Pastoral care 4: in crisis and chronic
I’ve observed that churches and small groups usually respond well to crises. People rise to the occasion, they respond with generous practical displays of love and support. In fact, Christian fellowships are some of the best-equipped crisis care communities. What we don’t do so well is persevere with people when things become chronic. People whose fatigue or illness or other issues keeps them away from church for weeks, months, or years can easily be overlooked or forgotten. The latest crisis replaces the last. Our attention shifts to the observable, noisy and current. It’s worth doing a personal audit and considering who we haven’t seen for a while, who might be lonely, struggling, housebound, exhausted, or embarrassed and afraid to return to church.
Care in a crisis
A crisis in someone’s life is an opportunity for our church and life groups to show love to our brothers and sisters. There is no end to the types of crises that happen to people. Here are a few crises we’ve experienced in our groups…
- someone losing their job
- unrealistic workload expectations placing massive strain on health, family, or involvement in church
- bullying at work
- a serious illness to a group member or someone in their family
- a child acting out or refusing to go to school
- serious physical injuries
- difficulties associated with pregnancy
- marital conflict
- difficulties associated with pregnancy
- serious doubts over aspects of Christian faith
There are many more issues and I expect we could continue this list. These sorts of crises test families. We need to rally together, assess our resources, change the way we function, take on new responsibilities, and sometimes seek external support or expertise. It’s very similar for our life groups. A crisis is an opportunity time for the group. We can step up a gear, plan how to collectively offer care, pray together, and offer genuine practical help.
I’ve seen some groups do this very well. One time when my wife was bed-ridden with a difficult pregnancy our group arranged shopping, baby-sitting, cooperated in leading studies and took other initiatives that helped our family. Another group had a member hospitalised following a heart attack and the group helped with visits, practical help, and set up a buddy exercise program and roster. Couples with babies often appreciate the support of meals in the first few weeks. Sometimes people pair-up to read the Bible, pray, and talk through issues with another person. My experience is that our groups often rise well to a crisis.
However, sometimes the needs of a person are beyond the capacity of the group to cope on their own. They may require more people to be involved due to the magnitude of the problem. They might need greater expertise than they have in their group. A marriage break-up, legal issues, psychiatric illness, or domestic abuse are the types of matters that require the involvement of other qualified people. The group needs to remember it is part of a larger church family. Sometimes matters will need to be referred to people beyond the congregation. At this point the role of the group should be to provide support, love, prayer, and care for the person/s rather than seeing itself as responsible to provide the specialised help needed. People may have further tough times ahead, so our care will be very significant.
Care when it’s chronic
Not all significant needs remain crises. Sometimes the matters are ongoing for weeks, months, or years. There are real and often painful issues that simply don’t go away. Again, life groups have the potential to provide ongoing loving care for these people or families that can make the world of difference. These are some examples of chronic care needs that I have experienced in various groups…
- ongoing depression or mental illness
- psychiatric disorders
- chronic back pain or other physical illness
- physical or mental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or downs syndrome
- family members who have chronic needs, especially children or ageing parents
- chronic fatigue, long-term insomnia
- eating disorders
- bereavement, especially the loss of a spouse or child
- prolonged unemployment
- ongoing legal battles
- financial struggles
Once again there will be many more expressions of chronic difficulties in our church. The love and care of life groups can be so valuable. In chronic situations people will often become irregular, occasional, or non-attending members at church and in our groups. Don’t forget people. Don’t give up on them. Stay in touch. Call, visit, write, help out in practical ways. Find out what you can pray for people each week, ask in advance and follow it up afterwards. Remember people when they can’t make our life groups. Make sure people hear about the special social night or weekend away. Let people know the news of the group: who had the baby, who is heading on a short-term mission trip, whose friend has become a Christian, who won the netball grand final, and so on.
Maybe there are people in our church with ongoing chronic needs whom we could adopt as partners to our life groups. We could check with leaders or pastors about who might appreciate us connecting with them. Again, we can go the extra mile with people. Maybe they’re shut in through illness and would love visitors, or to be taken out now and again. Perhaps, someone would love us to visit, read the Scriptures, pray and chat now and again. There may even be people who’ve been burned by church in the past, who through our love and kindness find their way back into church or a life group where they experience the love of Jesus in practise.
As with those experiencing crises, some of these chronic needs will need to involve the wider church community or the specialised help of people outside the church. This is important. As groups and individuals we need to recognise our limitations. Our role might be to focus on providing relational love and support throughout someone’s journey.
More than therapy
Let’s follow God’s lead when it comes to pastoral care.
It is very easily to allow the immediate, obvious, pressing needs of people to overshadow their eternal needs. Jesus understood this pressure and temptation as he was confronted daily by suffering, struggling, needy individuals. While he often chose to relieve people’s suffering and to care for them in practical ways, he made it clear that he had a bigger mission than improving people’s social welfare. He wasn’t simply on about emptying hospitals. He came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and how people could experience healing of their sins for eternity. We see Jesus alignment with these priorities throughout the gospels.
Jesus chose to leave the pressing needs of people in one town, firstly to spend time praying, and secondly to go elsewhere to proclaim the eternal message of hope for all who turn to God. (Mark 1:32-38) He came to seek and to save people who were truly lost. He came to call people into relationship with God. He placed the eternal needs of people over, but not to the exclusion, of their earthly needs.
It can be easy to be dominated by people’s crisis and chronic concerns. We can even build a culture where needs becomes the way to get each other’s or the pastor’s time and attention. This is not healthy. Let’s not lose the ministry of the word and prayer. And let’s invest in building leaders and the capacity of our church to serve and care for one another, as this will result in people’s temporal and eternal needs getting the love and support they need. Let’s follow God’s lead when it comes to pastoral care.