Today’s CareLeader Quiz asks you to think through the best way to initially respond to someone who tells you she struggles with “getting motivated.”
For a while now, Susan has struggled with “getting motivated.” It’s hard for her to get excited about anything, including the fellowship meals at church, which she loved and helped organize. She tells her supervisor at the real estate firm that it is hard to concentrate on what each of her clients wants in a house. Susan attributes this to a lack of restful sleep, but she also knows that whenever married couples speak to her, she wonders: “Why did Jim leave me? It’s been over a year since the divorce; why am I still so wrapped up in it?” Susan sets an appointment to talk to you. What response to her questions would you be inclined to offer her initially?
If you were Susan’s pastor, which of the following would you try first to help her:
- Give her a Bible study on the love and promises of God
- Set an appointment to discuss the history of her struggles
- Encourage her to persevere in helping with the fellowship meals
- Pray for her and recommend that she schedule an appointment with a physician
Which option did you think was a best first step? Below, we run through the pros and cons of each approach to helping Susan.
What about giving her a Bible study on the love and promises of God?
Certainly, a good case can be made for Bible study always being valuable. The Bible is God-breathed, given by God to instruct, encourage, or convict readers as they humbly interact with it. If someone needs direction in life, such as addressing the heart-wrenching questions Susan is asking, the Bible must be considered.
Going beyond Bible reading
Although the Bible must be foundational to pastoral care, wise pastoral care involves knowing when and how to minister God’s Word in people’s lives. I once was challenged by a husband after an initial counseling session with him and his wife. He called and asked if he could speak with me one-on-one. I agreed, and during our meeting he expressed dissatisfaction with the way I conducted the previous session. I asked him to explain why he was dissatisfied. He said, “I just want to know why you didn’t read Ephesians 5 to her and remind her about a wife’s responsibility to submit to her husband.”
I explained to this gentleman that I needed first to understand the circumstances they were facing, the type of relational dynamics they had developed as a couple, the type of relationship each of them had with the Lord, and their overall familiarity with Scripture. Those data would help me understand how to minister the Scriptures to them rather than merely read the Scriptures to them.
Getting personal with the Bible
We are taught in seminary that a passage of Scripture must be interpreted in light of its historical and grammatical contexts. In a similar way, a passage of Scripture must be applied in light of a counselee’s personal context. The personal context includes variables such as one’s values, desires, personality traits, close relationships, and common stumbling blocks. Each one of these variables influences how one hears, interprets, and uses the Scriptures in life.
For this reason, using option A as a first choice would be premature. We do not know how Susan would be likely to receive it.
What about another appointment to discuss the history of her struggles?
This option would be a good one, because there is so much we do not know about Susan or her former marriage. We should resist the tendency to “shoot from the hip” and “fire off a round of advice” before we even know what or where the target is!
Get information about her depression
Assuming there is a scheduled meeting for this purpose, attention must be given to the types of questions that might be productive. Initial questions should focus on uncovering two types of data. First, we need data on her experience of depression. What is depression like for her in terms of its effect on her life—how has it affected her thinking, behavior, relationships, responsibilities, etc.?
Get information about her divorce and loneliness
Additionally, we need data about how her divorce and loneliness might be contributing to her depression. Did she struggle with depression before the divorce? If so, how did it affect her marriage? If her experience with depression can be connected to the divorce, what does she think about when she is feeling particularly low? Are there times when she feels better than other times? Such questions will help you determine the ways in which you can help Susan see the relevance of particular biblical principles for her current struggle.
What about suggesting she continue helping with the fellowship meals?
As an eventual homework assignment, this would be helpful. Depressed people are prone to isolate themselves and ruminate on pessimistic thoughts. As they do, they become more and more fixated on what is negative in their lives, and they lose focus on positive possibilities. This can be illustrated for Susan by asking her to hold a pen in front of her face. She can be asked to focus on the pen, and then to report on what happens to any objects behind the pen in her line of sight. Then she can be asked to focus on something behind the pen—for example, a picture on the wall or a lamp on an end table—and report on what happens to the pen. In a similar way, if Susan selectively and persistently focuses on the negative aspects of her life, she will lose focus on what God is doing in her life.
One means of helping depressed people refocus their perspective on life is to encourage them to reach out in ministry to others. There might not be an initial excitement about doing this; it might feel burdensome and arduous at first. But it still can be done with a conviction that ministering to others is always worthwhile (Gal. 6:9–10).
What about praying and recommending she see a physician?
Depression affects people holistically; there are both physical and spiritual aspects to depression. Depressions can start because of problems in the body (for example, hypothyroidism, some forms of cancer). Depressions also can start with a person’s pessimistic outlook on the future or distrust in God or discontentment with life. Therefore, prayer and seeing a doctor are valuable tactics in working with a person like Susan. Neither the physical nor the spiritual aspects of depression should be ignored, although one might be more noticeable. So, addressing the spiritual aspects might be done first, and if there is little change in the depression, then consultation with a physician can be recommended. However, if Susan has had a long history with depression or is suicidal, then medical attention should be sought quickly.
What if Susan sees a doctor and she receives a prescription for medication? Medication can be important in helping Susan with the physical symptoms of her depression, but it will not address the spiritual symptoms usually associated with depression. Therefore, you, as her pastor, should follow up with her even as her doctor monitors the effects of the medication. Prayer is always important.
Priorities for helping Susan
Using the four options above, I would suggest the following care plan for Susan:
- Commit to praying for Susan.
- Set up an appointment to hear more about Susan’s experiences with depression and how it relates to her experience of divorce.
- Part of this discussion will include how severe her depression is, and based on this, you might recommend she consult a physician.
- Guide Susan in understanding God’s love and promises in the context of her struggles based on Bible study (perhaps using the lament psalms). She might need simple guidelines for Bible study. In addition, assess how tightly she ties God’s love and promises to favorable circumstances in her life.
- Help Susan see the value of continuing to serve others, and then help her determine the most realistic ways to do so.
Questions and comments
There are many ways you could initially respond to someone like Susan. This is simply a suggested approach. You’ll have to determine what is the wisest first step to helping people like her who reach out to you for help.
Before you leave, if you have suggestions on how to help someone like Susan, we’d love for you to share them in the comments section.
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