Hannah in the temple

A spiritual care response to involuntary childlessness

Sikhumbuzo Dube, MChap, is the Stewardship Ministries and Church Development director of the West Zimbabwe Conference, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

A couple of years ago, a nine-year-old girl asked me a question I had never expected.

“Pastor,” she asked, “where is your child? I have never seen her.”

Being involuntarily childless, I responded, “We are still praying that God may give us one. I have none.”

The nine-year-old was amazed, even concerned, that her pastor could not have a child. She promised to pray for us to receive God’s blessing. This incident, however, got me to think about how involuntarily childless1 church members feel when confronted with similar situations. How do we, as pastors, deal with those struggling with this problem?

Spiritual care intervention

While the church plans for the needs of other people groups, care for involuntarily childless couples is either rare or nonexistent. In a healthcare chaplaincy setting, it may be easier to know who these people are because they may be there specifically to get help for this issue. However, the local church pastor may not have a clear opportunity to know who these people are. This situation calls for a minister to be aware of the needs of his or her members.

What to avoid

In relating to the involuntarily childless, pastors must choose their words carefully. The use of derogatory phrases such as barren woman disempowers the involuntarily childless.

Some unintended harm can come from the pulpit as well. When a pastor preaches about Hannah in 1 Samuel, for instance, or any woman who has suffered from childlessness, the problem should not be overemphasized. “The topic about Hannah always makes me cry,” said a woman struggling with this issue. “Preachers that I have heard talk about Hannah describe a woman who doesn’t have a child as an outcast, looked down upon, and all the negatives.” Another said she felt that it was too direct and depersonalizing. Sermons that utilize such narratives should be carefully crafted so that, whatever else they do, they instill hope in those who need it.

Also, beginning a sentence with at least should be avoided. A case in point is saying, “At least you are still in the productive stage of life.” Such a sentence tends to minimize the problem and shift attention from the main concern to the age of the care seeker. It has the potential of branding the minister as uncaring. No one wants “spiritual” care from someone who is callous.

Likewise, let those who are hurt pour out their beliefs, even if their theological understanding is not always expressed correctly. Preventing the wounded from freely expressing how they feel about God may stall the healing process. One woman who had five stillbirths reported that she was unhappy with a minister who told her that she should not question God. The cleric could have tried to find out what questions were running in her mind and then, having identified the feelings that she had, provided the needed care.

The question of theodicy

The involuntarily childless may struggle with why a good God allows bad things to happen. They may be furious with God’s seeming silence. Howard Clinebell proposes that in such a situation, it will be unwise to attempt to answer their theodicy questions. Instead, he proposes that care seekers should be allowed to openly vent their anger.2 It is not the time to defend God; it is the time to provide an empathetic presence.

In a well-meaning attempt to defend God’s goodness, the minister addressing the involuntarily childless may be tempted to show them where they have erred theologically. But this is generally not the best course to follow. In her counsel to caregivers, Ellen White warns that controversy and creed by the care seeker’s bedside are not appropriate.3 Those in trouble do not want to hear what they have done wrong because that is not their primary need at this time. They need someone who will listen to their story and walk with them through the pain.

Emotional liberation

The secretive nature of this challenge may mean that the inconclusive grieving that care seekers face may go unnoticed. In cases of stillbirth or pregnancy loss, there are no formal rituals that facilitate the mourning. One interviewee pointed out that openly grieving for the loss was not permissible in her culture because they felt doing so would prevent her from having another child. A spiritual renewal retreat where these patients would meet with others in the same category may provide an opportunity for them to grieve freely as needed.

David R. Williams of Harvard University posits that people who attend worship services receive “collective catharsis.” He argues that this religious emotional purging reduces affective burdens that care seekers have.4 Other studies indicate a strong relationship between being in church and psychosomatic wellness.5 Furthermore, church attendance seems to have aided doctors in the treatment of their patients.6 In a study of 720 adults, people who attended church frequently had lower psychological distress than those who attended infrequently.7

Empowering for service

Being childless does not need to mean incapacitation. Consider the Shunammite woman, for example. She may have seen her childlessness as an opportunity to serve God. She opened her house to the prophet Elisha. Although his journey may not have necessitated a layover there,8 the childless Shunammite woman invited the prophet for meals and prepared a room for him (2 Kings 4:8–10).

Service to humanity is a sign of selflessness. The Shunammite woman demonstrated this truth. Charles Spurgeon comments that this woman did not seek to gratify herself, but she was committed to being of assistance to humanity.9 This narrative demonstrates that being childless does not mean being helpless; instead, it can be an opportunity for service.

The Bible illustrates how the childless were empowered for service to humanity. Even when he had not yet received the promised child, Abraham interceded for the restoration of fertility to the household of Abimelech (Gen. 20:17, 18). Although childless, Zacharias was faithfully “performing his priestly service” (Luke 1:8, NASB). Being without a child may, therefore, create an opportunity for service. Depending on the situation, the caregiver might help the childless explore how God could use them as specially chosen vessels for undistracted service.

Secret mourners

Involuntarily childless parishioners are secret mourners who need a premeditated spiritual care plan. They need someone to help them to face their grief and create a platform for them to mourn. A careful spiritual caregiver will help them identify their feelings and validate those feelings. Emotional liberation will be possible only as the caregiver honors their sacred space by understanding what they are going through. Of all places, the church must be a safe haven for them, as well as a place for healing.

Believe me—I know.

  1. Involuntary childlessness is defined as “couples who want children [but] remain infertile,” L. Lechner, C. Bolman, A. van Dalen, “Definite Involuntary Childlessness: Associations Between Coping, Social Support and Psychological Distress,” Human Reproduction 22, no. 1, (January 2007), 288–294, https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/del327.
  2. Howard Clinebell, Basic Types Pastoral Care and Counseling: Resources for the Ministry of Healing and Growth, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2011), 206.
  3. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 120.
  4. David R. Williams, “Scientific Research on the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Mental Health: Lessons, Positive Affirmations, and Disquieting Questions,” in A Christian Worldview and Mental Health: A Seventh-day Adventist Perspective, ed. Carlos Fayard et al. (Berrien Springs: MI: Andrews University Press, 2011), 192.
  5. T. Scott Bledsoe et al., “Addressing Pastoral Knowledge and Attitudes About Clergy/Mental Health Practitioner Collaboration,” Social Work and Christianity 40, no. 1 (2013): 24.
  6. Bruce T. Morrill, Divine Worship and Human Healing: Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 44.
  7. David R. Williams et al., “Religion and Psychological Distress in a Community Sample,” Social Science and Medicine 32, no. 11 (1991): 1260–1261.
  8. T. R. Hobbs, 2 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 13 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 2002), 50.
  9. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “2 Kings 4,” Spurgeon’s Verse Expositions of the Bible, accessed September 28, 2018, studylight.org/commentaries/spe/2-kings-4.html.

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Sikhumbuzo Dube, MChap, is the Stewardship Ministries and Church Development director of the West Zimbabwe Conference, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

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