By Dr. James Carroll
Many of my early memories are connected to church life as a pastor’s son. I wore a little clip-on tie to church regularly. I stood with my dad at the back door to greet exiting worshippers. I carried my Bible and prided myself on dominating Bible drills. I tagged along for home visits and attended funerals. I knew the standard hymns by heart. I could tell a wide variety of preacher jokes. I knew when to bow, when to stand, when to sing, and when to be quiet. I wasn’t perfect, but I knew how to play the part. And I rather enjoyed it.
Then overnight, it all ended.
My parents separated a few weeks before I started 7thgrade. Unbeknownst to me, the trouble in our home had been brewing for a long time and their divorce wouldn’t become final for months, but the damage to my world was complete within a few days. Our family fractured, my dad lost his job, and my identity evaporated in a flash. My purpose here is neither to rehash what led to my parents’ divorce nor to condemn 25-year-old sins. Instead, I want to encourage you in shepherding those who suffer because of another person’s sin. Divorce is always sin. I did not participate in it, but I suffered as a result of it.
My dad relocated quickly leaving my mom, my brother, and me living in the church’s parsonage with no firm plan for the future. That church family, reeling themselves from what was happening, ministered well to my family in the weeks, months, and years that followed. As I reflect back on that season of life, I’m sure there’s plenty I don’t know. I have no doubt that opinions varied, gossip swirled in ways that made the situation worse, and some operated with an incredible lack of integrity. But more than anything, I remember dozens of people who, by their love, molded my view of life and the church.
My life circumstances are unique and common. No one else can tell my story, but everyone suffers because of sin they do not commit. Sometimes the suffering comes as an indirect result from sin. Tornadoes and disease are not caused by a person’s specific sins, but they bring destruction because sin taints the world. Other suffering, like mine, comes as a direct result of another person’s sin. Every person in your congregation suffers in this way. Every story is unique, but the stories are common. And through my story, God shaped the way I minister to those who suffer because of sin they do not commit. Here are a couple of practical ways to shepherd well in these kinds of circumstances:
1) Shepherding well after sin requires careful directness.
The sin that affected me personally also rocked our congregation. Opinions and questions abounded. In the midst of a difficult time for all of us, God used those men and women to minister to me.
Some people struggled to know what to say. While I appreciate the awkwardness of the situation and the struggle to know what to say, everything had changed. I benefitted from courageous men and women who spoke directly about the realities of my situation and the faithfulness of God. When wounds are fresh, the truth penetrates.
Some people fished for information on my parents and our ongoing situation. It’s natural to want to know. Curiosity is normal. At times the right question is the best instrument to begin a meaningful conversation. But we must proceed with caution to ensure that our inquisitiveness stems from genuine concern.
God provided people to speak candidly but cautiously about my situation and what I needed to do. My parents’ divorce wasn’t my sin, but I was still responsible to honor God. I needed to trust God. I needed to run to him and his word. I needed to forgive. I needed to recognize sin in my own life and hate it with the same fervor. I needed to run to Christ and find hope and healing in him. Through careful directness, some godly members of that congregation helped me face these truths.
To borrow a couple of terms from Tedd Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart, my shaping influences were not what any of us wanted and I needed godly people to address my Godward orientation. In other words, because they could not correct the circumstances of my situation, I needed them to show me how to respond in ways that honored God.
2) Shepherding well after sin requires long-term, patient love.
This careful directness happened over a decade. The conversations were more frequent in the weeks that followed my parents’ separation, but some of the most meaningful shepherding took place years later.
Writing this article forced me to remember particular individuals and conversations from my teenage years, but the most prominent memory is easy to recall. The congregation loved me. They served us practically by allowing us to stay in the church’s parsonage for 9 months, helping my mom find a job, and making sure my brother and I made it to sports practices. They walked alongside us.
They patiently put up with us/me. The opportunities to express this concern and love in response to the trauma diminished over time. The needs were less glaring and the situation found a new normal, but this concern and love remained. This love was expressed in relational investment over the long term. Not every conversation needs to be a serious one. So if you’re going to have meaningful ones, it takes a large investment of time.
They prayed for me. I’ll never know how many people prayed or how often they lifted us up, but God heard their prayers.
They parented me. I needed correction and encouragement like any teenage boy. While at the time I thought a few of them were overstepping appropriate boundaries and intruding into my life, I’m grateful for their love that was expressed as rebuke.
Pastor, every member of your congregation suffers because of someone else’s sin. We must minister to them, but we cannot do it alone. Part of our charge is to cultivate an atmosphere in which the members of our congregation will walk alongside one another. So teach and model it for them. Lead them to speak with careful directness and to love one another patiently over the long-term.
Dr. James Carroll is Senior Pastor of Parkway Baptist Church in Bardstown, KY. James is married to Mikila and they have 2 children.