by John Kenneth Gibson
Is this Pastor John?” The unknown voice on the phone sounded tired. For years I dreaded these calls. I knew I was supposed to help. After all, I am an Episcopal priest. And I wanted to help. But often I felt like an ATM with a collar—$50 here, $100 there, $75 there. I wondered if these calls were even legitimate. Had I been a good steward of the resources entrusted to me by the congregation and by God? Did giving out what amounted to a Band-Aid make a difference?
The stories from the other side of the phone were all too predictable. I cynically categorized them after a while. There was “I just started a job but won’t get paid for two weeks.” Or, “I need to get to a job in the next state.” Or, “I’ve filed for unemployment but won’t get anything for a couple of weeks.” After hearing the same story three or four times in a row, I wondered if people weren’t saying, “Call Pastor John and tell him you’re gonna get paid soon and you’ll get some money.”
About five years ago I decided to do something different. I decided to pray with everyone who called or stopped by the office asking for financial assistance. As a priest, I had always prayed with parishioners who were in need, whether for an illness, family conflict, or work problem. Bryan Griswold, the priest who sponsored me for ordination, had told me to pray with people when I made a hospital visit. I simply extended his advice to all pastoral situations. Over the years, I came to believe that prayer was the most important part of these pastoral conversations. Neither seminary nor clinical pastoral education (CPE) had taught me this lesson. I used the active listening skills I had learned there. Those techniques were helpful, but did not seem as important as prayer.
Several years after I was ordained in 1990, I had a long conversation with a man who was going through a painful divorce. At the end of the conversation, I prayed with him. He told me that after the prayer he felt like all the air had been let out of a balloon that was about to pop. Other people told me similar stories. A woman who had gone through an exceptionally difficult few years due to the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of her husband, all played out on the local television news, told me that she loved how I prayed with her over the phone or in person. Prayer always seemed to be the natural conclusion to these conversations, perhaps because as British pastoral counselor Jessica Rose says, “At an ontological level—that is, at a level of what is, of being—[profound attention to another] takes us into prayer because it takes us to and keeps us at a level of encounter which is deeper than we could ever hope to manage on our own.”1
In reality, my praying with people in need was part of a growing return to ancient Christian spiritual practices. The book Practicing Our Faith, edited by Dorothy Bass and published in 1997, argued that Christian practices can shape our lives. In the one chapter, “Healing,” Episcopal priest John Koenig wrote of his tearful experience praying with Tom during a church service. “No magic occurred: [Tom’s sister] Maggie died soon afterward, and Tom continued to grapple with the pain in his life. But a few months later, I discovered that his conviction was like my own: some new kind of health had come to birth in each of us that night.”2 The importance of prayer and other spiritual practices has been attested in recent years not only within the faith community. A 2009 book published by the American Psychological Association entitled Spiritual Practices in Psychology advocated for the use of prayer and other practices such as meditation, forgiveness, and gratitude in a psychotherapeutic context. Professor of psychology Thomas G. Plante wrote, “Prayer has been found to result in a variety of benefits, including improved psychological functioning, a sense of well-being and meaning, and improved stress reduction and coping.”3
While I have always been impressed by the power or eloquence of others’ prayers, my pastoral prayers with parishioners were always simple. In fact, I used the active listening techniques I had been taught in seminary. I simply prayed about the person’s feelings and struggle. People seemed to appreciate these prayers. But in time I began to feel something was missing. I was praying for what I thought the person needed, but I wasn’t sure if that was what she really wanted. I decided the best way to find out was to ask.
I came up with a simple process. I first asked if the member of the congregation would like me to pray with her. If she said, “Yes,” I would say I would pray for healing, strength, comfort—whatever seemed appropriate. I did this in part because I wanted the person to know I had been attentive during our conversation. I then asked if there was anything else she would like in the prayer. Sometimes, particularly in serious circumstances, my suggestions fit the person’s needs, but often the person would ask me to pray for something else, too. “Pray for peace for me.” “Pray for strength for my husband who is having a hard time with this.” “Pray for my family.” Occasionally the requests were totally unrelated to our conversation. “Please pray for my aunt who has cancer and is going to have an operation next week.” Every now and then, the person would request something for the world at large. “Pray for all of the people who don’t have enough to eat.” These requests touched me deeply. In the midst of their own personal trials, my callers were concerned about others. They were more than sick or unemployed or depressed or any other label a situation might stick on them. They were persons with family and friends that they cared about. They were part of the great fabric of humanity, not things inhabiting the shadow world of the sick, the unemployed, and the mentally ill. They were human beings.
As time went on in my ministry, I began to pray with people who were not my parishioners. My first step was with family members, particularly my elderly parents, who were devout Episcopalians, when they had health or other issues. I then began to pray with my brothers neither of whom attended a house of worship. Surprisingly to me, my family members, even those who did not attend church, appreciated the prayers. Next I began to pray with strangers. Since I normally wear a clerical collar, strangers occasionally started talking to me at the grocery store or lunch counter about some concern. I prayed even in public places if a person was struggling with a challenging issue.
Finally, I began asking the people who called for assistance if they would like me to pray with them. I followed the same process outlined above. The prayers transformed those relationships. I no longer felt like an ATM. Their stories became real. “Pastor John, the local plant moved me from full-time to part-time. I don’t have enough for a Thanksgiving dinner.” “I went to work and the Tastee Freeze was closed. There was a sign on the door sayin’ it was closed. Nobody said nuthin’ to me.” “My son and his live-in threaten me. I’ve got to get out of this house.” Sometimes I still heard stories that sounded suspiciously similar, such as around the holidays when I had WalMart gift cards. Everyone all of sudden seemed to have two or three children and need food for the big meal and gifts for the children. But those times were fewer. Instead of pat stories, people opened their lives.
They talked about their struggles beyond the immediate reason for the call or visit. Jessica Rose explains, “As we take others into our lives and pray for them, we are often given insight into their lives at a deep level, and we experience what Martin Israel has called ‘tender soul contact.’”4 One woman told me how hard it was to ask for help. Often she was told “No” or no one returned her call, or an agency could not help her situation, or she had exceeded a church’s limit, or a charity was only open at a difficult day and time for her. A man said he did not like asking for help, because he was supposed to support himself. He only asked after a year out of work when he began to fall behind on his bills. I had never thought about how hard it was to make those calls.
Some even told me about the ineffectiveness of the charities and churches that sought to help them. One woman threw away half the canned goods given to her, because she did not eat those foods, or, worse, they had passed their expiration date. I began to think from the point of view of those in need. I thought how much better it would be to let people fill up a bag for themselves instead of giving food that would be thrown away. Perhaps, some of their choices would not be nutritious, but they would make better use of what they were given, and, most importantly, they would have been empowered to choose at a time when they were disempowered in so many ways.
People talked more about their lives, in part, I think, because they felt someone cared about them as individuals. One woman told me she liked to call me because I listened to her. This feeling that someone cared made a difference spiritually and emotionally. After I gave a man $100 toward his $300 overdue rent and prayed with him, he said, “I feel better. I’m headed on my way.” His sister who was $900 behind on her rent came to see me not for help with the bill but for prayer. She said with tears in her eyes. “Pastor John, I knew that if I came to you, you would pray for me. I knew you couldn’t do nuthin’ for me but give me a little gas money to get me to the next stop. I knew you had your hands tied, but I knew you would pray for me. That’s why I came. When you pray for me, things seem to get better.”
She knew I couldn’t help her financially, because I had helped her a few months before. I had told her that I could only help once every six months. I had learned from experience that some people would call every month. In order to set boundaries, I started keeping a Google spreadsheet with simple information—name, date, amount, check recipient’s name, reason, clergy, address, and phone number. Recently, I added a column to make notes so I would be better able to talk to them more about their lives if they called back.
The clergy person was included because the spreadsheet was shared with other priests at the church. Since there are three full-time priests on our staff, sometimes we felt we were being played by those who would ask each of us for help.
The spreadsheet enabled us to check the legitimacy of the requests in other ways, too. For a while, a lot of checks seemed to be going to the same slum-lords. Following our church’s business practices, we wrote checks to landlords, electric companies, or other providers. After repeatedly seeing one landlord’s name, I asked the caller how she had gotten my name only to find out her landlord had given it to her. I told her to tell him our resources were limited and we would not be able to help anymore. I never heard again from a tenant of that landlord.
In time, I began to see other patterns. Many people called from one of the poorest zip codes in our area. These were people who were financially in distress. Often they had some work but not enough to make ends meet.
I was initially concerned that recording the information would come across as bureaucratic and uncaring. To my surprise, perhaps because people were used to filling out forms at social service agencies, no one seemed to give it a second thought.
Any negative connotation was outweighed by the message that there were boundaries. Occasionally, people asked for help before six months had lapsed, and, depending on the circumstances, I helped them, but generally people respected these boundaries. Whether because I prayed with them, or because I kept records of what I gave to whom when, or both, I rarely felt hounded for assistance as I had sometimes before.
Praying with people and setting boundaries dramatically changed this ministry for me. James 2:15-16 (NRSV) says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” People who ask for help need money for the light or the water bill. I can sense the disappointment when I do not have any to help someone and can only pray. But they need more. They need pastoral care. The spiritual and the physical are both important. Most who ask for financial assistance are in emotional and spiritual distress, too. They need the assurance of God’s love and care for them on a spiritual level. They come to a church, synagogue or other house of worship not only looking for money but also, on some level, for God. They will not normally ask for someone to pray with them. But they need prayer along with help for their bill. They need God’s healing and strengthening spiritual touch.
The calls of those in need are some of the most challenging moments of ministry. Most clergy and lay ministers have no training in social work. We have limited financial resources. The poverty of others confronts us with our own poverty. It is easier to ignore these calls than to confront our own emotional, spiritual, and financial lack. In these moments, instead of the beggar and the provider, we are all beggars before God. The Holy Spirit gives us in our poverty the gift of prayer to manifest God’s love. Jessica Rose, a member of the Orthodox Church, writes, “Prayer [in the sense of becoming open to God and suffused with his energies] has little to do with asking, and everything to do with allowing oneself to become a living manifestation of God’s love.” Our spiritual as well as our financial ministry to those in need proclaims the good news. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, referring to Micah 6:8 and Luke 4:18, wrote in her book The Heart Beat of God: Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything, “This is the meaning of life, in twenty-five words or less: We’re here to do justice and love mercy, to walk humbly with God and bring good news to the poor.”5
The ancient, Southern, working-class voice on the phone was named Heather. She had three children at home—ages 6, 8 and 15—and her grandbaby. The children were playing and yelling in the background. Heather’s daughter, the grandbaby’s mother, had left. Heather had taken care of the baby by herself for months. She had worked for a landscaping company, but had been laid off. Her unemployment benefits had run out. Heather could not put food on the table. After telling her she could pick up two $25 Food Lion gift cards, and putting her information into the spreadsheet, I said, “I’d be happy to say a prayer with you if you’d like.” Almost before I finished speaking, Helen blurted out, “Yes! Pray that I’ll get the assistance I need and a job.” Seeming to be more at peace after the prayer, she said, “Thank you. I can always use prayers.”
- How do you feel when someone calls you for financial assistance?
- What boundaries and accountability have you set to be a good steward of your church’s resources to help those in need?
- What would your ministry look like if you saw these calls as opportunities for pastoral care?
- Do you think your relationship would change if you prayed with those in need? How so?
- What other Christian spiritual practices might help those in need feel like beloved sons and daughters of God?
- Jessica Rose, “Pastoral Counselling and Prayer,” in Clinical Counselling in Pastoral Settings, ed. Gordon Lynch (London ; New York: Routledge, 1999), 62.
- John Koenig, “Healing,” in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, ed. Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 152.
- Thomas G. Plante, Spiritual Practices in Psychotherapy (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009), 33.
- Rose, “Pastoral Counselling and Prayer,” 58.
- Katharine Jefferts Schori, The Heartbeat of God: Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything (Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2011), 3.
Congregations Magazine, 2013-01-09
2012 Issue 4