Have you ever felt like you don’t have the answers? Or perhaps like you are powerless to affect change? Working in ministry, we will often be presented with circumstances we have little to no control over. There are moments when we just want to wrap up our students in bubble wrap and put them in a safe place to protect them from all the hurt and pain in the world. We will be in conversations that break our hearts, our words will fail us, and we’ll see no clear path of direction to offer. We will be broken when we are faced with the reality of sin and the hurt and pain it brings in the lives of our people.
So what do we do in those moments when words, encouragement, guidance, and solutions fail us? How do we still help our people? I wish I had a simple and direct answer for you, but the truth is, I don’t. I have been faced with these moments more often than I care to admit. Moments where words fail and my heart breaks because I can’t fix things. But what I can offer you are some insights for how we can navigate these moments and care well for our people even when we don’t have all the answers.
If you know the conversation is going to occur before you enter into it, pray for the conversation. Pray during the conversation. And pray after the conversation. Prayer is often implied but can be forgotten or treated as an afterthought. These moments–before, during, and after–need to be covered in prayer because without it, we truly are powerless to help. But prayer forces us to rely upon the power that is outside of ourselves, the healing power of God.
Whenever we enter into these conversations our propensity can trend toward trying to hold everything together and not show emotions for fear of exasperating the situation and circumstances. But I would actually encourage you to share your feelings and thoughts. The more honest and transparent we are, the greater the opportunity we have to empathize and sympathize with others. It shows them that we are in those moments with them. It communicates care and love. And it highlights what we are able to do and not do.
Let me encourage you to not offer answers when you aren’t sure or don’t have a solution. I have found that people don’t always come seeking a solution but instead a listening ear and friend or leader who cares. So be honest with your limitations but also continue to seek to help by pointing them toward people or solutions that will help.
One of the best things you can do is to emote during these moments. I’m not saying that you should always reflect the emotions of the other person (consider if they are displaying anger and violence, it wouldn’t be beneficial for you to reciprocate in kind), but demonstrate appropriate emotions within the context of the conversation. If it’s breaking your heart let those emotions show. If there is righteous anger, share it appropriately. Emotion is a powerful tool and a gift from God. We serve a God who is an emotional Being and created us in His image which is reflected through our emotions and feelings. So let me encourage you to reflect and emote appropriately and in ways that communicate understanding, love, and empathy.
This point cannot be overstated. I think often when we “listen,” we listen to solve the problem or offer solutions. I get it, that is part of our job. We are where we are because we are seeking to help people grow and be more like Jesus. But when we only listen to find a solution, we miss the deeper heart issues along with finding out what the other person truly wants and needs.
Think of it in this way: if someone comes to you with problems in a relationship and you already have the solution before they finish sharing, you may jump in and cut them off or may incorrectly diagnose the problem and the solution. Cutting someone off communicates we don’t value them or the relationship but only finding a solution. And if we miss-diagnose the problem and solution, we may actually do more harm than good going forward (i.e. we may find the solution to be reconciliation in the relationship but that may not be possible and we would only know that if we listen fully). In these moments, listen well. Don’t listen to problem solve or offer a solution, listen to show understanding, empathy, and friendship. Care well and embody this by how you listen.
Following up is something I need to be better about. If I don’t make a notation on my calendar or set reminders on my phone, I can forget to do it. But it cannot be something that falls by the wayside. This is one of the most important pieces when it comes to these conversations. Following up shows our people we care and see them as more than just a conversation or problem in need of a solution. It shows them that they matter to us and that we value them and the relationship we have with them.
The goal isn’t for us to follow up and declare that we found an answer or we know what to do (although if that does happen, share it in the right moment in the right way). Instead, you can continue to show them that they matter and that you are invested in them. It can be a text saying you’re praying for them, it could be sending a card to them, it could be buying them a cup of coffee and not having a conversation agenda, or it could be as simple as giving them a hug the next time you see them (if appropriate). Whatever follow up looks like for you, make sure it is always a part of these moments.
Connect them with people who can help.
There are often moments in these conversations when you will realize you are not the best equipped person to be helping in that moment. That is okay! In fact, the more you are able to realize it, the better suited you are to make sure they receive the best care possible. As you listen and engage, think through who you can connect your people with to make sure they have the best care and help possible. This may not be something you address in the moment, but could be something you offer after the conversation. Be aware of the various organizations, resources, counselors, and other connections you can make within your church and community so you can refer and connect people with the appropriate professionals and help that is available.