What I Have Learned About Pastoral Care By Going to the Doctor

In the past twelve months I’ve had more doctor’s appointments than in the rest of my life combined. Nothing life threatening, just lots of tests and follow ups and rabbit trails. It’s been hard, and good for me, to be on the other side of receiving care. As a pastor I’m used to people coming to me with the problems. I’ve not been the one making appointments to tell other people about my problems.

Visiting umpteen doctors–some wonderfully compassionate, and some, well, not so much–has helped me see from the other side of the table what it looks like (and doesn’t look like) to care for hurting people. Here are six simple lessons I’ve been reminded of in the past year.

1. Ask questions. The doctor walks in and says, “So, what’s been going on?” You try to keep things short and summarize your confusing symptoms into three minutes. Now what? In many cases, the doctor would glance over some charts, take a peak at some notes, and then move on to a diagnosis. Not helpful. Just like it’s not helpful when people want to talk to us about their problems and we don’t bother to really listen. Whenever I go to the doctor, for me or with someone else, I’m always encouraged when he asks a lot of questions. Hear me out. Be interested in my story, or at least pretend that you are. Try to get to the bottom of things. Keep poking and prodding. It’s always discouraging when someone already knows what’s wrong with you before they stop to hear from you.

2. Don’t be rushed. This reminder follows naturally from the first. It’s usually obvious when a doctor or a pastor or a friend is all too ready to be done with the conversation. They look at their phone. They give unenthusiastic verbal cues. They yawn. I understand we are all busy. I don’t like people wasting my time, and I don’t like wasting other’s time. But if you are in any kind of helping profession–or if you just want to be a good spouse, parent, of roommate–people need to know they have your undivided attention. No one wants to feel like an item on the to do list.

3. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. When you deal with people all the time, you learn to be a little skeptical. You’ve seen fakes. You’ve seen people just hungry for attention. You’ve seen people who always feel like the sky is falling. It’s natural that pastors or doctors or social workers would grow accustomed to questioning the stories they receive. And yet, even if this represents hard earned wisdom in some instances, I think our first instinct must be to trust what people are saying. As I tried to explain some very nonspecific symptoms to my doctors, it was discouraging when some acted as if I probably didn’t know what I was talking about. After awhile I would preface my remarks by saying, “I don’t like going to doctors. I’m not a hypochondriac. I am really feeling what I’m telling you I’m feeling.” Maybe we will have reason to doubt their sense of things over time, but as a starting place I want to think that people are not making things up or trying to deceive me.

4. You don’t have to fix it. I never once went to the doctor expecting that he or she would listen to me for 30 minutes and then prescribe a pill that would take care of everything. I wasn’t looking for a silver bullet. I was, however, eager for someone to patiently listen and then try his best to think of any ways things could get a little better. I know as a pastor I’ve too often put a lot of pressure on myself to solve whatever is ailing someone. Even as the person is sharing her hurts and struggles with me, I’m thinking, “I need something really wise to say when she gets done talking. I need a great insight or the perfect Bible verse.” I’ve felt like I needed to fix something. But most spiritual problems, like most physical problems, have a long, complex history which don’t allow for easy solutions. My job is to point to God, not to be God.

5. Follow through. I can’t tell you how encouraging it was when a doctor or nurse would respond to my email, return my phone call right away, or get back with a test result when they said they would. Conversely, it is hard to describe the level of frustration when the opposite occurs. We all make mistakes. We all drop the ball. I’m not looking for perfection and neither are my parishoners. But consistent follow through makes all the difference. Especially when working with scared, hurting, anxious people, do what you say you are going to do. Following through with small promises builds trust and demonstrates care.

6. Express compassion. When you have no idea what else to do, don’t underestimate the power of simply telling people, “I’m sorry.” Or, “that sounds awful.” Or, “I wish there was more I could do to help.” These little expressions of compassion mean much more to hurting people then they will let on. At times even a sympathetic look or heartfelt sigh from the doctor proved to be good medicine. If you want people to know you care, show it in your face and speak it with your mouth.