When a Pastor is Unable to Visit the Hurting

by Don Bartemus | May 26, 2020 | Articles

“Those who have been in the chamber of affliction know how to comfort those who are there.  Do not believe that any man will become a physician unless he walks the hospitals; and I am sure that no one will become a divine, or become a comforter, unless he lies in the hospital as well as walks through it, and has to suffer himself.” (“The Christian’s Heaviness and Rejoicing”, NPSP 4, Sermon 222, p. 461).

The Weight of Depression

Do you feel it? Has it overwhelmed you yet?

Most of us do not want to admit it or we call it something else, like “discouragement.” Yet depression is much more than discouragement because it is debilitating and very deep. I have counseled many people who battled depression. In the back of my mind, I would often think, “just try harder, get up and get moving.” I could honestly say that I have never been depressed.

Until the past three or four days.

I have a calling to represent Christ’s compassion to people on behalf of his church. Jesus went about doing good and showing his compassion by reaching out to people, touching people, being face-to-face with people. But I have been immobilized.  

Many of you know what I am talking about. Maybe not in a pastoral sense, but in a personal way. When was the last time you were able to reach out and hug your grandchildren? When was the last time you could visit and hold the hand of a loved one who is in a nursing home or hospital?

We wait, week after week, for our society to “open up” so that we can safely go. And we’re still waiting.

How Ministry Looks Different

I have often likened my ministry to being in the back of an ambulance. My job is to get there, open the medical bag, and do what I have been trained and called to do. That is: diagnose and triage, then apply the truth of God’s Word to the wounded and hurting.

Yet, this ministry looks a lot different right now.

I have been discouraged before—it is a big deal for a little while and then diminishes. But this time, I felt differently. I believe I was indeed depressed.  

It is very risky for a pastor to admit that he feels depression (whether it was depression or not, I am not certain, but it felt very different from any other discouragement I have ever felt). As pastors, we are expected to be “on top of things,” both emotionally and spiritually. What’s more, I’m a pastor of Compassion Ministries who spends more than 50 percent of my life smiling because I am genuinely happy. How could that joy possibly disappear for a time? Yet, it did. And over a period of about three days, I learned some things. First and foremost, I learned that for me, the shift came about when I took my eyes off Jesus.

A Lesson from Peter

Recall with me the Peter, the “Little Rock,” and how Scripture records the amazing high point and depressing low point for this impulsive disciple: Jesus sent his men across the lake and promised to meet them there. In the middle of the night, as the wind and waves slowed them down, they saw a man walking on the water about to pass them. They argued over who this was until Jesus essentially said, “Relax. It is me.”

Peter said, “If it is you, ask me to come to you walking on the water.” Jesus did ask, and Peter did walk. On his way over to Jesus, everything changed. As he walked on the water, he momentarily took his eyes off of Jesus and placed them on the events surrounding him. He started looking at the waves.

Where Are We Fixing Our Eyes?

I did a ten-mile run the other day, and during that run, I had some time to think. I considered: What is my new normal as a Compassion pastor? God showed me that while I have a lot of things that I “do” as a pastor, he wants me to “be” the pastor he has called me to be.

During his ministry, Jesus showed compassion as he touched people—I cannot do that right now—but also in how he ultimately offered them faith. In fact, we see this in the situation of Peter walking on water. Peter looked around at the rising waves and took his eyes off Jesus. Jesus’s answer was faith. He asked Peter, “Why did you doubt?” and, “Where is your faith?”

Since our quarantine began, I have been fixing my eyes on Jesus. I have not missed a day of my personal, spiritual disciplines. I have not missed a day of work. I am enjoying Pastor Mark’s preaching. I have reached out to others electronically. But after a while, I slowly began to fix my eyes on the events surrounding us. I began to go under. I didn’t go very far, relatively speaking, but it gave me a window into those who do chronically struggle with discouragement or depression. And I knew that while the cause is very different for all people, my situation was very much the result of taking my eyes off Jesus. So I wondered: Why did I doubt? Where is my faith?

How to Shift Our Focus to Christ

If you read the rest of Peter’s story, you find that Jesus plucked Peter out of the water and took him back to the boat. He knew that Peter had much more to learn about doubt and faith—things that Peter really would not grasp until he became a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So he pulled Peter into the boat and continued to encourage and strengthen the faith of this man who, as I mentioned previously, would go on to become the “rock on which Jesus would build his Church (Matt. 16:8).

I see it in Peter’s story and I see it in my own: Taking our eyes off Jesus and looking at the events around us will lead to our “depression” under the surface of the lake of doubt. The solution? We need to cry out: “Lord, help me!” He will.