Learning to provide comfort and encouragement for those experiencing dark days can be challenging. We are told that the “ministry of presence” (just being there) for others is what they need… but how does that work, practically?
Whether you are a church leader, parent, spouse, friend, or in any role serving others, we all could use simple tips on how to have a ministry of presence and comfort.
Focus on the growth process that leads to new meaning and resilience instead of the fix-it breakthrough.
Supporting anyone on this journey is about patience for the process, not pushing to achieve everything in a five-, seven-, or 12-step healing, breakthrough, or “fix-it” program. Sometimes these programs are recommended as if they will fix everything, but if that is the motive, it can sometimes make it more frustrating. Programs with specific “steps” are more like principles for the growth and healing PROCESS; they are helpful road maps.
“In a sense the mental and emotional disruption is a grief that is bridging life toward new meaning.”
Processes are imperative.
Mental and emotional pain (i.e., depression, anxiety, racing thoughts, constant irritability, etc.) disrupt the world we know; our sense and control of our “normal” are lost. The brain and body are activated into a “survive” and “resist” state of being (i.e., adaptation syndrome). The brain and body naturally try to learn new meaning, resilience, and growth. To adapt and grow, we need to make sense of the disruption, create new safety and control measures and create new predictability. So, with the mental and emotional disturbance, it is natural to start having more profound questions about ourselves, God, relationships, etc. Even in their faith, it can seem like doubt (and even sound heretical), but it is a journey to understanding. In a sense, the mental and emotional disruption is grief bridging life toward new meaning.
Any disruption of our lives needs time and space for self-discovery and simple tools to manage this new journey (i.e., meaning and resilience). Being aware of this, our “ministry of presence” provides a safe and comforting environment for them to grow and heal!
Be present with empowering language vs encouraging expectations.
When looking to support them, try not to use the word “need” but instead use “like.” Asking the overwhelmed person, “What do you need?” or “What do you think you need to do?” can cause more stress than we think. Usually, this type of question is followed by a list of everything they need to do, whether they like it. Therefore, the “Need” language reinforces the first point, the feeling to “fix it” or to fix themselves so that they stop failing or eliminate their “wrong emotions” (symptoms). It may come across as if we are saying.
“Work harder to get your needs fulfilled to make your pain go away … tell us what those needs are and will keep you accountable to see you get fixed and see your breakthrough.”
That is not our intention, and we would never imply that! They are under more pressure when we use that simple expression, not relieved. Plus, the person is so overwhelmed and discouraged that they honestly may not know what they “need” (or they would be doing it).
However, it may be better to ask,
“Is there anything you would like?” or “Is there anything you would like to try that you think might be helpful?”
This type of question takes all the pressure off being right or wrong and empowers them to be back in charge of their journey. It changes the conversation from a “fix-it” (fix yourself) to now empowering them to explore what resonates with them (ultimately, their own unique needs). They may even come up with ideas from the “needs” question, but it comes from empowerment, not expectations.
Depending on how overwhelmed or discouraged they are, they may still not know what they would like. As a result, you can suggest ideas to see what resonates and what they want instead of a list of “need-to-dos.” Even if they try the pictures and they do not work, it is okay because they are exploring their strengths. Then, they can try something else they “like.” The process keeps going.
At the end of the day, “Need” language comes across as expectations for success or failure; “Like” can come across as empowering them to discover what resonates with who they are and gives them the confidence to try things they can do (grow in).
Be present with a growth-encouragement mindset vs a general-absolute perspective.
We all thrive off encouragement but even more so when it is a little more specific. An “absolute encouragement mindset” is when we say, “You are great” or “You are so smart! Therefore, you can do this!” This is nice, but it does not spur them on. Instead, use a “growth encouragement mindset” to highlight their qualities, character strengths, and most importantly, any specific effort you see. For example,
“You’re great because I can really see how you’re using your relaxation tools to work down your stress and anxiety and how you’re keeping to your new routine to stay on track these days. You seem calmer and your mood is improving. It’s such an example of seeing your faith and God’s grace in action. I’m seeing you grow and change.”
Here is why this works.
Instead of waiting for the “goal” or “dream” to be fulfilled, celebrating the effort and process of action rewards the fact that they are headed in the right direction (their healing, new meaning, and resilience). This encouragement enhances and balances together the neurocircuitry (dopamine – associated with reward) and norepinephrine (stress for motion) to reinforce those specific efforts and say, “We are headed in the right direction.” Furthermore, it is the same chemistry needed for getting through other challenges (i.e., the chemistry of resilience). The key is that we must pause to celebrate those moments! Small celebrations and encouragement add meaning and strength to the overall goal.
For example, when my wife was at her lowest point, experiencing debilitating depression, she struggled with low energy and motivation. To help, I did most of the cooking, cleaning, etc., but one time she got up to help with the kitchen cleaning. It was only 5 minutes! Before, I would have been disappointed expecting more, I had learned how her depression fatigued her, and this time I celebrated her. I praised her for doing as much as possible; it was part of her process, not a failure to do more. Over time her energy increased, wanting to share our full family responsibilities and fun.
God is even this way in His specific encouragement,
“For God is not unjust so as to forget the work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to all the saints.” — Hebrews 6:10 (NAS)
Using this “growth encouragement mindset” language can help them move beyond negative views that disable them, allowing them to see new potentials and abilities, leaping into a new self-esteem identity (fixed mindset vs growth mindset). This type of growth encouragement encourages people to stay on track and allows them to adjust their processes for other challenges.
Be present to listen and learn vs teach and track.
If you are highly trained, skilled, and even have extensive Bible knowledge, it can be tempting to use the time to share your insights and then watch them apply them to their lives. Additionally, when you have your own overcoming personal experience with incredible insights and tools, this is very tempting. Alternatively, it is also attractive to use part of the time to share your own story to motivate their change — “I did it so that you can do it, too!” This is equivalent to when someone hears about your problems and then sends you self-help or spiritual book, “Read this book; it will help you.” Most people are offended, put it on the shelf or throw it away.
We must take the time to listen and celebrate what others are learning, rather than relying on our knowledge and experience for guidance. We can add in our insights where needed or when asked.
So, this means learning and getting proficient at active listening. Listening well so that we first can reflect on what they are saying (validating what they are experiencing) and then ask follow-up questions to help them clarify various points (helping them learn and process their solutions).
*We give a helpful communication tool in our Family Grace and Thrive workbook. The tool is based on evidence-based and effective communication tools called “conversational receptiveness.” Our grace tool breaks down into, Validate, Affirm, and Reconnect.
As you learn more about them and take the time to listen, you will realize that some of the things they are teaching, even spiritually, may seem insignificant to you. Still, they are the very things that deserve our appreciation (which is of more profound value). You can even ask them to show you (teach you) how they are applying new insights or tools that are working for them (it may also benefit you too). More valuable is what they learn (personal identity value) than our knowledge or experiences.
“BUT wait, what about my knowledge and experience? I know it can be encouraging for them … even be helpful?”
And it is! From my experience, coaching/mentoring others is knowing when and how to use our insights/knowledge to affirm where they are, what they are learning, and where they are going in their process – not as what they “need” to understand, where they “need” to be or “need” to do. So, please share your knowledge and experiences to help them both celebrate and explore where they are and where they want to go in their journey. They may even want to try the same tools you use. It will give them a starting point but then encourage them to adapt or change it to work for them — or abandon it if it does not work.
In my experience, if they want to know more about your extensive knowledge or incredible journey, they will ask …, and they eventually will. Nevertheless, I suggest keeping it relevant to where they are headed in their journey.
Be present with comfort rather than building to a breakthrough.
Mental and emotional distress will always lend to this heartfelt need: “Crying out to God for a breakthrough.”
That mental and emotional distress naturally creates a harmful 3D spiritual illusion:
The illusion of a:
- Distant God – distance used in correction, sanctification, punishment/discipline, or feeling abandoned for all the above.
- Faith Defeated – reaping “bad” as a result of lacking faith or having weak faith; now exposed to “the enemy” more than God’s presence (reinforcing the first point).
- Despair for a breakthrough – Do more “faithfulness to God” and get more of God’s “faithfulness to us.” This works-based thinking tries to get God’s attention by doing more of what He likes to reward us with healing (making God’s goodness seem arbitrary).
As I mentioned earlier, when you experience intense mental and emotional distress, the brain is in “threat” mode to survive and resist. Stress causes more critical thinking to fight and survive, not gain perspective. This ongoing challenge leads to a state of being, a complete physical experience that reinforces these spiritual illusions. Unfortunately, the 3D illusion is supported by some Biblical teachings (especially if their whole teaching foundation is more about being “sinners in the hands of an angry God” than being saved in the hands of a loving God). In this case, you can ask them if they would “like” to see comforting and encouraging scriptures. Then, you can point out 1-3 scriptures and have them read aloud. Let them read and discover. Do not turn it into you teaching them but create a dialogue that always points back to God’s comfort and grace in the now, not praying or working for it to come down from far-off heaven.
Why this is significant!
Comfort activates the brain and nervous system to release the healing hormones in the body to help reduce stress. It helps reset the nervous system to a calmer state!
For example, I coached an individual with intense anxiety and distressing thoughts, and his faith was influenced by a perspective that “spiritual disciplines = God’s goodness and presence.” His faith anxiety struggled with this “3D illusion”, and I helped him discover rest vs works. Then, he learned to deal with his distressing faith anxiety by asking himself, “Where is the REST of God in that?” This simple tool empowered him to discover his comfort-based response (and experience). He did so well; instead of backing out of church activities, he got more engaged in his church’s community groups and ministry opportunities.
This faith anxiety is often a challenge for many. So, what do you think? What works for you?
Love the FM team
This blog originally appeared on Reframing Ministries and has been updated with additional insights and information https://mentalhealthgracealliance.org/christian-mental-health-and-mental-illness/2019/1/7/5-simple-tips-in-ministering-comfort.