Sometimes a moment comes, unbidden, and your Christian “presence” is called for
“Being pastoral” isn’t a phrase reserved for clergy alone. Let me assume, though, that you have never taken a course in pastoral counseling and, equally, pastoral theology is a subject you have heard but the definition isn’t anything you can remember. That’s fine; don’t worry about it.
Sometimes, though, “being pastoral” is a role that is thrust upon us where events suggest we must become a Christian presence in someone’s life. We try for that all the time, I presume, but this time we’re talking about being a particular Christian presence in another person’s particular life.
I am thinking of those “in person” encounters with someone who has simply decided to talk to you about themselves and their perplexing problem.
It is not a role that anybody ought to go seeking, understand. That would be presumptuous and possibly prideful. I am speaking of those moments that come unbidden, a situation that demands one’s best “pastoral” response.
And, come to think, perhaps “pastoral” is not the most precise word to use. The phrase “Christian encouragement” comes to mind―variations of which pepper the Epistles. That may be a better concept to explore. Either way, it works out the same.
So who would want to talk to you? You would be surprised. It could be simply a situation where a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker, almost anybody says to you in one manner or another, “I need to tell this; may I tell you?”
It may not even be that direct, but unexpectedly you find yourself in possession of another person’s personal trouble and their worry, even their fear. What they tell you might be a problem they are having, or one a family member is experiencing and they wonder how they can help―any number of situations come to mind.
What should you do, in any case?
1) Behave, for starters, as a friend who is a Christian. Ask, first, if they are seeking your advice. Sometimes, yes. Other times, no, not really. It may be the case (and often is) they just want someone to hear them tell it. If that’s what is going on, job’s done. Intentional listening without interruption is a forgotten art but always a source of relief for somebody facing difficult choices.
And if that is the situation do not offer unsolicited advice. Do be certain to say that you, if they wish, are ready to listen any time and they may feel free to bounce off you as needed. With that comes an explicit―you say it aloud―promise of confidentiality.
2) Let’s say, though, they do want your advice. Uh-oh, things are getting complicated, aren’t they?
Keep in mind, if you are being asked, you can bet they probably have also asked someone else, perhaps many someones.
Here is where you, again, stay quiet and listen deeply. You solicit from them what they have already heard. You ask if any of that makes sense to them (not if it makes sense to you). What is their opinion on the advice they’ve been given?
They will have one and possibly that is why they’re asking you for what may be different advice. They’re not happy with it; it’s too hard, or sounds too easy or impossible. You’re job here is to help them walk through that thicket by asking questions, not giving answers.
You are not listening to render a judgment or offer an opinion or tell them where they’ve failed. Even less should you offer what you would do. No, you are asking for their judgment, their opinion, on what they’ve already been told. What is it they like or don’t like about the advice they’ve been given?
3) Help them examine the alternatives. Ask if they foresee any predictable consequences following one bit of advice over another. They may talk themselves out of all of it. Or, again, an out-loud conversation is always clarifying; they may know what they need to do just from a conversation with you, and all you’ve done, really, is listen.
4) Slip back up to Number 2 above. What if they have not approached anyone one else and you are the first they’ve asked, and they want your advice? Even if they have not asked anyone else, nonetheless, they will have in mind various scenarios of what they might do. Once again, hit your deep listening mode and ask what they have come up with, and what they like or dislike given the alternatives.
5) When the conversation is done, pray. A snippet of Psalm 17 will do: “Keep us as the apple of your eye; hide us in the shadow of your wings.” Then say Amen.