When Caring Harms
“But really, how are you doing?”
Over the last year, I have begun to dread this question. It comes in random meetings, over coffee or after church or in a phone call about a totally unrelated topic. The person’s whole countenance changes. They look serious and a little bit pained, and I know what they want: a discussion about grief and the loss of my wife, some tears, a heartfelt acknowledgement of the pain of death or the struggle of single parenting. What I feel like I am being asked—almost demanded—to do is to bleed publicly to demonstrate my authenticity and vulnerability and emotional openness. Even when it is not helpful; even when it is the last thing I want or need to do.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that there are ways that, in reaction to our grandparents’ problems with stuffing their feelings and denying sadness, we often fall into the opposite error. We are so eager for deep conversations that we do unintentional but significant harm. Especially those of us who are pastors, although anyone can be guilty of it. These last few months, I have heard multiple stories of people placed in deeply painful positions where they are asked to bleed when it is totally inappropriate and the last thing they need.
Grief is hard. Trauma is painful. Shame is humiliating. Memories need to be acknowledged and processed, but some of them also need to be left alone. Revisiting them needlessly brings hurt without healing and can leave people feeling helpless and crushed.
All of this is hard to express because I absolutely do believe that we should share our hurts. It is an important thing to have “real” conversations and to talk about our struggles. Authenticity and vulnerability are good things. But I think some of us demand conversations that are not actually helpful and that at times actively hurt or abuse. I think I have done that in the name of caring and being “real.” What follows is a mea culpa, and an attempt to define the boundaries of proper care.
First, we should never force people to talk about their hurts or make them feel guilty for not opening up. It is one thing to open the door to sharing a struggle; it is another thing entirely to drag something through it. To gently give space for someone to share encourages vulnerability; to press and demand ends up further victimizing the already-vulnerable.
A specific warning: often, people avoid talking about trauma for necessary and healthy reasons. Revisiting assaults, sexual violations, or deep regrets before someone is ready can cause significant further harm and re-traumatize the victim. Much of the pain of these deep wounds comes from having power and agency stripped away. To force or pressure a person to share these wounds is to further strip them of that same power and agency. Healing instead means giving them permission to talk about what they choose and to refrain when it is unhelpful. People should have control over their stories.
More generally, we must make sure we are not bruising a bruised reed all over again. When I as a pastor invite people to share hard things, I have started trying to say things like this: “If you want to talk about that, it’s fine. If you think it’s helpful. But it might also not be good for you right now. If that’s the case, you know best, and you don’t need to talk about it. I admire you either way.”
Second, we should be mindful of the dynamics of power. This is a word especially for pastors. I have heard multiple stories, in the last year, of staff people at churches who are asked to divulge their deepest personal struggles in the midst of otherwise professional settings. A planning meeting or even a performance review that becomes about the state of their marriage or personal griefs.
I understand that church work is complicated and that we cannot fully separate the personal from the professional. However, what gets missed in these settings by the person doing the asking is the real power differential between the parties involved. If you have the ability to fire someone and deprive them of their livelihood, you are by definition not a person who is “safe” for them to share their doubts or pains with. Even for non-staff, the spiritual authority of a pastor can create these dynamics. A congregant can easily conclude that they “have to” bleed for you because they think you have the right to it, willingly opening old wounds that they know should stay closed.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we never exercise a proper spiritual authority to press someone to confront an issue. There is a place for telling someone that brokenness in their marriage, family life, or personal sins need to be addressed. But it must be done cautiously, prayerfully, and with intentionality and counsel. To do it recklessly is to be a strong man who doesn’t know his strength. Unacknowledged power leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.
And one more boundary: we should be mindful of our own motives. I’ve realized that I have at times forced myself into peoples’ struggles because it feels really significant to me. Nothing makes you feel like a good shepherd as much as someone tearfully talking about their deepest secrets. It isn’t that I don’t care about the person—I do—but at times I am operating as much out of my insecurities and desire for validation as a shepherd as out of what is actually helpful to this little lamb.
Harmful caring is often a symptom of our own savior complex. We believe that, if people would just let us in, we could fix their problems and make them whole. Indeed, at times I think we believe that is a mandate of ministry. When a marriage falls apart or someone makes a bad decision, it is fair to ask whether we could have done something to help. However, it is dangerous to believe that our help would have necessarily changed the outcome. We should be faithfully present, but God alone can change a heart.
So what should we do? How do we engage with those in pain? Let me try to give a few positive alternatives.
First, listen but don’t demand. There is no better gift we can give than that of our full attention. Often, people will share their struggles if we make space and don’t fill it with our words. We should always create room for people to be vulnerable, but we should never force it on them. And whatever they share, we should listen to it well.
Second, give freedom. To share or not to share. To speak or to keep silent. Demanding access removes agency; giving freedom restores it. One of the most empowering gifts you can give someone is a choice.
Third, be contextually sensitive. People sometimes complain that, during the coffee time after church, everyone says they are “fine.” But do we really expect tearful confessions with a donut in hand and a dozen strangers in earshot? If we think someone is struggling, ask if they’d like to come over for a cup of coffee or (for ministers) have a pastoral counseling meeting. And do this mindful of the dynamics of power in play. Not all settings are equally safe.
And finally, especially for pastors: know what you can and cannot do. I mean part of this professionally; if someone has major trauma or is in the middle of significant brokenness, the best spiritual care you can provide is often to connect them with a professional counselor or therapist. But more deeply, remember that you cannot make someone heal. Your listening presence can be a balm, but it is not a miracle drug.
Yes, let’s seek authenticity. Let’s share our burdens. But let’s do so with gentleness, with care, and with the knowledge that Jesus alone can make us whole.