Every morning for several months, my wife and I walked past an injured Canada goose, whose feathers stuck out in several directions. For all those months, several geese dutifully stayed with the injured bird.
Likewise, caring for the wounded is the church’s loving duty to her own. Paul teaches us that when one member of Christ’s body suffers, “all the members suffer” (1 Cor.12:26, KJV). Caring for the grieving promotes the unity of the body of Christ and fosters the communion of saints. Furthermore, grieving saints have a claim on our compassion for Christ’s sake (Matt. 25:40).
This is particularly true of pastors. We are called to be shepherd or pastor (Eph. 4:11), which means we are to “feed (literally, “be a shepherd to”) the church of God” (Acts 20:28, KJV). That involves avoiding certain attitudes and cultivating others, then putting those attitudes into action, remembering our great calling as Christ’s undershepherds.
Attitudes to Avoid
First, don’t regard grieving people as an interruption. I was in the ministry for more than ten years when I received what proved to be a life-changing call. I was working on the conclusion of my doctoral dissertation when the phone rang. I sighed as I answered: “Am I that much of an interruption?” asked the voice on the other end. “Interruption?” I asked meekly. “Yes, didn’t you hear yourself sigh?” Suddenly I realized that my dissertation, not the grieving caller, was the interruption. The grieving caller was my life’s work, my calling, my real ministry. My dissertation was the interruption of this real ministry.
I never forgot that lesson over the last eighteen years of ministry. Grieving, hurting people are what ministry is all about. We must not think of our churches and our parishioners in terms of numbers or cases; rather, we should think of our churches as hospitals where the wounded and grieving come to us, seeking our biblical guidance and loving care.
Second, don’t treat all sheep the same. As a good shepherd, remember that some sheep will need more attention than others. Third, don’t forsake shepherding for preaching. Don’t say, “I’m a preacher first and foremost, so I don’t need to spend much time with my flock.” Preaching and pastoring are two sides of the coin of ministry. Yes, it’s tough to do both well, but do them you must. God never promised you that the ministry would be easy.
Attitudes to Cultivate
First, love your grieving people. People are hurting. If we do not shepherd them in their sorrows, we are hirelings, not shepherds, and should repent of our indifference. Say with Richard Baxter, “I am contented to consume my body, to sacrifice to God’s service, and to spend all that I have, and to be spent myself, for the souls of men.” Second, develop a positive attitude toward pastoral ministry. As a pastor, you need to cultivate an attitude of willing servitude to pastoring the needy. Say with Thomas Scott, “Had I a thousand lives, I would willingly spend them in the pastoral ministry: and had I as many sons, I should gladly devote them to it.”
Third, shepherd the grieving as you are shepherded by Christ. Be imitators of Christ for Christ’s sake (Eph. 5:1–2). If Christ purchased His flock with His own blood, should you not be willing to make some sacrifices to serve His hurting people?
Putting Attitude into Action
First, give yourself to the grieving. Offer hurting people your full attention. Put everything else out of your mind when you are with them.
Second, focus on the Word. Let Scripture be the center of your visit. Read a brief, fitting portion with emphasis and feeling. Point people to Christ. Never let a visit pass without leaving behind the savor of the world’s best and most able Physician.
Third, bathe your ministry in prayer. Pray earnestly for the grieving in their presence and in their absence. Pray for healing and for submission. Pray for divine intervention and for sanctification of the grief. Encourage the grieving to pray as well. Teach them that praying and ministering to others who grieve can help alleviate their own grief.
Fourth, involve the flock. Alert your elders to such cases. Look for other members of the church that may be able to help.
Remember that the grieving and dying are facing many terrors, so offer comfort to the saved, and evangelize the unsaved. What joy we feel as pastors when we see the grieving saved and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ under our shepherding! (2 Peter 3:18). You are an agent of the Spirit, who has called you to your work, enables and equips you for it, and works through you by His Word to comfort the grieving (1 Peter 1:12). Such an honor far outweighs all the challenges and trials of church work.