Whenever I find myself in a confusing pastoral situation, I ask myself a question that has, sadly, become something of a punch line: “What would Jesus do?”
Yes, I know the phrase has been almost drained of meaning thanks to overuse, but it still has great value for those who minister in Jesus’ name. And once I ask that question, an answer usually presents itself. Be kind. Be merciful. Be forgiving. Listen carefully. Above all, love.
But lately I’ve been wondering if that question can cover all the bases in ministry—or in life. Specifically, I’ve been wondering: What is the best way to deal with emotionally unstable people?
Everyone in ministry will run into this challenge at some point. How do you minister to people who are not simply bothersome, not simply annoying, but seriously unstable? How, in a church setting, can you treat them both compassionately and wisely? In the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with members of the clergy and with lay ministers looking for answers.
Even though I don’t work in a parish full time, I face this challenge regularly. Recently (I’m changing some details) a person who had been posting on my public Facebook page requested my e-mail address so that he could ask me for some personal advice. Now what’s a priest to do? I don’t want to be uncharitable or shirk my priestly duties, so I agreed. Soon I was deluged with e-mails describing his problems in detail. Each time, I tried to respond as well as I could. His e-mails soon became angry—mainly about the world in general. When I didn’t respond within a few hours, they got even angrier. Finally, a few weeks ago, I received one that used the “F-word” several times. I had to ask him not to contact me any more. Then I received on Facebook, Twitter and by e-mail more “F-bombs” from the same person.
Years ago, in a parish book club that met monthly, I was frustrated when one of our meetings was hijacked by someone who was not simply rude or obstreperous, but clearly mentally disturbed. I struggled between wanting to be charitable and also trying to maintain a space for the other parishioners, who were looking forward to the evening. Finally I asked the person to let others speak. She glowered at me throughout the meeting, and then on her way out used the “F-word.”
Lately I’ve been thinking, “What would Jesus do?” I had to smile at the answer. He would heal them! The story that came to mind is the account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20). Jesus and the disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee in their boat and a notorious “demoniac” (a man possessed by an “unclean” spirit) accosts Jesus. He screams, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” After a brief back-and-forth, Jesus heals the man, and he is later found to be “in his right mind.” Many times I wish I could do that.
Conversations with Catholic pastoral ministers have proved illuminating. Some said they strive to be as kind as they can until the person becomes disruptive or violent. Then they must set limits. Others told me that sometimes people just need a little attention and loving care, and simply listening to them—as Jesus did—may defuse the situation.
I don’t know the answer to this serious pastoral question. I think that it begins with charity, but it should also include prudence and a concern for others in the parish or in the ministerial setting—including oneself.
People who are unstable but not violent are easier to minister to. Of course, even these people may present a challenge, particularly since, in my experience, they tend to return over and over. Some people I spoke with shared with me a few examples of a more jocular approach. One priest said that when an unstable woman said to him, accusingly, after Mass, “Jesus told me in prayer that you’re not holding the host high enough at the elevation,” my friend said, “What time did he say that?” “At 9 this morning,” she replied. “Well,” said my friend calmly, “That’s okay. At 9:30 Jesus told me I was holding it at just the right height.”
My favorite response came from a priest who was accosted by a wild-eyed man who said that he had a message from the devil to give him.
“Oh,” he said gently, “messages from the devil are handled at the parish down the street. Would you like their address?”