How to Help Hurting People: Lessons From a Decade of Pastoral Ministry

By Albert Hung

Not a week goes by without a friend sharing some kind of personal struggle with me. Some are struggling with terminal illnesses. Others are going through painful divorces. Some are battling demons from their past. Others are facing them in the present. Stories of betrayal, abuse, failed relationships, deep-seated anger, identity crisis – over my ten years in pastoral ministry, I’ve been entrusted with many secrets.

I’ve learned two things about pain:

  1. Everybody hurts.
  2. Christians are notoriously bad at helping hurting people.
Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church

Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church

Back in 2006, Ted Haggard, a prominent mega-church pastor and president of the National Evangelical Association, admitted to having a homosexual affair and engaging in drug use. Because of his position and influence, he fell – really, really hard. The media had a heyday dragging him through the dirt. He became the punch-line in late-night talk show monologues. His congregation was devastated. His marriage hung by a thread. His life was in ruins. It was one big, painful, ugly mess.

In the days that followed, I grieved on so many levels. I grieved for the members of New Life Church who felt lost and betrayed. I grieved for Ted’s wife and children. I grieved for gay Christians in his church who had experienced guilt and condemnation through his public rants against homosexuality. I grieved for the church as a whole, which has already lost so much of its credibility and relevance in the world. But most of all, I grieved for Ted Haggard.

I too, am a pastor. I know the stresses of ministry. I know the toll it takes on my family, on my health, and even on my faith. My church has a membership of 200. Ted’s church had a membership of 14,000. He was a nationally celebrated pastor. For a lot of reasons, the most dangerous thing that can happen to a pastor is to become famous. Being put on a pedestal is incredibly isolating. Fame, power, notoriety, money – these things can be toxic for anyone, but even more so for those in ministry.

I grieved for Ted Haggard because I saw myself in him. I saw a man under enormous pressure, who fell prey to his own success, who believed he was God’s special instrument in the world, and who ultimately lost his way. And I wonder what would have happened to me had I been in his position. Would I have maintained my integrity? Would I have been a stronger man than he? Or would I have fallen just as hard, if not worse? Long before Ted was a pastor, he was a person. Did anyone really know him? Or did he feel pressured to hide behind the pulpit?

Ted is in a different place now. He is far humbler, and I believe wiser as well. He wrote a blog post last year that I clipped and saved because it was so instructive for me. It highlights how the church often exacerbates, rather than alleviates, people’s pain. We speak before we listen. We prescribe before we diagnose. We substitute empathy for mere sympathy. We dismiss the usefulness of therapy. The result? People are not getting well. Instead, they’re getting sicker.

We need to change. I encourage you to read Ted’s post here and consider its implications.

What Actually Helps

So what can we do? I believe the Book of Job contains a tremendously practical example of how we can start being better friends to hurting people. It’s beautiful in its simplicity but powerful in its application.

Job, though he is a righteous man, has lost everything as a result of a strange wager between God and Satan. His wealth has been taken from him. All ten of his children are dead. To add insult to injury, he is inflicted with painful sores from head to toe. Overcome with grief, he spends his days sitting on an ash heap scraping the pus from his wounds.

Hearing of his distress, three of his closest friends come to his side and give him the one thing he needs most – their time:

“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” – Job 2:11-13

That last verse has shaped the way I minister to people in pain. “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” I’ve learned that the best thing I can do for someone in pain is simply to be present. To resist the urge to speak and simply listen. And weep. And then sit some more. It is called the ministry of presence. And it is what we crave when we are hurting.

Comforting a Friend

Dr. Stephen Davey explains, “We do not have to be brilliant, articulate, biblical scholars; it is true that the greatest ability as a friend is availability. Just show up – and you exercise the ministry of presence.” He gives a few guidelines for exercising this “ministry without words”:

  1. Reject the view that simply quoting Scripture will eliminate sorrow.
  2. Refrain from the temptation to say something profound.
  3. Refuse any expectation of eliminating grief by your insight.
  4. Resist the assumption that you must speak in order to express love.

Ted needed true friends, both before and after his fall. I do too. And so do you. Because sooner or later, we all find ourselves sitting on that ash heap, wondering if anyone cares or understands. May we become the kind of people that are willing to silently sit, weep, and wait with one another until the storms pass.

What about you? What helps when you’re hurting? What doesn’t help? How can we build an atmosphere of trust and transparency both within the church and outside its walls? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Headshot - Albert Hung copyAlbert Hung is the Lead Pastor at Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Monterey Park, California, a multi-cultural church with services in English and Mandarin. After spending several years working in theater, television, and the music industry, Albert committed his life to Christ in 2000 while living in Taipei, Taiwan.

Soon afterwards, he moved to Southern California to begin a new journey as one called to full time ministry. He is passionate about leadership development, cross-cultural ministry, and mobilizing Christians to use their gifts and abilities to advance the kingdom of God in the local community.

Read Pastor Albert’s Posts HERE.

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9 thoughts on “How to Help Hurting People: Lessons From a Decade of Pastoral Ministry

  1. I remember back at a church I visited every now and then, the pastor fell into temptation of stealing and stole from the church offering. When the congregation found out, they shunned him and he left. I didn’t see one instance of anyone helping, understanding, and more importantly, the actions sure did not reflect forgiveness. Was that the way a church congregation should treat somebody who did something wrong but was man enough to own up to it?

    Christianity, sadly, has weakened people sometimes. They hide behind the faith, ignore any kind of logical way to approach things. I’ve seen churches who are all surface level happy but when real issues happen, they reflect nothing of love because they’ve weakened their own foundation.

    When I am hurting, I just need an ear. Sometimes it just feels good to vent and have someone absorb it. It may not help my situation, but it is sure better than me holding it in fearing that I would be shunned.

    We can’t afford to lose touch with the each other.

    • Wow, I feel for that pastor. I’ve heard it said that within the church, it is the pastor who often needs to be ministered to the most, but winds up being ministered to the least. Who pastors the pastor?

      I have a couple of men outside the church that do this for me. And I’m grateful that our board of stewards and trustees gives me room to fail, and encourages me to establish boundaries that protect my health and that of my family.

      • That is exactly what pastors need. There’s so much pressure that gets put on them that the congregation forgets that they are people too who go through same issues as we do. I’m glad that you have that. It’s healthy to have it.

      • While I agree, compassion is so lacking in the way we relate to our leaders, it’s still a tough call.

        We’ve all heard or read of the church’s long history of covering up for the clergy’s gruesome behavior. Today’s harsh, zero-tolerance position seems like a natural reaction to all the embezzling, sex-abusing, power-hungry bastards of the past.

        When I see someone like Ted Haggard get blasted, I feel like he’s being scapegoated for all the bad pastors that we’ve all encountered. Every church leader that hurt us or made us feel bad about ourselves. Ted is their stand-in, and in a twisted way, he is being Jesus-like now more than ever.

  2. Empathy is the most intriguing gift that God has given to us, I think. It is so difficult to fully understand the concept and some people have more of an aptitude in the area than others. Through just being there…even those that may not have the words to say can still communicate through the vibes they give of through their presence. Great piece Thanks.

    • I agree. I think we’re seeing an increase in loneliness in our culture, which breeds all kinds of neuroses and dysfunction. Time is a finite resource. Once we give it away, we can’t get it back. That’s why spending it on people is such a precious thing. Thanks for your feedback Jerome.

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