It was a normal mid-March day. As I returned home from the church office for lunch, little did I realize that my life was about to fall apart. Lunch over, there was a knock at the door. A stranger asked in a cold monotone for William Scott Field. "That's me." I said. Immediately the visitor served papers requiring me to appear in family court on March 30. My wife had sued for divorce. She wanted my home, my precious children, child support, and alimony-and me out.
I went into shock. In a few seconds my world fell apart. My pre-teen children were so close to me that the thought of leaving them pierced my soul. How would this impact my family, my ministry?
There was no one to turn to except a few close friends in the church. Even in my distress I knew I had to be careful in my selection of a confidant. But at that moment I needed someone as a sounding board to help put my thought processes back on a rational level.
There were other ministers in whom I felt that I could confide, but they were miles away. Right now my needs could not be met by a telephone conversation. I needed someone with flesh and bones that could touch me and comfort me in my distress. I went to a trusted friend to talk and to release the emotional volcano within me. I desperately needed emotional support.
Soon my situation became general knowledge throughout the conference. I was not quite prepared, however, for the isolation I was to experience. Even my fellow pastors avoided me. Most appeared to be afraid to mention my circumstances or were simply unsure of how to approach me. I think they were unaware of my need for acceptance and affirmation. Some made awkward attempts to let me know of their support, but the general response was that of pretending everything was the same, ignoring the fact that my world was forever changed.
As I thought about how the other pastors must feel around me, I began to realize that I too would not know just how to give my support to someone in my situation. I remembered how I had also avoided unpleasant situations, not sure of how to approach.
There was the young pastor who had reached out to me for friendship and I had been too absorbed in "ministry" to recognize the urgency in his call for help. Not long afterward he left the conference and I lost track of him. Imagine my consternation when "later" I found that he had died of AIDS and had left a general letter to his Seventh- day Adventist family asking that in the future they be more aware of the needs of those within their fellowship. In his last days he found support through the ministry of another denomination.
What can we as "shepherds of the flock" do to support and uphold one another? How do we minister to one another's needs without losing our respect and dignity?
First, it is important for ministers to feel safe enough with one another to discard the facades that we wear to give the appearance that all is well, when, in fact, our souls are crying out for understanding. We need to be able to admit both our shortfalls and strengths, share together our personal struggles and victories, and take time to pray for one another's individual as well as mutual needs. We need an environment in which it is safe to say "I need your support and prayers."
Be a good listener
At times of crisis, one needs to have a good friend that can be a sounding board. This requires patience when those in distress begin repeating themselves. Encourage your friend to talk out their feelings-anger, rage, perplexit¡ fear, etc.
Many times in the process of venting, the friend in crisis will answer many of his or her own questions. Also keep in mind that things said in anger and frustration are often not really an indicator of the person's true feelings. At such times their numbness confuses them as to their inner thoughts. By expressing themselves, they often are able to become more rational in their thought process.
A part of good listening will exclude judgment of opinions expressed. Ask questions gently to help them to think through the situation on a more rational level. In any case, I let the person in crisis have their perceptions restored from within.
Be a friend
One of the most difficult times in crisis occurs when one is alone for extended periods of time. Depression, loneliness, selfpit¡ and a host of other dangers exist when one becomes withdrawn from regular activities and associations.
More than anything, a person going through a crisis needs a friend who will stick by him or her. Having a ready ear to listen, inviting the person to join in family activities, and giving them an encouraging call or visit are all important aspects of friendship during tough times.
One caution, however, is important. When inviting the friend in crisis to join in your family activities, keep the conversation and activities on a positive level in the presence of children. You will need to provide private times for the friend to talk about his or her daily problems and frustrations.
Trusted friends will also have opportunity to be good advisors when the time is right. I was grateful to a friend who sensed the right time to give me a book explaining the stages of grief. Though I was familiar with them, I had not thought of myself as grieving. Once I realized that what I was experiencing was normal, then the healing process took over.
A friend that seems interested and helpful one day and then totally oblivious the next day can be quite distressing. Be consistent in your support. Of course there will be times you must do other things. Tell your distressed friend that you want to help, but that you have other responsibilities to care for now. Arrange for a convenient time to get together. In emergencies, however, be prepared to help even though it may cause some inconvenience.
In your conversations, avoid giving your personal opinion. Lead your friend to make decisions based on his or her own logic and value system. Avoid judgmental statements that may return to haunt you later.
Be a prayer partner
More than anything, people praying for and with me during my crisis gave me the strength and encouragement to continue. Knowing I had support from significant others in my world meant so much. I had been used to the servant role of ministry and it took some adjustment being on the receiving end. But it meant so much to have my head elder, a friend, or a fellow pastor take the time to share God's promises and pray with and specifically for me.
I began to understand more fully the need Christ had of His disciples praying for Him in Gethsemane. There is strength in knowing that you are not alone in your prayer life.
Intercessory prayer is powerful and meaningful to those who take God's promises seriously and plead for their fulfillment until the answer is found. It lifts up the weary and strengthens the intercessor.
Ministering to our fellow pastors can be a rewarding experience in any setting, but is especially valuable in times of crisis. We need to be a support system to one another. In strengthening others, we ourselves are strengthened.