The following is from a presentation given by Brad and Jill Sullivan to the deacon body at Hot Springs Baptist Church in 2011. (It is posted here with their permission.). Brad and Jill are co-founders of While We’re Waiting.
I was ordained as a deacon 18 years ago at Eastside Baptist Church in Fort Smith. I’ve been involved in several areas of ministry … youth, adult Sunday School, mission trips. As an educator in the public school system, I have ministry opportunities every day as I deal with students and families.
There are many people in our church who are just plain sad. Broken relationships, financial hardships, and the death of loved ones affect all those around us.
How can we, as deacons, minister to these people? My personal experience is in the area of grief, after having lost my teenage daughter to cancer 20 months ago. My entire ministry focus has changed since that time.
The basic outline of the material for this presentation comes from an article written by Nancy Guthrie on The Gospel Coalition website. (Link: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/guthrie-on-sad-people-safe-churches). The remainder comes from our personal experience with grief.
Grieving people have four primary needs that the church has a key role in addressing:
1. First, they have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering and needs to be respected.
- We can’t expect people to “get over it” quickly. The pain is not like that of a broken bone, which heals within a relatively short period of time and then is pain free. It’s more like an amputation. The site of the amputation heals, but the person is never the same. People who undergo amputations experience “phantom pain” where that limb once was for the rest of their lives.
- Grief comes in waves. You may see the person smiling and laughing sometimes and crying at other times. Don’t assume they’re “not doing well” simply because you see them grieving outwardly. Neither can we assume that someone is “over it” when we see them experiencing times of joy.
- We need to give people space and time to heal. They may or may not be able to resume normal church activities right away (teaching Sunday School, greeting at the door, working in the nursery, singing in the choir). In fact, they may never resume the same activities they did before, as their ministry focus is likely to change. Of course, this is different for everyone … some are anxious to resume their previous roles.
- If you ask a grieving person, “How are you?”, they have may a very difficult time answering that question. The answer can actually change from moment to moment! Instead of asking them how they are and forcing them to try to come up with a response, simply tell them you are praying for them. (And DO it!)
- They may want to talk … or they may not. Be sensitive to that. Job’s friends spent the first seven days sitting with him in silence … things fell apart when they opened their mouths.
- Saying, “Call me if you need help” or “Let me know if you need anything” doesn’t cut it. Someone who is going through a great crisis or grief may not be emotionally able to ask for the help they need. It is better to figure out what their needs are and address them directly. In our case, people were wonderful about providing meals. In fact, we had a hot meal sitting on our kitchen counter when we got home from saying our final good-byes to our daughter at the hospice center.
- Ministering to a family who has lost a child is an ongoing process. Grief is not “over” after a few months. Remembering and acknowledging their child’s birthday or Heaven Day is a great comfort to those who are grieving.