As a young pastor, like most preachers and inexperienced pastoral care providers, I was far too concerned about saying just the right thing to hurting people. I babbled on in hospitals, funeral homes and at sick beds. But through training, experience and personal growth, I finally learned the most important part of pastoral care is showing up.
Over the years, on rare occasions, someone has thanked me for what I said when they were hurting. Most of the time, however, gratitude has been expressed not for what was said but for simply being present. As I drove home a few nights ago from extending care to a young couple, I felt inadequate -- wondering if I had said the right things and mentally kicking myself for not saying some other things. The next morning, they texted me, "Thanks for being there with us."
Great reminder! Once again, what was or wasn't said wasn't the point. Showing up, being there, connecting on a personal level with people in pain made the impact. In a techno-dominated world, why is pastoral presence so important?
First, on a theological level, it emulates Jesus' ministry. The Incarnation is the ultimate doctrine of "showing up." Jesus became human, living among us and sharing the human experience -- except for sin -- up to and including death. Caring for people means identifying with them as personally as possible, just like Jesus.
Second, on a practical level, personal contact facilitates total communication -- including body language, facial expressions and physical contact. Sitting calmly, nodding knowingly, and giving a pat on the back often communicate more than any words -- no matter how carefully chosen.
Third, investing time with people communicates high value. Most of us are busy, and giving some time to another person makes a concrete statement of their importance to us. When you show up, people perk up. They notice who comes when crisis happens.
When you know someone is hurting, resist the temptation to pull back. Take the initiative. Go see them. Take some cookies, drop off a card, use whatever means necessary -- but show up. Even if you are tongue-tied, absent-minded, or dumbfounded by the pain of the situation, your presence provides ministry.
And, even though it's called "pastoral presence," the word "pastoral" is an adjective -- not the title or an office in this case. Any Christian can provide loving, caring supportive presence for people in pain. Don't fret about being glib, just be there.
Jeff Iorg is president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., just north of San Francisco. This column first appeared at his blog, JeffIorg.com.
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