Having been in ministry for more than 25 years, I have had my share of hospital visits. The majority of these visits was simply to provide a word of encouragement to a parishioner who was in for a brief stay. But then there have been the other times that brought tears not only to my eyes but also to my soul. You know the ones where the physician comes to share the prognosis with the family, and it isn’t good news. These are the moments that leave you feeling completely helpless and at a loss for words—in spite of what you may have learned in pastoral ministry class. I have discovered that during these times, the most effective form of ministry that a pastor can render is simply the ministry of presence. Although visiting the sick and the suffering becomes, in most cases, trying at best, years spent in ministry have taught me to handle it with a certain degree of professionalism and grace.
But there is one visit from which I have yet to recover. This time I was not there merely to share a word of encouragement with a member of my congregation, for it was not a parishioner who lay in the bed as the doctor rendered his prognosis. The patient was my wife, Maureen. Yes, in a sense, I was her pastor and she my member, but this was different. Despite all of my years of pastoral training, as well as the countless hospital visits I had made throughout my ministry, nothing had prepared me for the news that we received that evening. The diagnosis: multiple sclerosis (MS). The prognosis was not good. I was stunned. So was my wife. Although I could see that the news had fallen upon her like a ton of bricks, I also saw in her eyes a look of courage as she gathered her composure to say, “OK, OK.” For a moment, it was as if she was saying that everything was going to be all right.
But the same could not be said for me. There was no look of courage in my eyes—only fear. I did my best to conceal it, but it was there. My heart was pounding so loudly that I thought it could be heard throughout the hospital halls. I wanted to quickly pray this thing away. After all, I was the pastor. Maybe God would take all of my years of faithful service to His people into consideration. Maybe I would receive some kind of special dispensation. But I quickly learned that this was not to be. This was a storm that was not just going to blow over; but, as I would later learn, would be around for quite some time.
Now storms are nothing new in the life of a pastor. We are accustomed to handling storms. Whether it’s the storm of a diffi cult member who believes that their job includes keeping our feet planted firmly on the road of humility, or whether it’s a storm of some theological controversy that has the winds of doctrinal debate blowing through our pews.
Storm that hits the pulpit
But this storm was different. This wasn’t a storm that had hit the pews, but one that struck the pulpit. As a pastor, I am accustomed to hearing the painful stories that my members share of the storms that have blown into their lives from time to time. I have listened with great interest to their testimonies of how God had seen them through, as well as the many lessons these experiences had taught them. But now it was my turn.
I quickly discovered that going through a storm of such magnitude has a way of teaching you some very valuable lessons. I learned such a lesson that day in my wife’s hospital room. I discovered that there was nothing in my ministerial training to help me as a pastor as I prepared to navigate through this storm that had blown so unexpectedly into the life of my family. If that was part of the curriculum taught in pastoral ministry class, I must have been absent that day.
One of the reasons why I believe that we, as pastors, have such difficulty handling these kinds of storms is because our role usually includes ministering to the one in the storm.
After all, we’re the ones that are usually called to the bedside of the sick and suffering to offer words of hope and comfort. Yes, the pain we see is real, but yet in some strange way, we feel shielded from it. I must admit that there have been times during a hospital visit where I have merely gone through the motions, you know, saying just the right words, but not allowing myself to “feel” the patient’s pain. Sometimes I’m sure that I used it as a defense mechanism so as not to allow the pain to consume me. And we do need to be mindful of this, because in our line of work, we spend a great deal of time in the same room with pain.
But of all the lessons that this experience has taught, and continues to teach me, one stands out as crucial: if I am going to make it through this storm, endurance will call for complete honesty on my part.
Facing the storm with honesty
I soon learned that the S that appears on my chest does not stand for “superman” but rather for “sinner saved by grace.” Sometimes we pastors honestly begin to believe the praises that others heap upon us. Because we operate in the realm of the supernatural at times, we tend to think that we are immune to the many challenges that our members experience on a daily basis. This storm quickly reminded me that I was not “Super” man, but rather a child of God who was in need of the same counsel and comfort that I, as a pastor, was accustomed to extending to others in their time of need.
I also had to come to grips with the fact that there would be times when I did not feel spiritual or pastoral. To be perfectly honest, there were moments when I was not able to motivate myself to even look for comfort in the Word that I so often preached to others. And true honesty with God comes into play here because during these moments I had to resist putting on my pastoral persona and allow myself to become transparent with others, myself, and most of all with my God. I must admit that there were times when I felt like the disciples who were caught in the midst of their own storm one night, and I, too, found myself crying out to God, “Carest thou not that we perish?” (Mark 4:38). And yes, there were times when I would beat myself up because of the way I felt. After all, this was no way for a pastor to feel. But what really made the difference was when a colleague of mine reminded me that God truly understood what I was going through. Not only did He understand, my pastor friend would say, but He also cared.
I found it interesting that, although I couldn’t bring myself to read God’s Word, strangely enough, I did find comfort in reading the sermons that I had shared with my congregations over the years. Somehow, reading the words that God had given me to preach to others now became a powerful source of strength and comfort to this discouraged preacher.
Leaning on the church family
The next lesson on honesty I would learn from this storm would prove to be the most humbling and difficult of all. It came when I was called to be honest with my church.1 I found it hard to initially come to grips with the fact that while being in the midst of this storm, I was in no position to provide the level of ministry they deserved. Because the nature of my wife’s condition quickly escalated, I came to the conclusion that I would need to take time away from the church so that I could care for my wife, my family, and yes, even myself. I am reminded of the instruction that the flight attendant gives each time I prepare to fly. The passengers are told that in the case of a loss of cabin pressure, we are to place the oxygen masks on ourselves before we attempt to come to the aid of the one under our care. Sometimes as pastors, we have difficulty understanding, and even for our members at times, that there are going to be moments when we will need to seek assistance for ourselves before we will be able to meet the needs of others.
But I must give credit where credit is due. My church leadership insisted that I take time off so that I could use this precious time to minister to my wife, our three daughters, and yes, myself. I don’t know what we would have done without our church family. They were a tower of strength for us on so many levels. This episode has also taught me that as pastors, our members are able and willing to minister to us in our time of personal crisis, but only if we are willing to grant them, as well as ourselves, permission to do so. As pastors, we need to learn a lesson from the ministry of the apostle Paul. He understood that there should never be a time in our ministry where we felt ashamed to call on the saints and say, “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25, NIV). There have been days in this storm when I could not pray for myself. During these times, the prayers of these faithful saints have seen us through.
Well, it has been some two years now since my wife, Maureen, and I were given the news that fateful afternoon, only to discover a year later that she had been misdiagnosed. Instead of having MS, tests showed that she had a different neurological disease that in many ways is much more challenging than the original diagnosis. But God is good. Although she has had to leave her work as a nurse, and has had to use the aid of both a cane and a wheelchair at times, her faith in God continues to stand tall.
As for me, I did return to the pulpit, and yes, the church was intact. But when I returned, I did so as a preacher with a different perspective about my God, my ministry, and yes, myself. Going through a storm of this magnitude has a way of changing not only the way we see our circumstances but also how we view ourselves. I have been reminded that sometimes God does not change our circumstances because He wants our circumstances to change us. As the words of the song so powerfully put it, “Sometimes He calms the storm, and other times He calms His child.”2
Now don’t get me wrong, the storm is far from over. There are days where my faith wavers and I experience what I call a “Job” moment. In life, there are some storms that will always be yours. But I have discovered that the key consists in learning how to preach through them. And by preaching through a storm, it doesn’t mean necessarily from the pulpit, although in some instances, this might be the case. But it means placing a newly found confidence in the Word of God. It means allowing the same Word that we so often preach to others, to preach to us.
As for my wife, she still struggles with the various challenges that this disease brings to the table. And barring some act of God, she will have this battle for the rest of her life. But as she continues to remind me, as well as our church family, “Although I may have this disease, this disease doesn’t have me!” What encouraging words for me to hear as a pastor. For they come from the most important member in the pew, my wife.
1 During this time, I was pastoring the Seabrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Seabrook, Maryland, United States.
2 “Sometimes He Calms the Storm,” by Scott Krippayne.