This is another post in a series for people who serve/volunteer/work in any kind of ministry setting. Inspi(re)ality is a year long series about the practical things we face in ministry, as well as why doing these things matter. The following is a guest post by Dan Bouchelle, Dan has served as a minister for over two decades, most recently at the Central Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas. Today Dan serves churches through the world and the missionaries they support through Missions Resource Network. Dan is a regular blogger, and as a former preacher and fan of ministers, Dan consistently posts helpful insights for church leadership and practical ministry tips. Look forward for more posts from Dan in this series in the future. Here’s Dan:
The policeman called me out into the front yard and asked if I would deliver the news to the family because “They will take it so much better from you.” I had just arrived about 20 minutes earlier after getting a 1:00 am phone call saying that one of our young adult church members had been shot. The family knew he was dead and wanted to know how this had happened. When I arrived there were half a dozen people from the church there including two couples who had lost young adult children in the past. Because I was the preacher, the cop asked me to tell the family that their preliminary investigation indicated that the shooting was a suicide.
Wow, I had all of 60 seconds to figure out what to say because the arrival of new policemen to the scene created an expectation of word regarding how the shooting happened. Everyone at the house saw the officer pull me out into the yard, so they grew quiet and looked up at me with hope that I was going to make sense of this madness.
With a tremble in my hands, I walked over to the semi-circle of would be comforters, got down onto my knees before the mother, took her hands into my own, looked up into her eyes with tears streaming from mine, and delivered the news the way best I could. Her son had shot himself. I will never forget the cry that erupted from her throat. “Noooooooo, it can’t beeeeeee!! Ooooooohhhhh God, Ooooooooooo Gaaaahhhhhhd! Noooooooooooooooooo!!
I’ve never felt more powerless in my life.
I’ve had other moments when I was called on to be the bearer of ill-tidings, but this was the most difficult. When these moments come, you are not prepared for them and handling it well it seems like an impossible goal. There is no good way to give bad news. But there are some ways which are worse than others. Here are a few suggestions from one who has been called on to give the dreaded bad news too often.
1. Don’t preface the bad news with lots of qualifiers thinking you can soften the blow. In crisis, peole’s imagination works at the speed of light and they begin to explore worse and worse scenarios as you warm the up for the hard truth. As soon as the person knows you are about to tell them hard news, their brain goes into hyper-fear mode and delays become torture which actually makes hearing the facts more difficult because terror crowds out the ability of the senses to take in information well. Don’t prolong this agony unnecessarily. You don’t have to be harsh or blunt, but be quick to the point.
2. Speak plainly about what happened without euphemisms. Because we don’t want to believe the worst could have happened to those we love, denial is the first response. If your language is not clear, your message will get twisted. You may think you have communicated clearly when you’ve only created confusion and space for denial to act. Speak in small clear factual words. You don’t have to be graphic or scientific, but you need to be unequivocal. Don’t interpret what happened. Just state what you know to be the facts clearly and plainly. In the above case, I told the family, “________ was holding the gun at the time of the shooting and all the evidence indicates he shot himself.” That news was so hard to hear that many months later, the family was still struggling to accept what had happened. It was important they hear the facts clearly because the desire to deny them was so overwhelming they will cling to any debris that might keep them afloat in a ocean of denial at that moment. If you misrepresent what has happened to lessen the blow they will likely be angry at you. “You said ______! What did you tell me that!” We have to know the truth to deal with the truth.
3. Don’t try to stifle the pain. There is no way to prevent the agony that follow catastrophic loss. That isn’t the goal. The goal is to love people through the agony, not prevent it. Grief denied comes out in all kinds of unhealthy ways for years. God designed us to hurt and grieve. It is necessary. Don’t shut it down because it makes you uncomfortable. Let it be and give it your blessing to have a rightful place in the life of a God-lover by not shaming it, shoeing it away, or trying to cover it over with some pious platitude.
4. Don’t try to make sense of evil. There will be a time for this work later. Now is not the time. Evil is real. When it happens we must face it for what it is. Trying to make sense of it in the midst of the explosion of shock and pain is failing to respect the depth of hurt before you. Don’t trivialize what others feel at this moment. It is an insult to them and to God who loves justice and hates evil.
5. Don’t say “I know” if you haven’t been there. We mean well and want to help. So we say stupid things in our anxiety. This is one of the worst. I’ve done it and drawn back a stub. When I made that mistake, early in my ministry, what I really meant by “I know” was, “In an academic sense, I’m fully aware that this must really be hard for you and I want you to know that I’m not so stupid as to be unaware of the high degree of agony you are experiencing right now, and I’m talking because I don’t have enough sense to stop myself.” In retrospect, that would have been best kept to myself.
6. Don’t try to defend God, be the presence of God. I believe we are tempted to step in to defend God during other people’s crises primarily because our faith is in jeopardy and we need to comfort ourselves from the ugliness that has landed close enough to really scare us. That is a selfish thing to do and it does not help those in crisis. They are in no place for the calm theological reflections required to make some sense of a life invaded by evil. This is hard enough years after the fact so just don’t do it. I mean it. Don’t. God is a big boy and he can defend himself. He gave us the imprecatory Psalms to show us that our need to speak hurtful things to him when hurt is what we feel is entirely acceptable, even desired by him. Don’t be more pious than God. Crisis moments are not a time to shore up others faith with words and arguments. You can only do that with presence and service. Shut up and accept the powerlessness of the moment. It is part of carrying a cross. Don’t try to comfort yourself. Lean into the fear and despair with silent presence. Be the presence of the God they feel has abandoned them. Re-live the incarnation. Be the presence of Jesus and just serve.