Sometimes the best way to support someone going through a time of great difficulty is to do nothing; to resist the urge to be practical and just ‘be’ there.
Salvation Army officer (minister) and chaplain Lynda van Gaalen-Prentice says, “It’s hard to be still in a world that never stops,” but that is what a ‘ministry of presence’ involves: being still and being there.
“For me, ‘ministry of presence’ is accompanying another at a moment in time, in whatever circumstances they find themselves,” Lynda explains.
“It’s about giving dignity to their journey. It means being there for someone and listening to their stories, fears and dreams and through this, becoming aware that God is present in all our experiences.”
Linda was introduced to the concept while she was serving as the leader of a Salvation Army corps (church) officer in a remote country area.
“I volunteered a day each week as a pastoral carer in palliative care alongside a team of nuns,” she recalls. “I’d envisioned that I’d be moving from one patient to another to help them with their daily needs, but I remember one of the nuns saying to me, ‘Lynda, just sit with them.’
“When I replied that some of them didn’t want to engage in conversation, she said, ‘Then just be a presence of Christ and sit with them.’ That was the beginning of me learning to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’.”
Over the two years Lynda was in that appointment there was “sharing of stories, laughter, tears and a lot of silence when the pain became too much”.
“I learnt that I was meeting with people who needed compassion, dignity and someone to honour their silence when they needed no words,” she says.
“Relationships with patients, staff, and family were formed and I had the privilege to be with some of the patients at the end of their lives.”
Counsellor Colleen Morris appreciates that it can be a struggle for people to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ in times of crisis or hardship.
“Biologically the human being’s brain is wired for survival, which has always involved taking action,” she observes.
“From our basic fight/flight/freeze response through to building structures to defend/protect and improve our lives, our brains have adapted to the ultimate challenge of survival.
”A significant outcome of this evolutionary adaptation is the human being’s preference for ‘doing’, because doing is productive, observable and achievement orientated.”
Colleen says ‘being’ there is as simple and challenging as inviting the other person to talk about their experience.
“‘Being’ is invitational (telling me your story), person focused, marked by ‘coming to stillness’ as the other goes deeper into their own experience, and accepting the other without judgment,” she explains.
“Your job is to be willing to listen, and listen and listen again.
“Speaking from personal experience, it’s always a privilege to listen and bear witness to another person’s story. Just as this ministry allows the other to share the deep, vulnerable places of their life, for me it is like looking into a mirror and recognising my own human experience. This connection grows awareness of self, a greater compassion and tolerance towards self and others.”
Colleen says of the many people who have ‘been there’ for her over the years, she recalls one in particular.
“Mary graced my life during a period of deep personal crisis. A quiet, calm, unassuming woman, Mary’s accepting presence soothed and calmed my agitation and invited me to share my grief, hurt and pain without any judgment or advice,” Colleen shares.
“She has been one of the most precious gifts in my life experience.”
Lynda has shared deep grief and sadness with many people, often with few words spoken.
“On one occasion I responded to a young mother whose baby had just died. I arranged a bedside service where I lit a candle while we sat in silence. When she asked for prayer the nursing staff came and stood with us; it was a sacred moment,” she says.
“I was called in one day to a family who had flown in from a rural are
a to be with a loved one who had tried to take their life. We were met with a very confronting scene, and there were no words for the family members as they gathered around the bed. Being present with them as they sat in silence and processed what was happening was what they needed.
“As we left the room the family thanked me for being there with them and for the support I had offered. An onlooker might think that nothing had been done, but the beauty of presence ministry is that it is me ‘being’ and God ‘doing’.”
Colleen Morris is a family therapist and counsellor at Watersedge Counselling in Geelong, Vic.