Recently, on a list meant for pastors of small churches, a pastor asked for encouragement concerning a situation they were facing. A person had come into the church and immediately started becoming involved in the church. So far, so good. Then the pastor received a phone call about a crisis in this person’s life and they wanted to meet one-on-one. The pastor gave counsel over the phone and agreed to meet. After that meeting the layperson asked that the pastor meet weekly in a one-on-one counseling and Bible study context. It was at this point that the pastor reached out to this group for confirmation of their feelings that they should not be doing this kind of counseling. The group indeed did encourage the pastor in the decision made. Such circumstance are not uncommon in ministry. It become especially hard to accommodate request like this when you also hold an outside job as time tends to be limited.
The very first course I took in my quest to enter ministry was called “Pastoral Care and Counseling”. It was conducted as a series of lectures by people with specialties or experience in various areas of ministry. We had a section on premarital counseling, marital counseling, hospital and chaplaincy ministries and various other subjects. The very last lecture was given by someone with legal expertise and his advice was this…”most of what you have heard is good, but don’t do any counseling outside of spiritual counseling”. There was quite of bit more to that lecture, but the essence of it was that unless you are educated in counseling, have a license, have legally separated yourself from the church entity and have adequate liability insurance, don’t do it. Refer these individuals to someone who meets these requirements.
The fact is that you do not have to be in ministry for long to encounter people who need mental health counseling. Some of these are more obvious than others. In my context I find that there is at least one person at any one time who might meet these criteria in my church. It may manifest itself in many ways. The key to freedom here is that you have to know that you are to spiritually counsel people, but are not called to mental health counseling (unless of course you meet those previous requirements). If someone came to you and told you that they are short of breath, had chest pains and are feeling faint, you would not then attempt to give them medical advice. You would call 9-1-1 and get them some qualified help.
This brings me to my second point. Do not wait until the need arise before you find qualified Christian mental health professionals. Find them BEFORE the need arise. And when it does, refer the needy person to them.
Is there a realistic method of assessing who needs spiritual counseling and who needs mental health counseling? The rule of thumb is generally to meet with someone no more than three times. By the third visit you should have a good sense of what kind of help this person needs. Oftentimes it will take even less than three visits. I had one couple several years ago who wanted to get married and I started premarital counseling with them. By the end of the first session I knew that these people needed more than I could give and really required some serious couples counseling. Praise the Lord, these two individuals never did marry as I am quite sure there would have been a divorce in their future!
So remember, a) three visits max, b) assessment is crucial, and c) if need be refer to a qualified professional (whom you have located prior to the need!).
“For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.” Psalm 38:4-7
Since starting my work as a Police Chaplain there has been a phrase that seems to recur frequently, and which sums up well what we do as chaplains. That phrase is, “A Ministry of Presence”. Reflecting on this phrase, however, brings home the realization that a ‘ministry of presence’ applies to not only a police chaplain or any other chaplaincy, but the ministry of the bivopastor and to all believers, in general. Every believer can have a ‘ministry of presence’, if they keep a few guidelines in mind.
- Make yourself available. Unless you are actually available, people will not come to you. Pure and simple.
- People need to know you are available. Unless they know you are there and available they will not come to you. You don’t need to hang out a sign or a shingle, but simply be open. Over time people will know that you care and are available.
- Be ready to listen, more than talk. People often need someone to talk to, many times they don’t want anything more than this. That is OK.
- Let God work in the background. It is often said that God works in mysterious ways. This is true, and He works effectively! But we must let Him do His work and not try to change things by our own efforts. Your goal here is to bring God’s comfort to someone and perhaps be one of the persons in the chain to lead them to Christ. But that is not your immediate goal.
- Don’t judge the person you are talking to. Their life may be sinful, their habits dirty and their attitude terrible, but you need to let God do His work without judging the person based on appearances. They are loved by God, and that is enough to know.
- Have resources ready. Do I really need to say this? Have a Bible, a New Testament or at least a Gospel of John handy at all times. An index card in your wallet with names and phone numbers for resources you think might be needed may be enough beyond that. Remember, it is alright to let people know where you are coming from theologically, and to know that no one is going to require you to practice outside your faith tradition. It would be disingenuous to ask a Christian, for instance, to pray to the god of the Muslims or to Buddha. In my work as a Police Chaplain I am identified as not only a Chaplain by my uniform and name tag, but wear crosses as collar insignia, identifying me as a Christian, though I minister to everyone equally within those bounds.
- Cover it all in prayer. This is the most important part. Without prayer it will at the very least not be as effective as it could be. At worst, your ministry will be dead in the water. BE ready to pray with the person who comes to you, but ask their permission first.
These are all things any person can do. They do not require extensive Bible knowledge or specialized evangelism training. You don’t have to be a mental health counselor. You just have to be there.
Years ago I took a course called ‘Pastoral Counseling’ from what was known as the ‘New England Nazarene Bible College Extension’, taught by Dr. Kenneth Mills. To this day it is one of the most practical courses I have ever taken. I can vividly remember hearing one of the special presenters talking about hospital visitation and the whole class was in hysterics. Seriously, this person could have been a stand-up comic! And yes, the discussion that day turned into a serious one, one that still impacts my ministry today.
Of all the duties of a pastor one of the most difficult has to be when you become the bearer of bad news. Pastors are often the chosen person to do this. Our training, our compassion and our temperaments seem to make us the perfect choice. That does not make it easier. Walking into a hospital waiting room to speak to a family and tell them they have lost a family member, sitting with a person while they tell their spouse they have a terminal disease, or conveying the news of a life-altering accident are all common experiences for pastors. The fact we are bivocational does not mean we are less likely to do these tasks than any fully-funded pastor.
Recently I was doing some research and came across an article that is well worth reading. The article specifically deals with Law Enforcement Chaplaincy, but the principles are applicable to many situations. The link is below. I encourage you to read it, maybe even print it off and file it away. If you are a pastor you WILL eventually be put into this kind of situation. Be prayed up, and be ready with some solid thoughts going in. God will bless you for bringing His grace, mercy and comfort to the table more than you can ever imagine.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”
2 Cor 1:3-5 (NIV)
In today’s technological environment, and perhaps especially as tech-savvy bivocationals ministering to an internet connected world, there is a big temptation to use social media tools as a replacement for face-to-face visitation. Is this a satisfactory way to minister? Should we use texting and messaging as our main way to contact people?
In my own church I maintain a website, a Google calendar and a Facebook page. In addition we use texting and messaging. But, as my in-laws keep stressing to me (80 years of ministry between the two of them!), you need to get out and meet people. There are some very practical reasons for this:
- People find you easier to ignore when you are not standing in front of them.
- Sadly, people also find it easier to tell you an ‘un-truth’ when you are not looking in their face.
- People are more likely to have an in-depth conversation when face-to-face.
- You can ‘read’ a person’s body language and expressions in a way no emoji will ever communicate. Some one can tell you they are “doing alright” and the look in their eyes can tell you that they are in all actuality hurting. You’d never get that from a text.
- People appreciate the effort of you visiting with them more than a text, tweet or Facebook message. It makes more of a positive impression on them.
- There are many people who do not know how, or who don’t otherwise have the ability to receive social media messages. This is especially true with our senior citizens.
Social media and other technological communications methods are important, don’t get me wrong. They can be fast, easy and very accessible. But they simply cannot substitute for talking with people face-to-face. Technology is best for imparting information rather than having a “heart to heart” conversation. You can take this as a good thing or a bad thing…bivocational ministers generally operate on tight schedules, so sending a text is easier…but we also have an ability to be flexible and intentional, especially with workplace ministry.
The take away lesson from this is, use social media ministry as a ‘rifle’, not a ‘shotgun’, to target specific purposes and audiences. But don’t neglect the more traditional ministry of visitation.
“…as they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them.” Luke 24:15 (NIV)
I am writing this on the Monday morning following the terrorist attacks in France and Beirut, along with the foiled attempt in Istanbul. In recent days we have also had numerous school shootings and stabbings in the US. Looking at the newspaper and news sources on the Internet it is possible to become overwhelmed with a sense of impending doom. As a pastor I recognize this in myself, even as I have hope (i.e. biblically ‘confident expectation’ Click here for more study ) in Christ and know that He is still in control. Looking around me, though, there are far more people who do not have this hope, and are left in confusion and despair.
This morning the principal of the High School addressed the students, staff and faculty concerning the attacks in Paris. Although it was a nice gesture, hearing the Chamber Choir sing the National Anthem of France did not alleviate the fear and confusion many feel. A discussion ensued among those around me as to why exactly these things happen in our world and what can be done to stop them. It was at that time that it really hit home with me. As a bivocational minister I am in a unique position to be able to minister to people as a ‘Chaplain of the masses’.
My friends, colleagues and office mates know I am a pastor. I have even performed a wedding for someone in the office. At times like this they look to me to provide a different perspective than they’re getting from everyone else around them. You, as well, as a bivocational pastor, will get the same kind of attention. Even if you live in the Bible Belt there are many people who don’t know who to look to, or where to ask their questions. If they’re not going to a church it is likely that they have little or no contact with a pastor in order to ask those questions. They may very well look to you.
It doesn’t need to be a world-shaking tragedy such as the attacks in France to raise questions. Local events such as floods and tornadoes bring up questions; family illness, death of a loved one, divorce and job loss all can make a person seek out spiritual advice. If you are close, known and have built a relationship with someone…they will likely turn to you. Are you ready? Can you fulfill this important role of a bivopastor? There will be little or no warning when the time comes. Take the words of Paul to Timothy to heart and ‘be prepared in season and out of season’.
“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Tim 4:2