Like firefighters, when ministers are called about a crisis, we often rush to the scene. But unlike firefighters, we don’t have a water hose to put out the fire. We arrive on the scene knowing that when we leave, the crisis will not be over; so we don’t arrive with any false illusions that we have come to solve the problem.
How often does this happen? I minister to at least one or two families a week who are moving through some kind of crisis: a tragic accident, death of a loved one, a surgery, a robbery, a diagnosis of an illness, the moving of an elderly family member to a nursing home, a child in trouble with the law, a troubled marriage, chronic pain, depression, the loss of a job, a child custody case, a divorce. In the last three months, I’ve ministered to families in almost all of these situations.
Like firefighters, when ministers are called about a crisis, we often rush to the scene. If that’s not possible or practical, we telephone those in crisis. But unlike firefighters, we don’t have a water hose to put out the fire. We arrive on the scene knowing that when we leave, the crisis will not be over; so we don’t arrive with any false illusions that we have come to solve the problem.
We are not miracle workers. Yet we arrive with the hope that we can be a conduit for God’s grace and love. We arrive with a prayer that through our weaknesses and strengths, the grace of God might be felt by those in crisis.
Even so, sometimes it feels like we are carrying a band-aid to stop a massive hemorrhage. It’s easy to feel inadequate because we know we cannot fix the problems our friends are experiencing. Sometimes we cannot even fix our own problems, much less those of others. I once asked a man who was struggling for his life if there was anything I could do for him. He turned his head toward me. He smiled and said, “You know there’s not.” His smile said more than his words. His smile said, “You know that question’s not worth asking. You asked it because you don’t know what else to do.”
Ministers who like to repair things end up frustrated. We must learn to be comfortable in most settings where things need putting back together even though we know we cannot make the repairs. It’s easy to feel like the king of Israel who was asked by another king to cure his general of leprosy. He stood up, ripped his robe and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy?” (2 Kings 5:7).
Despite feeling inadequate, ministers learn to carry a quiet confidence into crisis situations because we believe in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. The minister discovers there is great value in the “ministry of presence.” People usually will not remember anything you say to them in times of crisis unless it’s something stupid or cruel. However, people remember you were with them during those hours, days or weeks when the crisis loomed. A worthy goal is simply to be with people during difficult times and to remain calm.
A couple of years ago when my son was attacked by a dog, I needed rational-thinking people around me who maintained a non-anxious presence. My son was bleeding. The wound was deep. I was angry. I was afraid. I was torn up inside. I needed others to offer me strength and a calming presence.
Like firefighters, ministers don’t get to pick and choose which day people have their crisis. It may be on a day that we don’t feel well. It may be on a day when we’ve had a crisis of our own. It may be on our day off or on a day we’ve planned something special with family or friends. People don’t ask us when they can have their crisis. Our job, like that of firefighters, is to be ready to respond, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So when people ask me, “What do you do all day?” I’d have to say I stay on call all day and all night for people who may need a calming presence. It’s certainly not all I do, but there is little I do that’s more important than being with hurting people.
As I go to people in crisis, I feel the burden of the responsibility. I realize I represent a community of believers who love and care about them. I am an ambassador for Christ, who brings a calming presence to people, provides them comfort and gentle guidance, and reminds them that whatever has been lost, these three remain: faith, hope and love.
When I minister to people in crisis, it’s always my prayer that I can embody these intangible gifts. They may not put out the fire, but they enable people to walk through the fire and survive.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.
This column is part one of a five-part series.