You never know what you will encounter at a funeral, especially your first one as a pastor. As a pastoral resident, you learn how to care for others in intense pain and grief. For funerals, you are taught to keep your eyes on Jesus, offer comforting Truth, encourage the grieving, and extend a nurturing hug when appropriate. However, you cannot prepare for everything, and God will surprise you.
My first funeral as a pastor was for a woman we will call “Jane,” who passed away unexpectedly. She had received a relatively low-risk, seemingly routine treatment at a local hospital that quickly spiraled into an aggressive infection. After a two-month-long battle with sepsis, she tragically passed away, crushing her family and friends.
In the shadow of this painful backdrop, I stood by the entrance of the funeral parlor to greet people as they arrived. Right before the memorial began, I noticed a gentleman wearing medical scrubs walk discreetly through the back entrance. He must have just left the hospital and had no time to change. From the looks of things, he was trying to lay low and go unnoticed, but he discovered that his goal was impossible. He was unable to enter the funeral hall due to some noticeable personal angst. To serve as pastoral support, I was ready to step in and offer any help I could. However, before I could do so, Jane’s kids walked into the room. When he saw them, he immediately started bawling uncontrollably. As he wept bitterly, the family ran to him, swung their arms around him with tears in their eyes, and whispered, “It’s okay,” as he shouted, “I am so sorry! I did everything I could!”
I quickly learned that he was the primary attending physician for Jane and had come to pay his respects to the family. He slowly fell to the floor crying, his patient’s children doing the same. They sat there, holding one another, lamenting. Yes, the doctor paid his respects, but he also unleashed his unbearable sorrow, pain, remorse, and sense of defeat. I had never seen a doctor weep like that. I could only imagine the weight he was carrying at that moment.
The love that doctor had for his patient was clearly seen. He tried his best to maintain Jane’s life, only to have to come to terms with the fact that he could not help her, no matter how hard he tried. After having conversations with doctors, nurses, and clinicians since then, I have learned that the burden he felt is all too common and hidden today. Clinicians wage daily battles that are often overlooked, under-appreciated, or unseen. Consumerism, politics, lawsuits, and social pressure increasingly impact western healthcare culture. The burden of caring for the lives of others well is often overwhelming for clinicians. Every day these crucial members of society make decisions that might seem routine yet carry life-and-death implications. Medical professionals find themselves trapped in work environments that demand consistent professional postures, service-oriented thinking, secular opinions, and the expectation of being the expert on any given health issue. When they cannot help the ill, they carry that home. It doesn’t go away so quickly. What is a clinician to do when this weight simply becomes too much? Who cares for the caregivers?
While many incredible resources are available to clinicians today (counselors, specialists, etc.), pastors and church leaders should not miss their crucial role in caring for the clinicians in their sphere of influence, their church. In matters of faith, clinicians desire to share their burdens within their church family like everyone else. Unfortunately, due to cultural tensions (religion vs. science, politics, masks & vaccines, etc.) and the complexity of clinical care, pastors tend to shy away from engaging the specific care needs of their healthcare community. To be fair, this is understandable. Seminaries do not train pastors in medical terminology or clinical trauma. They teach them the proper handling of Scripture, soul care, how to give a sermon, and how to minister to the underlying spiritual needs of all mankind. However, the unique burdens of clinicians are still there. Much like when pastors need their doctors when physically sick, doctors need their pastors when they are spiritually sick. What is a pastor to do?
Well, what should pastors and church leaders do? Looking at Jesus, we discover the beautiful answer. We start by loving the clinician as we love ourselves, and by doing so, we love God (Matt 22:37–39). As R. Dennis Macaleer shares, this is the “starting place to discern theological themes to enhance the meaning of contemporary bioethics principles.”1 We don’t need to know everything, just to start with one thing: love. For example, like the Good Samaritan, there is an obligation to love compassionately and sacrificially. Like him, we bind the wounds of all who hurt regardless of situational awareness or expertise (Luke 10:32–35). This means, fellow church leaders, that we are told to look at the unique needs of our flocks. Engaging the burdens carried by caregivers in their context is part of the fundamental duties of a shepherd. We care for those who care for others, just like we are cared for sacrificially (Mark 2:17). That is love. As lowly shepherds, we pursue the heart of our Great Shepherd found in Psalm 23. We cultivate a personal ambition to lovingly engage, lead, restore, protect, comfort, and walk alongside the clinicians given us.
With that said, how do we do so? Harold Senkbiel shares: “Like any competent physician, the pastor doesn’t know what interventions to provide for a distressed soul until he first listens to that soul.”2 The first step in caring for the caregivers in our churches is to listen and open up a dialogue with them. This can be done one-on-one, in small groups, large groups, or support settings. We might take them for coffee, stepping away from the 45+ emails in our inbox to minister to a community that often sits in silence. The key is giving them space to share, practice intentional listening, and apply truth along the way. However, we must be sure to listen first. What burdens are your clinicians carrying? In what ways are they unable to express or practice their faith due to their secular environments, as doing so may put their jobs at risk? Where do they feel left out in your local congregation? How are their marriages, kids, and families impacted by their work? Where do they need their pastor? More importantly, where do they need Jesus? Before we offer any form of spiritual treatment to their worldly wounds, we must understand their soulful ailments.
After examining the ailments of our clinicians, we apply true salve to their spiritual wounds, the Word of God combined with prayer. What does Scripture say about their predicament? While the Bible does not speak to every current clinical issue, it certainly puts forth virtues, values, and wisdom that will invigorate and strengthen the recovering clinician (Ps 119:1–8). However, in doing so, we must remember that we cannot fix their souls. We care for them by providing what they need in each given circumstance and plan for lifelong treatment.3 The cure is found in the Savior, not the saved. We remind them of what has been given (Acts 3:6), that they can joyfully walk in Christ even when the gravest situations lie before them (Acts 3:7–8). We point them to the Great Physician.
Finally, we pursue the communal culture of a “Learning Hospital.” Engage the entirety of the church body and its gifts to care for the caregivers. Not all things go well. Suffering persists no matter what we do because fallenness and sin persist. Until Christ’s return, death and suffering are still here. When a clinician faces these daily challenges, having the support and safety of their entire church behind them will go a long way. A practical way of doing this is developing volunteers and teams that offer care resources to clinicians. Like other ministerial care teams (widows, first responders, etc.) they can pray, provide meals, send encouraging cards, lead support groups, and offer counseling resources to clinicians and their families during difficult times. Another practical approach is engaging existing or retired clinicians in the church who may want to spearhead this initiative. Who knows the pains of a clinician better than the clinicians themselves? Cast the vision to congregants about this vital need, but then hand it off to them! Empowering the church body to engage a “culture of care” will not only extend the love of Christ to clinicians and one another, but also allow church leaders to share the burdens of shepherding. After all, we should consistently remember that it isn’t all on our shoulders in the first place (Matt 11:28–30)! Pastors aren’t fully trained in the clinical setting. Why try to carry the heavy burden of care when others can?
So, who cares for the caregivers? I do not know what happened to that doctor from my first funeral. What I do know is that, in the loving arms of those he felt he failed, I witnessed him experience a taste of Jesus’ healing grace. People loved him when he couldn’t love himself. The Great Shepherd’s shepherds and his sheep are called to care for the caregivers. While pastors and church leaders aren’t equipped to perform heart surgery, we are trained to point them to the One who created the heart itself. By pursuing the hurts of the caregivers in our congregations rather than avoiding them, we open the door for healing grace to explode even further. Marriages, families, and even lives can be saved4 by simply starting the conversation, inviting caregivers to heal, and engaging the body of Christ in the noble pursuit of bearing the burdens of these men and women who have dedicated their lives to saving the physical lives of others (Gal 6:2). It is an exceptional opportunity for the body of Christ. Who cares for the caregivers? Christ’s Church.
 R. Dennis Macaleer, The New Testament and Bioethics: Theology and Basic Bioethics Principles (Eugene, OR: Pickwick,2014), 95.
 Harold L. Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 67.
 Senkbeil, The Care of Souls, 179.
 Martin R. Petersen and Carol A. Burnett, “The Suicide Mortality of Working Physicians and Dentists,” Occupational Medicine 58, no.1 (2008): 25–29, https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqm117.