Bah Humbug! One of the most depressing times of the year for many people can be the holidays. Beginning with Thanksgiving Day through New Year’s Day, those precarious forty-ish days can be some of the loneliest and most isolating days in the calendar. How might preachers demonstrate pastoral care through their preaching, particularly for those who are hurting? I’d like to offer tips for demonstrating pastoral care from the pulpit and the pasture for the holidays.
Know the Pain
“That’s not really painful.” “My pain is worse than your pain.” “Chronic pain is not the same as terminal cancer.” It’s easy to disregard or minimize other’s pain because oftentimes we’re personally not feeling the pain, or we deem it “less than” what we’re going through. During the holidays, the bright lights on the streets and Christmas music in shopping malls creates the illusion that everyone is holly and jolly.
That assumption is erroneous today. What are people experiencing in the congregation during the holiday season? Take some mental notes on what you’re hearing from your leaders, during your visitations, and conversations within small groups. Whether it’s individual or collective, write down the hurts reverberating around your people, your congregation, your flock.
Here are a few common pains in any congregation.
Loss of Loved Ones
We can assume that anyone and everyone has lost someone in the last several years. My younger brother, Tim, was murdered in Manila, Philippines, on November 7, 2015. Every November, his birthday (November 3, 1979) and the date of his death are palpable as our family remembers and honors his abruptly and prematurely shortened life. His death is a great source of perennial pain for our family.
There will be congregants who acutely feel the weight of lost loved ones every winter. Their presence is missed most at the dinner table and in the living room.
Broken relationships, namely due to separation and divorce, have been an epidemic across the world. Those most affected by divorce and separation are the children in broken homes. More than ever, we’ve seen an uptick in relational divisions in nuclear and extended families.
How might our preaching encourage those who are experiencing hurt and hardship due to painful friendships or relationships? Bring the gospel into these moments. Introduce Jesus not as the quick fix but as the One who can bring true and lasting joy in our lives.
Having been a senior pastor, I know that the temptation to overspend during the holidays is acute. Your people are traveling more, purchasing more, and giving more during the holiday season. They are strapped for cash and are maxing out credit cards to show generosity, perhaps to a fault.
Preaching on stewardship is common during the holidays. I’ve done it and it was a regular part of the sermonic rhythm leading up to and through Advent. Acknowledge the financial pressures in the room. Don’t put gratuitous pressure on the church to give more during the holidays.
Offer Pastoral Care
The pulpit is merely one way to exercise pastoral care. Another is to take extra measures to care pastorally for those who are hurting. I spoke at a church revival meeting this past Spring for a friend. After the service, a young woman was laying on the ground bawling as she cried out concerning her loneliness. People are lonely in unspeakable ways. They don’t know how to deal with their loneliness. How might we minister to those who’ve lost loved ones or feel lonely or vulnerable in this season of giving and thanksgiving?
Visit the Nursing Home
When my maternal grandmother was alive, going to visit her in the nursing home was a heartbreaking joy. Sometimes she was elated to see us while at other times she laid their lifeless not having the energy or wherewithal to show her emotions. Yet, even in visiting her, other elderly members of the community would be thrilled (and jealous) to see a young person visiting the nursing home.
Hold a hand, lift a prayer, read a Scripture text, offer a smile, give a hug. These small expressions during the holidays mean so much. The silver-haired among us can no longer physically be present at church for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s celebrations. Bring these holidays and the gospel to them.
Have a Meal Together
A simple expression of friendship is sharing a meal together in Christian fellowship. Perhaps we can take someone for coffee or lunch and having no agenda, only to share life and laugh together. Rather than limiting the moment to 60 minutes, be flexible in your calendar to expect a longer visit.
Who is someone or some people in your congregation whom you know could use a relationship/spiritual boost? Who is lonely in your congregation that could use a pastoral visit? The holidays are a perfect time to express pastoral care from their pastor.
Send Some Cards
We, as a culture, no longer see card sending as an art or a way of life. Sending emails, text messages, DMs, social media posts seem to be the extent to which we exhibit care for others. What about sending personal cards to families and individuals during the holidays. We don’t have to write much but making the effort to send a note using USPS goes a long way. Imagine going to the mailbox and seeing a hard-written card from the pastor along with a few scrap pieces of mail and bills!? What a pleasant surprise to see a physical manifestation of pastoral care! Sending some cards goes further than we think to express our love and care for our sheep.
A homiletic for the hurting can be simple gifts of pulpit care and pastoral care. I acknowledge that we’re all tired and burdened and especially taxed in the holiday season. Maybe we can say no to a few non-urgent matters so that we can say yes to a few “behind-the-scenes” expressions of pastoral consideration.
Thank you for your service to the Kingdom. It does not go unnoticed from the seminary faculty community. You are a gift to the church! Remember, there are people who flash a smile but are hurting inside. Incorporating one of the simple gestures above might bless someone who’s hurting more than we know.
Matthew D. Kim is Professor of Practical Theology and the Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Chair of Pastoral Leadership at Truett Seminary, Baylor University.