It happens to all of us. Maybe its in a moment of community tragedy, or when a long-time church member confesses a shocking sin. Perhaps your child reveals a secret struggle, or a dear friend shares news of a diagnosis. The information hits your brain, but youre not quite sure what to do with it.
Problem is, youre the pastor. Youre supposed to know what to say and what to do. But what happens when, in all honesty, you dont have clue how to respond?
Pastors shouldnt be surprised by this feeling, and they shouldnt be afraid of it. While many expect us to be pillars of strength and the wisest of sages (and we often expect it of ourselves), those expectations have no place in reality. To assume a pastor will know what to say in every situation is to mistake a weak, imperfect human for the eternally perfect God.
Every pastor will encounter moments when he genuinely doesnt know what to say. As someone who has sat with countless people not knowing exactly what to say or do, let me offer a few steps forward.
Dont skim over this point. When we dont know what to speak to someone else, the first thing we must do is speak to God. Gods Word promises to give us what we seek in his name (Luke 11:913; John 15:7). And one of the things he explicitly promises to give usif we askis wisdom (James 1:5).
I may not know what to say, but rest assured he does. Why wouldnt I run to the one perfect source and ask him for help?
Most pastors are known for their ability to talk. But a faithful shepherd should be known, at least as much, for being a good listener. After two decades of pastoral ministry, Ive come to realize the main reason I dont know what to say in certain situations is because I simply dont have enough information. Of course, there are situations when it may be appropriate to say nothing at all.
As people who typically talk for a living, pastors need to resist the natural temptation to respond to tragedies, personal crises, and shocking news with immediate explanations. Instead we must be patient, seeking true knowledge and waiting for genuine wisdom. Knowing something you could say isnt the same as knowing the right thing to say. And the only way to know the right thing to say is to take time to understand the situation and, even more importantly, the person standing in front of you.
As people who typically talk for a living, pastors need to resist the natural temptation to respond to tragedies, personal crises, and shocking news with immediate explanations.
This practice takes patience and time. And if it requires any speech at all, it generally ought to come in the form of questions rather than statements. Questions aid your listening and help you to understand not only the situation, but also the heart of the person you’re addressing. As we learn from the Proverbs: “The purpose in a mans heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5).
3. Rest in Gods Grace
Heres the main reason not knowing what to say results in a kind of internal panic: were paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing. We feel massive pressure to deliver the right words in the right moment, because thats what we think people expect. The reality, though, is most people dont. God doesnt either.
God knows youre an imperfect pastor with imperfect words and imperfect wisdom. He knows youre going to say the wrong thing sometimes. He knows youre going to stay quiet when you should speak, and speak when you should stay quiet. But he wants you to remember theres grace for all that (Rom. 8:12).
God knows you’re an imperfect pastor with imperfect words and imperfect wisdom.
God is going to use your best efforts and redeem your worst. His work in others lives isnt contingent on you always knowing exactly what to say or do. All hes calling you to do is strive to love the person in front of you as well as you know how (1 Pet. 1:22). Let his grace cover the rest.
4. Speak Humbly and Confidently
If youre striving to love a person in the midst of tragedy, crisis, or confusion, eventually that will involve saying something, even if it seems impossible to come up with the right words.
But you are equipped with Gods Word (Heb. 4:12), and called to abide in Christ (John 15:45). You are also equipped with an ability to get to know people, and called to listen diligently to understand their hearts. Armed with knowledge of both the person and God’s Word, you can trust hes going to use you in difficult situations for their good and his glory
God has placed this unforeseen tragedy, this crisis, this surprise, this person in your church and in your life. It was no accident. So with deep humility (recognizing your own limitations and weaknesses) and deep confidence (recognizing Gods perfect knowledge, wisdom, and love), you are free to speak and act without fear.