of this chapter (verse 38), therefore, is as follows: ‘So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better’. And in the final verse (verse 40), he says something similar about widows: ‘ In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God’.
All in all, Paul places singleness in an entirely different light than that in which our society usually sees it. Whereas in our society a single person is seen as someone who has ‘missed the boat’, in God’s kingdom being unmarried means you are able to devote yourself more fully to God and his service. Remember, though, that this deliberate singleness is a gift that is not given to every unmarried person. It is good to take seriously the possibility that people may deliberately choose to remain single in order to devote themselves to God and those around them. Some people make this choice long before ever having had a relationship. Others come to the realisation later, deciding, for instance, not to remarry following a divorce or following the death of their partner. People making this decision must realise they are also choosing for sexual abstinence. It is not without reason that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that those who feel they may not be able to control themselves sexually are better off getting married.
As a pastor, it is important for you to be aware of the fact that most singles have not chosen to remain unmarried and therefore struggle with their situation. This struggle often involves a deep sense of loneliness. The basic human need for friendship, for heart-to-heart sharing, is as important for them as it is for married couples, but far less readily obtainable. Married people are expected to share that kind of bond, while singles often have to invest far more deliberately.
Another danger to which singles are exposed is that of low self-esteem. A single may easily think no one likes him or her, that there is no other person in the world they can really connect with. ‘What is wrong with me? Why do I not have a partner, or did my marriage fail?’ And trying to connect with the many couples surrounding him can give a single the feeling he is being pushy.
A third challenge faced by singles is that of sexuality. Just like everyone else, single people have sexual desires and feelings. Being unable to have these fulfilled by a partner, they may do it themselves. There is nothing wrong or essentially sinful with masturbation, as long as the person engaging in it does not direct his or her fantasy at a specific person. Jesus warns about this in Matthew 5, when speaking on adultery: ‘Anyone who
looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). Masturbation exposes a person to the risk of this form of adultery. It also exposes a person to the risk of addiction: with no one there to help you manage your sexual impulses healthily, they can easily take over.
It is important, then, for pastors to be aware of the singles within their communities and to engage with them on the topic of their singleness. The church is the family of God and should have room for everyone, leaving no one on their own. Encourage families to befriend singles, so that they will be a real part of the greater community.
Preparing for marriage
Even among Christians, many couples have marital problems. A lot of pastoral work has to do with marriage issues. As pastors, we must not just support couples who are in trouble, but also find ways of preventing marital problems. Preparing upcoming couples for marriage is an important part of that. Prevention is better than cure! The church is pastorally responsible for helping couples who wish to get married to prepare themselves in a Biblical way. By the way, the church does not carry this responsibility alone: parents also have a major role to play in this area. The example they set will be followed by their children when they get married. The way they treat each other, communicate and express love will invariably be passed on to the next generation of married couples. So marriage preparation subconsciously begins at a young age, with young folk observing the marriages of their parents.
Part of being a fellowship of believers is to help upcoming couples prepare for their marriage in a structured, deliberate way. This may involve talks with a pastor or with older couples willing to help younger ones on their way. The Bible clearly outlines how God meant marriage to be and it is important that these principles are taught properly. It can prevent a lot of marriage troubles.
The first thing to observe in marriage preparation is that God made both man and woman according to his own likeness: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27). Masculinity and femininity both come from God and are of equal value to him. While men and women are dissimilar, they are not unequal. Especially Christians living in a culture in which women are seen and treated as inferior to men can take a clear stand in this area. A Christian husband respects his wife, because to God men and women are equal and equally precious.
Christian marriage is defined by mutual respect, as both husband and wife were created as God meant each one to be; he loves them both equally and Jesus died on the cross for both. A woman who is that precious in God’s eyes must be treated as precious. The apostle Peter writes: ‘Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life’ (1 Peter 3:7). This realisation will affect how a couple communicate together. It means they will take each other’s thoughts and emotions seriously, show genuine interest and desire to understand each other’s innermost being. Attentive listening and an honest response are among the greatest gifts a husband and wife can give one another. In your partner, God has given you the most precious thing on earth; unwrap this gift from God carefully. Realising that there is more to discover in, and to receive from, your partner will keep your conversations interesting and your relationship alive.
Respect also means that a husband will do all he can to protect his wife. Usually, the husband is the stronger of the two physically and rather than using his strength against his wife, he must use it to help and protect her. Quite specifically, this means a Christian husband will never beat his wife, even in cultures in which this is quite accepted. If you want to convince one another in marriage, do it with words, respectfully, not with violence. Respect is the most important feature in any relationship and by showing respect in a love relationship we show respect for God, who gave us marriage.
The Bible deals extensively with marriage. Both Paul and Peter write about this topic, emphasising that Christians are different from those around them in how they treat each other as couples. In Ephesians 5:21-
33, Paul speaks of how a husband and wife are to respect one another, each accepting the other’s authority. He says that we must do this ‘out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:21). We submit to one another because Christ wants us to; love does not seek to dominate, but to serve. Jesus demonstrated this when he washed the feet of the disciples in John 13 and on many other occasions. True love is serving and sacrificial; that is the meaning of the Biblical word ‘agape’. It is this love that gives a marriage beauty and strength. And it is this love we may introduce to upcoming couples as they prepare for marriage.
In practice, this means a wife must submit to her husband as to the Lord, Paul explains. ‘For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church’ (Ephesians 5:23). The message here is not that a husband is to boss his wife around, on the contrary, it is that a husband is to love his wife ‘just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (verse 25). Being ‘the head of the wife’ (verse 23) means that a husband holds final responsibility for the wellbeing of his wife and family and that when push comes to shove and decisions have to be made he is the one to do it, after having consulted with his wife. In making decisions he does not serve his own interests, but those of the family. In other words, he must ask himself what Jesus would do in his place. A wife is called upon to acknowledge her husband’s authority and to grant him this role: ‘Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything’ (verse 24). If as a pastor you provide teaching on these Biblical marriage rules through marriage preparation sessions, upcoming couples will have clear guidelines for developing a good relationship.
A lot of excellent marriage preparation courses have been made available by churches worldwide. One is the Alpha Pre-Marriage Course; it is available in many languages. For more information, go to www.themarriagecourse.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite the clear marriage guidelines presented in Scripture, a lot of Christian couples run into trouble. It should not surprise us that relational problems occur in this broken world; what matters is that we handle them well. In Genesis 2:24, when God ordains marriage, we read: ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh’. This verse shows us three steps necessary for entering into a good marriage. The three steps, however, also reveal the most common problem areas: the role of the family, disappointment in one another, and differing perspectives on sexuality.
Leaving one’s father and mother
In many countries in the Middle East and Asia it is the custom for newlyweds to move in with the husband’s parents after the wedding. The idea behind this is that the young couple will be able to provide for the parents when they grow old. This intergenerational caregiving is wonderful, but it can also cause huge tensions, especially for the daughter-in-law. Living with his parents often places the husband in a conflict of loyalties, in which he is forced to choose between his wife and his mother. It is in those moments, that a man must be aware of the necessity of ‘leaving his father and mother’. Even though he may share a house with his parents and get along well with them, a married man must share his life to the full with his wife and no longer with his mother. Your wife or your husband comes first, he or she is the one you belong to now, the one you have chosen to live with. With all due respect for parents, it is important to give priority to your marriage partner and to make this evident in the choices you make, even if you live near your parents.
Being united with your partner
The second step is to become united in marriage. This means that despite differences in character and physique, husband and wife are to form a tight unit. This unit is built on mutual love and maintained through conscious, ongoing communication. In many marriages, conversations rarely go deeper than ‘How was your work?’, ‘ Are the children doing alright?’ and ‘What’s for supper tonight?’ These topics are inevitable in the daily routine, but it is bad for marriage if a couple never gets further than that. To develop a lasting union, husband and wife must regularly take time to listen, to be there for one another. In order to talk and listen to
God, Jesus says we must set apart a special time and place: ‘When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray’ (Matthew 6:6). It is no different in marriage: we must set apart a time and a place for being together intimately and without interruption. The we will find room to really talk and share, to ask each other deeper questions, such as: What makes you happy? What are you struggling with? How do you feel we are doing as a couple? Do you enjoy our sex life, or not? It may not be the norm in your culture to have this kind of conversation, but it will help you maintain healthy marriage, or fix a damaged one. Love is an attitude and an act, you received one another as a gift, but ongoing enjoyment of each other requires attention, time and effort.
Becoming one flesh
Differing perspectives on sexuality are one of the main causes of marital problems. Because of the fact that man and woman are different and experience their own bodies differently, what God created so beautifully is often a disappointment. A healthy sex life is not to be taken for granted in any marriage. Sex is an expression of the bond of love you share, which means good communication is a precondition for good sex. Good sex without a good bond is not possible. Neither is the opposite: a good marriage bond without sex. In marriage, the physical and the psychological cannot be separated. Sex, too, is an expression of agape, or serving, sacrificial love. A husband and wife having sex, therefore, do not focus primarily on gratifying their own desires, but on giving pleasure to their partner. If both partners take this attitude, they will both be fulfilled sexually.
Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 7: ‘The husband should fulfil his marital (sexual) duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer’ (verses 3-6). The call to be there for one another and give ourselves to one another applies the bedroom, too. It is a mutual giving, in which both partners serve one another and focus on each other’s wellbeing.
Marital problems also often occur when one partner believes in God and the other does not, or in which both partners follow different religions. Paul refers to this in 1 Corinthians 7, saying that a brother or sister with an unbelieving partner must not divorce. ‘For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). Don’t try to coerce a partner into believing, rather seek to make the unbeliever envious of your lifestyle, and inquisitive, and thus to bring him or her to Jesus.
Passing on these Biblical guidelines to people having marital troubles is one way in which, as a pastor, you can come alongside them. Note that it is important to have a trustworthy, believing woman from your congregation join you in having conversations with couples. Many pastors involve their own wife in this area of counselling, together supporting the couple who are struggling.
Despite the Bible´s clear guidelines and the pastoral care you may offer, some marriages do not hold. In such cases, divorce is ´the impossible possibility´. It was not meant that way, it is not allowed and yet sometimes there is no other way. Deuteronomy 24 speaks of a ‘certificate of divorce’ (verse 1) that is needed when a man wishes to leave his wife. Jesus says: ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning’ (Matthew 19:8). In both the Old and the New Testament, the vital principle is obvious: divorce is not an option, you have promised to be faithful and you must keep that promise. The Bible makes just exceptions: divorce is allowed if your partner has committed adultery, or if your partner wants to leave you because you believe in Jesus and he or she does not. Regarding this latter
situation, Paul says: ‘If the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances’ (1 Corinthians 7:15).
It is beyond doubt that God does not want or allow divorce, but that in some cases it is inevitable nonetheless. Think of situations in which a wife is abused by her husband, or in which a husband is emotionally damaged by his wife. What began in love can turn to hatred and if the tide cannot be turned, despite our best efforts, going forward together can become impossible for a husband and wife.
As a pastor you have three focal points when dealing with marital breakdown. Your first job is to do all you can to prevent divorce, through intensive counselling sessions with both partners in which you search for possible causes. Try to find ways in which God’s light can shine into this dark situation to change the partners’ lives and relationship. One theme you must introduce at this stage is forgiveness. In many cases, words and actions will have done a lot of damage, and forgiveness will seem a long journey away. Yet both partners must be prepared to make that journey; if they are not, there is no point in trying to fix things. Your second focal point should be the children, if there are any. Children always pay the highest price for a divorce, losing the safe haven of home and being forced, in their perception, to choose between their father or mother – a choice no child can make. Their interests are of the utmost importance and as a pastor you must try to help the parents minimise the children’s suffering as a result of a possible separation. Try to make sure the parents do all they can to provide their children with maximum stability and continuity. If the couple decide to separate after all, your third task, finally, is to encourage each partner to continue walking with God and to remain a part of the fellowship of believers, despite the failure of their marriage and the disappointment, disillusionment and shame this may involve.
The five characteristics of a trustworthy pastor
With such a wide range of life’s problems calling for your attention as a pastor, you do not have to make it your top priority to become knowledgeable in each and every area. It is not your knowledge that makes you a good pastor, but your character – or, more specifically, your trustworthiness. What kind of a person are you? That is what your congregation will unconsciously sense and why church members will or will not come to you for a heart-to-heart talk or for help in times of need.
Your trustworthiness as a pastor finds expression in five distinct characteristics: you are genuine, you can keep a secret, you live by clear boundaries, you take good care of yourself and you have clear sexual boundaries.
A lot of pastors have a distinct position of authority in their congregation. They are important to church members and are often put on a pedestal. In response to this, many pastors start to behave differently than they did before becoming a pastor. They become more distant and condescending, as if they belong to a a special class of people. They cease to be themselves and begin to act the way they think a pastor ought to act. This is not just sad, it is actually wrong. God called you as you are; he has chosen to put his treasure in ‘jars of clay’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). His apostles and servants are not supermen and women, but common, vulnerable people. This is why it is inappropriate for a pastor to put himself on a pedestal . ‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant’, Jesus said in Matthew 20:26. A servant pastor is characterised by the fact that he does not pretend he is stronger than the rest, but instead is willing to face his own weaknesses. The best pastor is the one who has the courage in his sermons and conversations to testify to his own vulnerability; that is how you truly draw near to people.
Be worthy of trust
People will often share their deepest secrets with you as a pastor. They may be struggling with things no one else knows about and in a pastoral conversation it will surface and they will tell you everything. To them, this will often bring immense relief; but to you as a pastor, it means being given a huge responsibility. You have to be prepared to carry that responsibility, because if you cannot promise confidentiality, people will no longer feel free to be honest with you. Confidentiality is difficult. It goes against our nature: every one of us has a natural tendency to share with others the things that touch, disturb or excite us. In cultures in which people like to talk a lot about others, it is also goes against the grain. But as pastor you must promise your church members that you will treat whatever people share with you confidentially. Your trustworthiness represents God´s trustworthiness and a breach of confidence may damage the relationship between God and the person who has come to you for help.
If you feel you really must consult with a third person about a certain problem, for example your wife or a member of the church council, then you must only do so with the express permission of the brother or sister whose problem it is.
There are exceptions to the confidentiality principle. In the case of serious suicidal tendencies, the threat of murder or sexual abuse, you may legitimately break your confidentiality promise as a pastor. In all three cases, your first priority must be to try and persuade the person in need to seek out professional support. Failing that, offer to do it for him. If he does not authorise you to do that, you must report to the legal authorities in order to protect him, or those around him, from (further) serious injuries.
Know your own boundaries
When it comes to boundaries in pastoral care, the very first boundaries to recognise are those that demarcate your own responsibilities as a pastor. Many pastors get so many calls and visits from church members that
they hardly have time to attend to sermon preparation, their own family or their personal spiritual wellbeing. That is not right. For good reason, Paul encourages Timothy with these words: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock’ (Acts 20:28). This means there is a limit to the availability of the pastor. But how do we determine the limit?
One of the toughest questions you face as a pastor is: when do I step back myself and refer a person to a doctor, a psychologist or some other professional? You may need several few counselling sessions to identify the problem and to search together for the best way forward. So it is important that not to refer a person to an external specialist too quickly, without taking time to really listen and empathise. Even if you are not sure what to do, don’t push the problem aside too quickly, or your counselee will feel you have not taken him or her seriously. Searching and exploring together will create a bond that will benefit you both in the process that will follow. Having said this, you also need the courage and wisdom to be clear when you have a reached a point, or touched an issue, that is beyond your scope as a pastor. Then it is time to refer him or her to an external professional. A pastor is no specialist; his calling is to stand by people on behalf of God to place their situation in His light. This means that when you do refer someone, you do not let go of him, but you keep backing him as a pastor. Someone else is now going to take up the issue with him, but you will faithfully support and empathise with him in the name of Jesus! You will keep visiting, not primarily to solve problems, but to present them to God together. That is now your task as a pastor.
Your counselling sessions are another area in which you need to set limits for yourself. Ask yourself how long you allow sessions to last and how often you visit certain individuals. People love getting attention from their pastor, but the risk is that they end up relying more on him than on God. Jesus taught us an important lesson when he told his disciples: ‘But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you’ (John 16:7). If Jesus said it was better for us that he went away, surely it is even more important for a pastor step back at the right time. We must learn that we are not the ones rescuing this man or woman, but that God will carry them. We can tell them that and demonstrate it on behalf of God by listening and empathising, but having done that we must then deliberately place them back in God’s hands and leave. That way there will be room for God’s Spirit to move on with them. So as a pastor you have to listen and support, but then you have to let go and leave. When and how you should do that is a matter of wisdom and sensitivity. The point is that people must rely on God, not on you.
Look after yourself
One of the reasons for setting yourself boundaries is that there is a limit to what you can do. Some pastors can take on more than others, but we all have our limits. Working so hard as a pastor that you neglect yourself or your family will neither honour to God nor build up the church. On the contrary, it is a poor testimony. As if God’s kingdom and his church depend on your exertion! Be aware of your boundaries, remember that a pastor needs a day of rest, too. If God himself rested after six days, surely his servants, should also. God commands us not to work for seven days at a stretch, not even in the church!
Make sure you devote enough time and attention to your wife and children: they need you. Enjoy their love. Set apart times for relaxation and physical exercise: God gave you your body, too. A pastor who has found a healthy balance between exertion and relaxation will be able to keep serving the church with renewed strength, without burning out.
Beware of sexual boundaries
If as a pastor you are intensely involved with a female church member, be sure you do not unwittingly allow the spiritual bond you share to evolve into amorousness or lust. It may happen before you know it, even if you never intended it to. This is why it is vital that you set yourself clear boundaries when it comes to interacting with members of the opposite sex.
First of all, avoid being in a home or office with a member of the opposite sex while no one else is there. If you are in a room with a woman, always keep the door open to avoid false rumours or ideas. Do not allow yourself any involvement with a female member of your congregation outside of your pastoral tasks to avoid false appearances and to protect yourself from developing inappropriate feelings. Also avoid private contact with other women on social media. Be cautious about hugging and touching, too, as these gestures can be easily misunderstood.
When counselling a member of the opposite sex, the best safety measure is to get another woman, or your own wife, to be present with you. It can make talking easier and will certainly help prevent inappropriate comments or conduct. Your wife can also offer physical comfort, such as a hug, to the female counselee. You can talk and pray with a female church member, but you shouldn’t touch her, not even to comfort her. Leave that to your wife or another trustworthy woman. This will help you keep this contact pure and the boundaries clear. It will protect you and your family as well as those you counsel!
Basic pastoral skills
In order to provide effective pastoral care, every pastor should have a number of basic conversational skills. Of course, being a good pastor calls for many different skills, but these four skills are the foundation: listening actively, responding reflectively and helping assertively. These may seem obvious, but I’d like to focus on the adjectives attached to each skill: they make the difference.
Rule number one in pastoral care is to allow the other person to talk. You may be visiting someone, or a person may have contacted you, and after you have sat down and exchanged small talk for a few minutes, just to break the ice, you invite the other person to start sharing: ‘What is it you wanted to talk to me about?’ A question like that shows that you have come to listen. It means you intend to devote your full attention to the man or woman sitting across from you. Make sure you do not just focus on that person outwardly, but inwardly as well, by blocking out any distracting thoughts or feelings. Turn off your mobile phone before the meeting begins! Take plenty of time for a heart-to-heart conversation. A quick exchange will never result in a meaningful pastoral conversation. Set the time apart and be clear about this with the other person: ‘We have an hour, so please take your time.’
Devoting genuine attention to a person also means that before the meeting begins you take it to God in prayer. Ask God to open your ears and heart to the person you will be seeing. Pray that you will be given the wisdom, insight and sensitivity of the Spirit to recognise what lies behind the spoken words, in the depths of this other person’s heart. Praying for that person and for your conversation before it begins is the best way to prepare yourself for truly listening.
Active listening involves active watching. Often, the most telling information is communicated non-verbally. A person’s body language often speaks louder than his or her words. As you develop your observation skills, you will find a person’s body, voice or eyes may tell a different story than their words. If this is the case, trust what you see: it tends to be more genuine than what you hear.
As an active listener, you do not just let the other person talk, but you ask helpful questions now and then. Sometimes you may ask for more information to clarify the situation. Sometimes your questions will be more penetrating, as you encourage your counselee to go deeper. Make sure you use open questions, that is, questions that invite your counselee to bring more of their story to light. Closed questions, by contrast, tend to put words in someone’s mouth; as a pastor, you should try and avoid them. So don’t ask: ‘Did that make you angry?’ but instead try this: ‘How did that make you feel?’. An open-ended question like this will encourage the other person to share more of his or her feelings and experiences.
After the counselee has spent some time talking and you have asked a few questions, it will be your turn to respond. A pastoral response is not the same as giving your opinion on what you have heard; if you do that, the other person will stop talking. The first thing to do when you respond is to make sure you have properly understood your counselee. The way to do this is to sum up what he or she has told you in your own words. Using your own words is important, as it will allow the counselee to listen to his or her own story and to how it has come across.
This approach to listening and responding requires a large degree of empathy from you as a pastor. If you cannot put yourself in the other person’s position, you will not be able to give words to his or her feelings and experiences. It calls for open ears and an open heart, you have to draw near to the other person in listening, while at the same time trying to imagine how you would feel in his or her position. Doing this will help you to get closer to your counselee and to respond reflectively. Here, too, of course, there are boundaries to respect: you may imagine what the other person feels like, without allowing yourself to get carried away emotionally. Your job is to manage the conversation. In order to keep responding reflectively, you need both nearness and
distance. Imagining what he or she has done, felt or experienced is not the same as endorsing it. Make sure you always allow yourself room to stand above or step outside the actual situation, otherwise you will be unable to offer real help. A pastor who only empathises cannot help his counselees move forward, which is the whole point: people come to you for empathy and for assistance!
Once you have genuinely listened to the other person and taken the conversation forward by responding reflectively, the issue or need that lies at the heart of the other person’s story will gradually emerge. In some cases, your listening and empathy will be enough to help your counselee go back and face their struggles. But often a counselee is stuck in a situation and needs real help. Your task as a pastor, usually together with the family and the church, is to support him or her with words and actions aimed at creating a breakthrough in the situation.
We call this ‘helping assertively’. Assertive does not mean aggressive. Aggressive helpers are more occupied with their own performance than with the wellbeing of their counselees. They make decisions for him or her, get angry, accuse or humiliate. Their aim is to force a change, but in reality they often make things worse than they already were. The opposite of an aggressive pastor is a passive pastor. A passive pastor does not take responsibility for helping counselees because he is either too insecure or too lazy. He allows problems to fester without intervening. He doesn’t have the courage to say ‘no’ to evil or wrongdoing or ‘yes’ to battling it. This kind of pastor, too, allows other peoples’ situations to go from bad to worse.
An assertive pastor will often challenge the counselee to take a clearer stand for what he really thinks, feels or desires. Pattern easily get stuck in fixed patterns. An assertive pastor can challenge them to take specific steps towards breaking through those patterns and finding a new perspective. This can apply to issues in the family in marriage, at work or in church. People can run aground in any of these settings. The steps needed to get back on one’s feet and start afresh can be scary. As a pastor, you can encourage people in this, offering counsel and empathy, help and support. For example, you might ask questions like these: ‘What possibilities do you see?’, ‘What do you want your life, or this specific situation, to look like one year from now?’
Ultimately, God holds both the beginning and the end of our lives in his hands. If there is anything that can give us hope, courage and shalom, it is the deep confidence that God is with us, that our lives are in His hands and that there is nothing He cannot use to contribute to our shalom!