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As I reflected on the topic, “how to minister to a friend in crisis,” I looked back on thirty-five years of ministry (especially the twenty-one years I spent in the Air Force as a Chaplain) and reflected on the lessons that I learned about ministry in crisis.
When I was in seminary, they changed the pastoral counseling course to the theology of psychology which was the area of study for the professor’s Ph.D. they were working on. I disenrolled from the course (along with a significant number of my classmates) believing any pastoral care/counseling would come through “on-the-job training.”
The lessons that I learned through Air Force Chaplain Corps courses, “by the seat of my pants” and my experiences as a recipient of mental health care proved to be a lifesaver.
Plus, there were plenty of poor pastoral care examples exhibited by others through the years.
You might be wondering what this has to do with ministering to a friend in crisis.
Some of these lessons came from my training in marital counseling, crisis counseling, and grief counseling.
I have found these tools/lessons invaluable as I found and continue to find myself walking with friends, parishioners, and strangers through a particular crisis or as they wrestle with multiple crises in their past and present lives.
First of all, you are walking with the individual in crisis as a friend, not as a professional counselor.
The friend/friends who reach out to you or who invite you into their life journey are reaching out to you because they trust you. You aren’t a professional label; you are their friend.
If you are the one reaching out, reach out to them, not as some sort of subject matter expert, but as their friend.
It is important that you don’t “react” to their story (even though your head and heart may be racing inside of you) but rather calmly and compassionately listen to what they are sharing with you.
Second, in this experience, you are called to listen.
This type of listening is deep listening.
They have the lead in the conversation. They want you to listen and truly hear them.
Sometimes it is tempting to listen while thinking of what you are going to say in response.
While you are busy framing your response in your mind, you will miss subtle nuances (body language, changes in speech patterns) that are an essential part of their story.
The art of “active listening” is essential to walking with them.
When they tell you something, paraphrasing what they said in response tells them that you are listening.
This also provides an opportunity for your friend to say, “Well that’s not exactly what I meant. This is what I meant.”
If you need clarification or aren’t sure what your friend said, it is helpful to say “I think this is what I heard you say. Is my interpretation accurate?”
Third, as you walk with your friend, remember you aren’t called to offer your advice or personal experience unless they ask you.
I have had many crisis experiences in my life.
When I find myself walking with someone through similar situations, it isn’t my place to offer my story unless they ask me.
Even in response, it’s made clear that my experience was my experience knowing that theirs may be quite different.
Both experiences are valid.
The fourth thing is something that I learned through Critical Incident Stress Management training was this phrase: “You are having a normal response/reaction to an abnormal situation.”
We often judge our reactions too harshly.
To be honest, a person reacts as best they can to a situation that may have pulled the rug from underneath them.
The reassurance that their response isn’t weird or over the top helps them to slow down and begin sharing their story in a place where they aren’t being judged.
A final bit of advice is to remember that you are NOT the subject matter expert and that you DON’T have all the answers.
If you find yourself in over your head, reach out to someone with more experience than you.
An example that I followed many times through the years is something I learned during my first assignment in the Air Force.
A counselee came to see me and as they talked and I listened, I came to realize that I needed some reinforcements.
I’m not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist and I knew the individual needed more than I was able to offer.
In most cases, I was able to invite them to go with me to a mental health provider.
They went with me because we had established a bond of trust in addition to me building a trusting relationship with health providers.
Hopefully, these insights are helpful to you as you navigate the challenging waters of life and ministry.
Michael Moore is currently an at-large member of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and lives in Carrollton, Georgia with his wife Denise. Ordained as a PC(USA) minister in 1987, he served for 21 years as a USAF Chaplain before retiring and returning to the pastorate. Currently he is the Interim Minister at Swift Presbyterian Church in Foley, Alabama. He blogs at HTTPS://ScotsIrishPadre.blog and can be reached by email at ScotsIrishPadre@gmail.com.