John Sittema’s book, With A Shepherd’s Heart is a great biblical and reformational resource on the pastoral office of elder. In it Sittema discusses topics like family visiting, elders’ meetings, discipline, and teaching. While there are many helpful sections in this book, one that stands out is Sittema’s discussion of helping families in crisis (found on pages 92-95). Here is some of his pastoral wisdom when it comes to elders/pastors shepherding families in trouble. I’ve edited it for length – and my comments are those not in quotes.
1) “Understand fully that the well-being of families in your district or care group is your responsibility, like it or not.” This means that it is the elders’ biblical duty to help those families in the church that need help. We cannot ignore them, shove them under the rug, or hope the problem will go away so we don’t have to deal with it.
2) “Stick to the basics; any crisis could overwhelm you with a multiplicity of details, problems, and personalities unless you keep your eye on the central issues, the non-negotiables” (that is, the biblically assigned role relationships in the family and the biblical purpose of a family).
3) “Remember the biblical dynamic of rebuke, repentance, confession, and forgiveness.” Sometimes elders need to rebuke, sometimes people in troubled families need to repent, sometimes they need to forgive, and so forth.
4) “Lead in seeking biblical reconciliation.” The elders should foster a Christian attitude of reconciliation when there is strife – and Christian fathers (as heads of the house) should lead the way in seeking reconciliation.
5) “Be prepared for long-term pastoral commitment.” Families in trouble typically need more than just a few weeks of pastoral care. More often than not, elders need to make follow up calls and visits for months (or sometimes years!) to help the family in the right Christian direction. In other words, these families might be on the elders’ prayer and visit lists as well as session/consistory agendas for a long time.
6) “Finally, look for new ‘ingredients’ in the recipe.” This means that there are usually other factors in these difficult situations – factors that we may not have noticed right away (i.e. abuse, alcoholism, financial struggles, etc.). This has to do with #5 – keep in touch with and be aware of the lives of families who need help.
There are, of course, more things to consider when helping families in times of trouble/crisis, but these notes for elders/pastors are a good place to start. As pastors and elders who lovingly help families in and through crises, we will certainly make some mistakes (we’re not perfect!). But prayer-filled, biblically informed, loving help is something pastors and elders are called to do. This is for the good of Christ’s church and for his glory.