I suppose it’s a vocational hazard.
We preachers walk through the valley of the shadow with people in the church and out of it. We do our best, weep with them, tell what we know, and offer all the encouragement we can. Then, we go on to the next thing. Someone else needs us.
That family we ministered to, however, does not go on to anything. They are forever saddled with the loss of that child or parent. They still carry the hole in their heart and return to the empty house or sad playroom. However, there is one positive thing they will always carry with them.
They never forget how the pastor ministered to them.
He forgets. Not because he meant to, but because after them, he was called to more hospital rooms, more funeral homes, and more counseling situations. He walked away from that family knowing he had a choice: he could leave a piece of himself with them–his heart, his soul, something–or he could close the door on that sad room in his inner sanctum in order to be able to give of himself to the next crisis.
If he leaves a piece of himself with every broken-hearted family he works with, pretty soon there won’t be anything left.
So he turns it off when he walks away. He goes on to the next thing.
He hates himself for doing it. But it’s a survival technique. It’s the only way to last in this kind of tear-your-heart-out-and-stomp-that-sucker ministry.
Case in point.
Forty years ago I pastored a sweet young family that was enduring the worst crisis of their lives. Don and Carolyn’s two-year-old son Sonny was battling leukemia. They were making those endless round trips from where we all lived in the Mississippi Delta to St. Jude’s in Memphis. And this was a long time before researchers figured out what to do about this damned disease. (Excuse me, mom. I feel exactly that way. I curse it. And could I digress long enough to point out to anyone offended I did not say “damn disease.” I said, “Damned disease.” The first is profanity, the second is dead-on accurate.)
I wrote about Sonny’s funeral in an article titled “The Hardest Funeral I Ever Conducted.”
I recall almost none of the details of the funeral or my conversations with the broken-hearted parents.
But they remember.
Recently, Carolyn’s sister Louise, now living in California, was noticing the “friends of a friend” on Facebook and came across my picture and name. “Wonder if it’s the same pastor,” she thought, and contacted me. That’s how we got reconnected, after nearly 40 years.
I’m now “friends” with Louise as well as Don and Carolyn on Facebook. And they are telling me of our conversations from those four decades ago.
At that time, Carolyn said, “I don’t think I can ever believe in God again.”
I remember that. I recall the pain I felt when she said it because what she was doing was voicing the hurt in her soul. I felt so helpless, like I ought to be doing something to lift her out of that slough of despondency but didn’t know how.
I ought to be throwing her a lifeline but felt so inadequate.
Today, Louise said, “Our family can tell you exactly how that conversation went. When Carolyn said that, you said, ‘Yes you do.’ You said it very softly. And she said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And you said, ‘Yes you do.'”
I’m having a hard time typing this through the tears.
My pastorate in Greenville, Mississippi, lasted only 3 years and 2 months. I moved from there to a church in Jackson as a staff member. But before leaving the Delta, I also did the funeral for Carolyn and Louise’s father.
They remember that, too.
We pastors shake our heads in amazement at this, but we know it’s true. We get it all the time. Well, that’s not right. We get it from time to time. And when it comes, it’s like a love-letter from Heaven. Like something the Heavenly Father decides to send our way as if to say, “You’re doing good. Hang in there. I know you think you’re so weak and so flawed and understand so little that it can’t possibly be of help to anyone. But it’s better than you know. Keep on.”
Durn. I’m tearing up again.
When pastors make a list of their frustrations, they invariably think of the easiest ones first: the deacons meetings when power-brokers felt their authority in the church slipping and began to challenge your leadership, the churchwide business meetings when the energy in the arguments was all out of proportion to the issues on the floor, and the division among the staff ministers when you loved all the parties but fought to get them to act like adults.
Deep down, however, past those surface irritations and fresh memories, one of the greatest frustrations is the people you ministered to and loved and walked through life’s valleys with–and now, years later, you find yourself barely even remembering them. You even get angry with yourself. “How could I forget such wonderful people!”
I have no answer to this other than to say it’s normal and it’s human.
But I’ll tell you two things.
One: they remember. They were hurt so deeply and wounded so drastically that when you came, you were the embodiment of the Lord among them. Some can remember every word you said, and when you didn’t say anything, they remember the fact of your presence or your touch.
Two: Your Lord remembers.
“God is not so unjust as to forget your work and the love that you have shown toward His name….” (Hebrews 6:10)
“Put thou my tears in thy bottle; are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8)
Many a time, pastor, you will feel you have been called to a work that is light years beyond your abilities. You will find yourself in situations calling for Solomon’s wisdom, Job’s patience, and Jesus’ character. You will lie awake at night wondering what you could have done differently, what you might have done better.
You will feel like throwing in the towel. But don’t do it.
God is using you. That very sense of helplessness and weakness is from God. It allows Him room to work. “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” He said (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So, quit judging your own work. You don’t have the maturity enough, mentality enough, morality enough. (If that reads like a sermon, it was. Dr. Rick Lance preached it.)
Leave it with Him.
Now, turn off the tears and get ready to face a new day. Someone else needs you out there.
Thanks for ministering to us pastors today, Joe. I have three back-to-back meetings scheduled today: a marriage on the brink of divorce, a life in shambles because of drugs and alcohol, and another marriage on the brink of divorce. My soul is so burdened right now that I needed that reminder of God’s all-sufficient grace.
Thanks, Joe! Your ministry through your blogs has been refreshing and healing! I thank Jesus for you!
By His grace and for His glory!
Thanks for the ministry. I recall when I lost my own father it felt like I was the only person in the history of the world to have lost a father. It’s been 14 years and I still feel that way. I try to counsel each person with that pain in mind – knowing that they hurt just like I did. God has allowed me to minister to people with far more sensitivity than I could have ever gained on my own. Again, thanks for your ministry Joe.
Amen to all that. Facebook has done similar things for me, from people I had forgotten as well as things I said that I still don’t remember saying although they do. You never know whom you’re touching. By the same token, I wonder how many goofs I’ve made that theyr emember and DON’T tell me about. Hopefully more hits than misses.
As always, you hit the nail on the head!! Thanks for your wisdom and insight!!