One-on-one conversations, with members of our church family, is a large part of my pastoral work. My two young boys often ask me, “Daddy, what do you do at your work all day when you aren’t reading your Bible and praying?”
Usually, my answer is “Meet with people.”
To which, they say, “You can have that as a job?”
To which, I say, “Kind of.”
In spite of my children’s confusion, it is one of my favorite pastoral duties. I call it caring for souls.
These care, counsel, and encouragement sessions give me profound joy. There is something unspeakably sweet about listening to someone think carefully and critically about what it means to live a life in light of the person and work of Jesus.
I also think that handling these pastoral talks with wisdom is a skill to be honed and practiced over time, rather than an inherent talent certain pastors either have or do not have.
There are five phrases that I find myself saying often, or that I’m learning to say more often. I propose that in these phrases lies a helpful framework for these conversations.
1. “Tell me about it.”
Listening is an underrated and often untried pastoral practice. Especially when we are young, we tend to think that the bulk of our work is about sharing words with people. The truth is that we are supposed to do that (see below) However, we will not know exactly what words to use, in what order, and with what tone without careful pastoral listening.
It also should be noted that thinking about what you are going to say when they stop talking for a minute is not the same thing as listening.
2. “Can you say more about that?”
Often, in pastoral care and counsel, our folks will not know how, exactly, to explain themselves. They will talk in circles and even ramble it. This, of course, is normal and completely okay.
I’ve learned that asking for those in our care to elaborate demonstrates that we are listening. It helps them find a roadmap for transversing the difficult terrain of the conversation. This simple question helps us carefully diagnose the spiritual issues at play.
3. “I’m sorry and/or I can (or cannot) imagine.”
Empathy is a basic pastoral skill. If you understand, say so. If you cannot imagine, do not pretend to. I’ve found that our folks have a deep desire to be heard and understood. The hard work of developing empathy (usually through our own pain) and expressing empathy become an all-important basis for wise pastoral care.
4. “I’m not quite sure, but let’s see if we can talk this out.”
When we are young pastors, we feel the pressure to have a quick answer for everything. But here is the thing: we don’t have a quick answer for everything.
The intersection of the truths of the gospel with the actual lived experience of a human being is not always plainly obvious. Real life involves such a greater degree of nuance. At the end of the day, of course, we believe that Jesus’ person and work become the answer for any issue, but how this plays out is complicated.
I’m trying to learn to help my folks think out loud with me about the various ways the truths of the gospel can shape their daily lives. It’s a privilege to see them struggle with the tensions of living as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom in a world in which his reign is not yet completely made manifest.
5. “Can I tell you something?”
We have to remember our role. We care for souls. And one important way that souls are cared for is when, at the right time, words that outline the good news of Jesus are said out loud.
I’ve found that after careful, empathetic listening (sometimes over the course of multiple meetings), our folks truly want us to tell them something about Jesus. It is a special privilege to look someone in the eye and to announce the unique hope of the gospel and its application for their specific situation. This will rarely make anything easier. But it will offer great hope.
Be encouraged in this work. It is a holy task.