If you’ve even been a shade tree mechanic you probably know the name Chilton. Their manuals on car repair were the gold standard for almost every make and model of car. They gave detailed explanations on almost every aspect of car maintenance. Founded in 1904 Chilton soon became a leader for manuals in all types of industries. If you had a problem you couldn’t figure out, or if you tore apart a carburetor and couldn’t get it back together, Chiton’s could help you. The local library often had a huge collection of them, and before the internet they were the go-to source for car repair.
It would be nice if all of the difficult situations in life came with manuals, but we know that’s not the case. That can be especially true in ministry and for pastors, as we often deal with the hardest and most difficult situations. Whether it’s a catastrophe, conflict, or COVID, there are always situations that you can’t turn to the manual for help.
I found myself in the middle of one of those tragic situations recently when six high school girls were lost in a car accident at lunchtime on a school day. Every town and minister has faced tragedy, but the immediacy of this accident during the school day and the fact that six girls were lost made it exceedingly difficult. All of them were in the same car and were hit by a truck at a dangerous intersection on the edge of our small town. I heard the sirens go by the church, but didn’t think much of it. Rumors started trickling in with a few texts or calls, but when I figured out that the rumors were true I went straight to the high school. There were many questions as information continued to trickle in there about the facts of the wreck, and soon I headed to the hospital to see if I could be of any help.
Almost everything in our small town is less than a few minutes from everything else, but the drive to the hospital seemed to take forever. I prayed as I went, for the victims, for families, for wisdom, and whatever else came to mind. It quickly became clear that the wreck was as bad as some of the rumors said, and the many families started to gather at my church as a central meeting place to wait for official word on their loved ones.
I will never forget being in that space with those families waiting to hear about their children. There is nothing to say or do in a spot like that. We made coffee, handed out tissues, and did as best we could to make them feel comfortable at one of the worst moments of their life. There’s no guidebook on how to soften the heavy blows of tragedy. As the official word came that all of the six girls lost their lives, the grief and sorrow became unbearable in that room and across town. Before the night was over news media from all over America started calling the school, churches, and anyone else who would talk.
The next few days at the school and church were beyond any manual, seminary class, or seminar. Counselors and therapists came from all over to help, and a news station was parked across the street. We fed the students meals, cried in the hallways and classrooms with teachers, and tried to process and talk it out. That Friday night area ministers led a candlelight prayer service at the football field where we prayed for each family and tried to show them our support. The many funerals over the next week provided more lessons in ministry beyond the manuals.
What do you do when there are no manuals? Every minister and church member will find themselves dealing with tragedy and conflict in this broken world. When those moments come you can’t sit down and formulate a plan and response. You can’t prepare for the moment in the moment. Part of being instant in season and out of season means having your heart and mind ready for things that it’s impossible to prepare for. As I have reflected on what happened it became clear that when it comes to ministry without a manual, there are three things you can trust.
Of course, this one is simple to say, but it takes a lifetime to learn to live out. We would all like to think we trust God with our lives, but when we are faced with tragedy and suffering we find out where our allegiances really lie. When faced with ministry beyond the manuals, we have no other choice but to trust God. What you will find is that when words and answers fail, God supplies just what you need. In those moments you cannot rely on experience or training, but only on the wisdom of God. After decades in ministry, these situations are a reminder to trust God and not lean on our own understanding. The beauty of the gospel also means that God understands our deepest suffering and provides the comfort and peace that goes beyond all understanding.
Trust your church
Thankfully when we do face suffering, we are not left to walk that path alone. The body of Christ supports us when we are at our weakest. When it comes to ministering to those facing great tragedy, the church and it’s leadership should work together to comfort the hurting. In my own town, I was amazed at how the church rallied around these families and their need. But beyond that, they gave me the freedom to drop everything for two weeks to deal with funerals, counseling, and more. The church as a whole can’t perform funerals or do counseling, but they can give ministers the time, space, and resources to do the ministry that those moments require. Beyond that, the wisdom of those more mature in faith than us provides sound advice and counseling. In ministry beyond the manuals, the church should come together to do what it does best: be the wisdom of God made manifest in the world. They can provide comfort, support, care, and so much more. Trust the church to be the church in those moments when you can’t rely on anything else. Beyond my local church, I got calls and messages from friends, fellow pastors, and so many others offering prayers and support. The fellowship and support of the body of Christ provides a light in our darkest moments.
Trust your instincts.
A fellow minister several hours away reached out repeatedly to me in the days after the accident to both check on me and provide wisdom where he could. One thing he said repeatedly was to “trust my instincts.” It seems contradictory to have trust God as the first lesson and trust yourself as the last one. But in these moments we are not just trusting on our own accumulated wisdom, but on Christ in us working through those experiences. The goal for a minister is not to gain a bunch of experience so they know what to do but to be sensitive to the leading of Christ in those moments where wisdom is needed. In ministry beyond the manuals, God uses our experiences, even when we find ourselves in situations we have never been in before. Trusting our instincts means trusting Christ in us to provide guidance in a new place through the situations that Christ has gotten us through before. In other words, we are not just trusting ourselves, but trusting Christ in us. Through the leading of the Spirit, we see the God has been preparing us for this moment all along.
You can’t prepare for the moment in the moment, especially if you can’t even imagine what it will be. But if you live a life that is fully reliant on God, you will find that God always provides what you need. In ministry beyond the manuals we are not left to our own devices, but instead find out that God has been preparing us all along. When our hearts and minds are set on honoring God and giving him the glory, our hands and feet often find a way to make that happen. This is not due to our wisdom, experiences, or planning, but solely to God’s wisdom. Ministry beyond the manuals provides a chance to point others to God during the most difficult moments of their lives. These moments stay with us forever and gives us the chance to see how God brings comfort in our moments of our greatest need.