Shepherding the Suffering: Discipleship in Pastoral Care by Jason Boothe

praying-together2“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 28:19

We are called to “shepherd the flock that is among us” (1 Peter 5:2). As pastors, our great responsibility is to tend to the spiritual welfare of our respective congregations. Entrusted to perform this awesome task, the Lord empowers us by the indwelling Holy Spirit and calls pastors to instruct and lead congregations “to observe whatsoever I have commanded” (Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:20). Our task is to tend to God’s purchased possession as under-shepherds and stewards while faithfully following hard after the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 4:1; Hebrews 13:20).

The church we are called to serve is made up of people who are at different stages of natural life. Some are young and healthy, filled with energy and vigor. Others are in the twilight of their years. There are those in our congregations who, although advanced in years, are physically fit and healthy. Other are physically weak and weary from long life or extended illness. While everyone in the church is at a different stage of life’s journey, one thing remains the case: each and everyone of us will one day breathe our last breath and go the way of all flesh. Presbyterian pastor and hospital chaplain Gordon Cook wrote that “as a pastor you are always ministering with people who are approaching death.” The issue since the fall of humanity is not “if” we will pass from this life into the next. The reality of our impending death is certain, the day of our life being numbered by the Lord (Psalm 90:12).

While entire books have been written concerning the proper care of various congregational subgroups, today we focus on those suffering and at end of life. As a pastor, what is your strategy for ministering to the terminally ill and dying? Do you have a proper theological framework to handle this eventuality? How do you shepherd the suffering in the context of your pastoral ministry?

There are definite steps a pastor can take to ensure his congregation is properly equipped for the “when” moments of terminal illness. It is my prayer that God’s Word provides all of His pastors with the necessary insight to properly shepherd those who are suffering and dying.

I. Develop a Theology of Suffering that Aligns Firmly with Scripture

A pastor does the bulk of his pastoral care from the pulpit during the ministry of preaching. Each and every Sunday, a pastor has the glorious opportunity to reach the maximum number of church members with the Word of the Living God. Ours is the task of publicly reading God’s Word, explaining and expounding it in a purposeful manner, teaching our congregations to humbly follow after the biblical precepts while laying hold to the hope of eternal life in Christ. Because the preaching ministry is so vital to overall pastoral care, a pastor’s theology of suffering must harmonize with God’s Word if he is going to be a truly effective force in the continued spiritual formation of those suffering illness.

I actually heard a preacher triumphantly declare from his pulpit, “God gets no glory from someone being sick or in the hospital!” Of course, this particular preacher’s theology of health, wealth, and prosperity completely hobbled his effectiveness in ministering to the sick and suffering! His wrong-headed theology may have been great to stir the emotions and empty the wallets of the physically healthy people seated in his meetings. But what about those in his meetings who were battling end-stage cancer or other serious disease? This preacher has nothing for them! Ironically, while purporting to be a preacher of “prosperity,” this preacher delivered a message greatly starved of biblical truth!

In fact, God is very much glorified in the death of His saints. God takes delight in ushering His children into His presence! So much so, that the Psalms joyfully declare, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). What is more, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). Knowing that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), we can trust “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Can God be glorified in the extended illness and even death of His children? Absolutely!

What is your theology of suffering? Does it harmonize with God’s Word? Are you holding to traditions which make it difficult to reach out to the suffering? Can you truly Say as Job, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)? Are you theologically prepared to share with the hurting the assurance from God’s Word that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10)? Are you convinced by the testimony of Scripture that God uses health, illness, strength, weakness, firmness, and frailty all to the praise of His glorious grace and in accordance with His sovereign will? There are the questions we must address if we are even to begin to develop a Biblical theology of suffering.

II. Develop a Practical Theology that Ministers to the Suffering

If we believe God uses suffering, terminal illness, and ultimately death for His own purposes and glory, then certainly pastors should confidently spring into action to minister to those who are undergoing these trying seasons of life. Pastor Gordon Cook wrote concerning his own preconceived notions about becoming a minister and how one situation put all he thought he knew to the test:

When I entered the ministry I had visions of preaching great sermons, teaching the deep truths of our Reformed faith, reaching the lost for Christ, leading God’s people in worship, administering the means of grace, building up the church of God. Somehow being in the sterile confines of a hospital room listening to a machine pump air in and out of my unconscious sister never entered into that picture. 

Pastors love preaching and leading God’s people in public worship. I will readily admit to you that I have an intense love for the calling God has placed on my life! I am thankful I have the opportunity to teach my congregation each and every week. Yet I have learned, as Pastor Cook did, that the preaching and teaching aspects of my pastoral duties must lend themselves to empowering the practical aspects of pastoral care. In other words, lofty sentiments mean little, unless they inform the way pastors life life in service to God and His people.

How can I preach about Christ’s accessibility to the sick and hurting, how He actually touched lepers, spoke with outcasts, ministered to the deranged and mentally ill, if I am not willing to go where He went? As a pastor, I must be ready and willing to reach out with the hope and peace of Christ. My theology of suffering should compel me into Gospel action, touching the untouchable, ministering to the downtrodden, loving the unlovable, even forgiving the unforgivable.

Preach a wondrous sermon, teach a glorious five-part series on grace, lecture at a Bible conference on pastoral care… then choose to not show up to the bedside of a church member who desperately needs you there to minister to him and to his lost family members. How do you reconcile your apparent love for God’s Word with your evident apathy toward God’s people? Unless our preaching violently propels us into the company of the hurting and desperate, we have become, as Paul wrote, “sounding brass or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Without love, we are truly nothing.

III. Develop Support Structure for the Hurting in Your Local Church

Do not hesitate to develop some support structures in your church to foster a climate of true Christian love and action. Something as simple as reminding Bible class teachers to send postcards to absent students can go a long way to remind people the church family misses and care for them. For more serious or long-term needs, consider other ways your church congregation can reach out to minister.

Church-supplied meals for those battling extended illness, pastoral home and hospital visitation, and DVD or CD recordings of the church services are just a few support programs that may require some effort and congregational collaboration. Yet, each of these practical suggestions could help your church advance Christ’s kingdom. Your church may come up with many more outreach efforts to add to the list. The important thing to remember is that our theology of suffering will either inspire or deflate our outreach efforts to the hurting.

Conclusion

Church congregations, like earthly families, will experience many of the same highs and lows. We will rejoice in the birth of a new child of God. We will also mourn the passing of a dear old saint of God. At any given time, a local assembly of believers will be filled with seasoned believers as well as fresh-faced new converts, all ranging in age from young to elderly. We are all baptized into one body by faith in Christ. Though diverse, a vital common thread is our shared newness of life in and by the atoning work of our Lord.

Still another fact that unites saint and sinner alike is the reality of our mortality. We will die one day. Many of us will die slowly, perhaps through terminal illness. In light of this fact, the church must preach a theology of suffering which lines up squarely with the Word of God. Moreover, this theology must compel us to godly action on behalf of the suffering. Finally, the wider church community should be empowered and organized to minister in practical ways to those who are sick or dying.

“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:23-26).

Jason Boothe serves as Pastor of Horizons Baptist Church in Piketon, Ohio. He is a graduate of Shawnee State University (B.A.), Grand Canyon University (M.Ed.), and Andersonville Seminary (Th.D.). You can learn more about the ministries of Horizons Baptist Church by visiting http://www.horizonsbaptist.org.

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