It happens to all of us. Maybe it’s 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 you’re not quite sure what to do with it.
Problem is, you’re the pastor. You’re supposed to know what to say and what to do. But what happens when, in all honesty, you don’t have clue how to respond?
Pastors shouldn’t be surprised by this feeling, and they shouldn’t 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 doesn’t 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.
Don’t skim over this point. When we don’t know what to speak to someone else, the first thing we must do is speak to God. God’s Word promises to give us what we seek in his name (Luke 11:9–13; John 15:7). And one of the things he explicitly promises to give us—if we ask—is wisdom (James 1:5).
I may not know what to say, but rest assured he does. Why wouldn’t 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, I’ve come to realize the main reason I don’t know what to say in certain situations is because I simply don’t 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 isn’t 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 man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5).
3. Rest in God’s Grace
Here’s the main reason not knowing what to say results in a kind of internal panic: we’re paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing. We feel massive pressure to deliver the right words in the right moment, because that’s what we think people expect. The reality, though, is most people don’t. God doesn’t either.
God knows you’re an imperfect pastor with imperfect words and imperfect wisdom. He knows you’re going to say the wrong thing sometimes. He knows you’re going to stay quiet when you should speak, and speak when you should stay quiet. But he wants you to remember there’s grace for all that (Rom. 8:1–2).
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 isn’t contingent on you always knowing exactly what to say or do. All he’s 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 you’re 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 God’s Word (Heb. 4:12), and called to abide in Christ (John 15:4–5). 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 he’s 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 God’s perfect knowledge, wisdom, and love), you are free to speak and act without fear.