[This article was co-authored by Brandon Myers]
I had been looking forward to this evening for a few weeks. My wife and I were on our way to downtown Chicago for an evening with close friends. A delicious dinner, the beautiful skyline, and an evening to enjoy each other’s company awaited us. Then I got the phone call. Someone in our congregation just lost a loved one.
The voice on the other end of the phone was distressed, with uncontrollable sobbing and heartbreaks. Our anticipated evening with our friends now had to wait as we ministered to these beloved brothers and sisters in Christ who need the attention of a shepherd.
This is not an unusual situation to experience in pastoral ministry. We count pastoral visits as a joy and privilege to minister to God’s people, even in situations such as this.
While pastors primarily are responsible for making pastoral visits, all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are called at times to come alongside those who are experiencing pain and suffering. The Lord called “all…who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7) to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). The Lord also calls us to “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22; 4:8 NIV)
Therefore, all people who claim to follow the Lord Jesus Christ ought to faithfully obey but also grow in their care for the grieving. Below are three tips to keep in mind so you are prepared for future pastoral visits.
Go. Be with the people God has called you to minister to. Do not get hung up on distance or schedule. Years ago, Pastor Chuck Swindoll wisely said, “People are not in the way of your ministry. People are your ministry!”
One time I (Pastor Matt) was called by a man whose wife was very near to death. He asked if I could come and I said, “Absolutely.” When I arrived at the hospital and entered the room, the husband said he was not sure his wife would be able to respond.
However, when he whispered to his wife, “The pastor is here” her eyes immediately opened and she said, “Pastor Matt!” Because of my presence I was able to speak with her about eternity and the hope that was hers in Jesus Christ. That evening she entered into the Lord’s presence.
Praise God for modern communication. A phone call is helpful and nice. But a voicemail will never replace pastoral visits, when you look someone in the eyes as they grieve. A thoughtful text is a poor replacement for touching someone’s shoulder or giving them a hug. Be present personally for the people God has entrusted to you. Do not overstay your welcome. But slow down and stop.
Your posture should be such that as this person’s world has stopped so has your world. Their spouse has died or the diagnosis was worse than expected. Make sure you do not merely say, “I’m so sorry” at the memorial service. Enter their grief as far as you are able and as far as it is appropriate.
The moment to be there will pass away. The moment to send an email or make a phone call will not. Go and be present with them as soon as you can.
As you go to be present make sure you have few key scriptures flagged in your Bible or on your mind. Be prepared to go directly to these passages. Your encouragement may fall flat. But God’s never will. There is no need to get fancy—now is not the time to show off your obscure bible trivia knowledge.
Go to scriptures that drive home the unchangingly good character and faithfulness of the Lord. (One very helpful little book is Pastoral Visitation. It has dozens of situational short verses that will press hope upon the hearts of the grieving).
Make sure these verses are on your heart and are immediately at hand. A wise elderly pastor once told a story how he walked into care for a grieving family. He forgot his Bible in the car and one of the family members looked to him and said, “Pastor, please give us a verse of encouragement from God’s Word.”
The pastor froze. Not a single verse of the Bible came to his mind. From then on, he resolved to store up God’s truth in his heart to always be prepared to minister from God’s Word.
In his classic work the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Pastor John Calvin wrote of many rich reasons to pray. The first being this:
It is very important for us to call upon him: First, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.
May we help those who grieve by modeling for them what it is to flee to the Lord as to a sacred anchor through heartfelt pouring out of our hearts in prayer.
Do not leave a grieving person without calling upon the sovereign creator and redeemer who is the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). It does not need to be a long prayer or a complex prayer (and please do not preach a sermon in your prayer!). Pray a heartfelt, biblically-rich prayer that ministers based on the need of the moment.
Be specific and especially recall the hope, comfort, peace, and care our God alone can provide in times of grief: “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
If you are intimidated to pray during pastoral visits remember what God said:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV)
So pray for everything. Remind the individual or family mourning that they have an advocate through your prayer. Let them remember and be renewed in communion with God through suffering as Jesus modeled before the cross.
We have a glorious unparalleled hope as Christians—in a new heaven and new earth with a glorious and new resurrected body in God’s presence.
Giving the mourner the experience of heartfelt pleading before your Heavenly Father is a great gift. Remind them not only with words but your example that you and they can approach God boldly and expectantly through the Son with confidence given by the Holy Spirit.
So, when you conduct pastoral visits, remember these three words: Presence. Passage. Prayer. Through your ministry may God be glorified as you love one another and especially those who are grieving deeply.