What do you say to those who are grieving through a crisis? I realize this question can come in different levels. This month marks five years in which I have served in my current ministry position. Each moment of grief in our church has looked different. However, the same basic words of comfort and hope found in the gospel are applicable in any situation.
Make no mistake: there are hurting people in your church. People are tired of “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” headlines, those who bully and belittle others, aging bodies, and anxiety from their workplace. Sometimes tragedy will hit close to home. Cancer will take the life of a faithful saint who has served so many years in your church. A car accident will devastate an entire family and leave them without a child.
Tragedies will happen unexpectedly. Whatever the case, ministry leaders should do as much preparation to address unexpected grief as possible before tragedy comes to their congregation. For the man studying in seminary now, don’t waste another minute neglecting counsel from a seasoned pastor in your church. For the weary pastor struggling to find words of comfort for the hurting family in your congregation right now, hold fast to the gospel.
In this essay, we will look at a few steps ministry leaders can follow in order to shepherd through times of crisis. Bad things will happen to our congregation. Painful things will happen. God certainly does not make the pain happen, but He has entrusted us to shepherd the people through crisis. We help them harvest treasure from the pain. Ultimately, as shepherds over the flock, we point towards the chief Shepherd.
Grieve with the Grieving
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it best when he said, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” The first thing you can do for someone going through a tragedy is simply to be with them. Tragic events can give way to many different kinds of emotions, and sometimes the presence of other people is the only antidote. Compassion certainly does not run away from those in distress (Lk. 7:11-17). It leans in and comforts.
Our Lord said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7; Lk. 10:36-37). These words were like a balm in a dry dessert for the Jews living in Jesus’ day. Mount Arbel stood right beside where Jesus said these words during His Sermon on the Mount. Arbel was a hideout for many Jews fleeing the tyranny of King Herod the Great. Josephus tells of a grandfather who ordered every one of his seven children to jump out one of the caves within the mountain to avoid being enslaved by Herod. After he ushered all of them out, the grandfather then jumped out himself. They would have rather faced death than slavery. This was certainly a tragic event for many living under Herod’s rule. Yet that was the context in which Jesus gave comfort to the crowd. “Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4).
Words like these certainly brought comfort to those listening to Jesus on the plain that day with Mt. Arbel in view. They can bring comfort to us as well. Don’t underestimate the power of Scripture combined with the physical presence of a friend in times of grief.
After simply being with the person in grief, another important way to minister to them is through prayer. We do not know what to pray for in moments of tragedy, but thankfully the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings (Rom. 8:26). You can begin by praying for everyone involved in the situation. It will be easy to limit your prayers to a few people or just the people you perceive to be the victims. However, don’t fail to think through the way the tragedy has affected multiple people.
Pray for the families and friends of those affected by the tragedy. Pray for family and friends receiving the news from afar and making arrangements to be with the immediate family. Pray also for the first responders and those working around the clock to help the setting. These circumstances take a toll on their souls as well.
In addition to prayer, the reading of a psalm is supportive. I often read both Psalms 46 and 121. Both are bookmarked in my Bible for quick access. These two psalms are wonderful reminders of how God is our source of strength during the most difficult days in our lives. Both comfort us with the promise that God is with us. Matthew emphasizes this truth when he bookends his Gospel with the truth of God’s presence providing comfort (Mt. 1:23; 28:20). Immanuel is with us always, to the end of the age. A weary heart rejoices in this truth.
Minister with Action
I was not able to be with someone during their time of sorrow a few years ago. As I worried about this, someone told me the best way I can serve the person will come in the days after the funeral. Family members will return home. Friends will return to work. However, the grief continues. We will need to minister with action, not just words during this time.
There are plenty of tangible ways to be involved in the life of a grieving person. John reminds us to “not love in word or speech, but in action and truth” (1 Jn. 3:18). Be hands on in demonstrating the gospel as much as possible. Donate money, provide meals, give counsel, write letters of encouragement, or find other ways to express the love of Christ.
The fruit of the Spirit is not a sort of intellectual exercise for the believer. The local church should always be looking for ways to exemplify tangibly these virtues to those hurting within the community of faith. Ministering to people will require love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
Tragic events can be overwhelming for everyone involved. They almost always come unexpectedly. However, God’s mercies are new every morning. Perhaps one of the greatest truths you can remind yourself of as you are shepherding someone through tragedy is the promise of the new creation. There will be a time in history where there will be no more tragedy. Jesus did not promise to make all new things. He promised to make all things new (Rev. 21:5). This certainly includes our broken bodies marred by sin.
Tragedy will continue in our communities. Human depravity is becoming increasingly unrestrained each passing day (2 Cor. 4:16; 2 Tim. 3:1-13). It’s not inappropriate to ask why bad things happen. In the midst of confusion, our focus should be fixed on Jesus. We see Him who tasted death, the ultimate tragedy, for everyone (Heb. 2:9). As ministers of the gospel, we shepherd those who are grieving. As we minister, we point towards the chief Shepherd, who will give an unfading crown of glory to all who believe when He returns (1 Pet. 5:4).
 Frederick Buechner, A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 24.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row), 19.
 All Scriptural quotations and references come from the Christian Standard Bible.
 C. I. Johnstone, William Henry Brooke, and Josephus Falvious, The Wars of the Jews (London: John Harris), Book 1, 16, 4 & 5.
 I am indebted to my Theology and Culture professor, Dr. Bruce Ashford, for these ideas in class.