How can I help?: The doing of pastoral care

  • Sally Sims
  • 17 November 2016

In this two-part series, Sally Sims outlines some guidelines for pastoral care in a church setting. In the first article Sally reminded us that being must come before doing because who we are always impacts what we do, and being present is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone who is in need. In this article Sally provides a number of tips for helping fellow Christians who are going through a difficult time.

Our world is more connected than ever, but relationships are becoming increasingly superficial. Recent studies have found that although we have more online social networks, the depth of interactions offline has decreased. More and more people are feeling socially isolated and alone. It’s therefore important we remember that helping others requires a genuine connection built on trust, openness and giving of oneself.

Caring for one another is an integral part of knowing, loving and obeying God. Christians belong to one another in Christ, and this fellowship comes with certain privileges and responsibilities. The Bible reminds us that, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). Caring for others in a Christ-like way comes from a living faith, but there are specific things we can do to be more effective in our desire to help others:

  1. Pray first and make contact. When someone you know is going through a difficult time, reach out to them. Call them and, if appropriate, offer to visit. Prayerful dependence upon God lies at the heart of caring well for others, so pray before you call or visit, and remember that we are to serve by the strength that God provides (1 Pet 4:11). If you are apprehensive, consider that God is not only with you, he’s already working out his good purposes in the life of the person you are going to visit.
  2. Listen well, with empathy, and let the person tell their story without interrupting. Listening well is the foundation of all helping relationships. We all have a need to be heard and have our feelings acknowledged. Give the person your complete attention, not only with your ears but also with your heart and mind. By paying heartfelt attention we are not only able to discern what someone is saying but also how he or she is feeling. Empathy enables us to feel with someone else and builds connection. Don’t assume you know how the other person feels.
  3. Resist the urge to fix things. It’s impossible to help someone if we are intent on giving them the answers to their problems. Our role is to be supportive and to show empathy—we are not responsible for fixing or eliminating the cause of a person’s pain.
  4. Keep your own experiences to yourself and avoid being judgemental. Also avoid unhelpful comments and unsolicited advice, which diminish the significance of the person’s pain. For example, “At least it’s not...”, “If I were you…”
  5. If the person is emotional, continue to be a calm presence. Respect that everyone is unique and do not try to minimize how a person is feeling. Stay with them and allow them to express their pain and anguish. If they are experiencing a mental health crisis, keep them safe and access appropriate professional help.
  6. Empower the person to make their own decisions, and don’t do for them what they can or should be doing for themselves. People who are suffering or facing a crisis will vary in their abilities to cope, and will express a variety of responses, including being controlled, resilient, vulnerable or overwhelmed. Whatever the response, we want to avoid imposing our own solutions and instead want to empower the person to make their own decisions and do what they can for themselves, as far as they are able.
  7. Assess what help is needed and offer practical assistance. Consider what resources and social networks the person has to draw on. Ask people directly how you can help. Make specific suggestions, such as “Can I bring a meal over for you tomorrow night?” It’s better to avoid saying “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help”, because people rarely respond to these kinds of vague offers. If you are aware of others who might be able to offer support, ask for permission to contact them to help with specific needs such as arranging a meal roster.
  8. Be ready to pray and read the Bible—but ask first. All comfort ultimately comes from God, and he wants us to experience his comfort for ourselves. As we pray and read the Bible together the Holy Spirit points us to the love we share in Christ, and reminds us that God is present in all situations. We want to interact with one another in ways that help strengthen our relationship with Jesus. We mustn’t neglect to offer to pray and read God’s word with each other, however we must always do this sensitively and ask first. Sometimes we will serve one another best by listening with empathy or grieving together.
  9. Follow through and be dependable. Whether you are actually providing the care or organizing others to do so, following through is vital. Remember to check in with the person at regular intervals and keep them in your prayers.
  10. Maintain confidentiality and trust. Do not disclose confidential information to your spouse, family, friends or colleagues without the consent of the person involved—except where disclosure is a requirement of the law or there is a risk of suicide, harm or abuse.
  11. Know your limits and look after yourself. While caring for others is a joy and privilege, there is a cost to caring. It’s essential to set personal boundaries and to communicate these to others, and to take time to reflect on your own limitations and care for yourself. Never go beyond your role and level of expertise, and know when and how to refer to others who are more qualified to help. If you are caring for others in a formal capacity as a member of your church care team, make sure you receive regular supervision, which is essential for accountability, debriefing, support and growth through reflection.

We step out in faith every time we visit a person in need or reach out to others in Christian love. We don’t know what we’ll find, but God has gone before us. So “let us not grow weary of doing good” (Gal 6:9); instead “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24).

If you found this article helpful, then check out Sally's new book on Christian care, Together Through the Storm.

Together Through the Storm banner