One skill that is important for pastors and counselors to develop is the ability to bring together the complicated pieces of a person’s life and identify an important theme that helps simplify the chaos. Otherwise, your care for the person can be like a packed sermon that has so much information and so many points that they will retain none of it. Clarity might come from a word that the person mentions in passing, and then mentions again. “Weary,” for example. It functions as a description as well as a summary, and it can be the theme you use to find portals into Scripture. 

Clarity could also come from a one-sentence summary. “Here is a question that Jesus keeps asking of you: ‘Who do you say that I am?’” (Mark 16:15). Or it could be as simple as “You are angry.” Scripture itself works to simplify the many words that God speaks, such as “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). One sentence will not bring every data point together, but it will identify the critical ones.

I knew a seventy-year-old retired man who had a most complicated life. Disabilities and disease seemed to be a family curse, with daughters and their spouses laboring under chronic conditions. He was partially supporting two of the families, which put his financial future at risk, but he could see no other means to care for them. His wife had settled into a pattern of blaming him for most of the family’s woes—an interpretation without evidence. Alongside these daily burdens you could take any category—parents, siblings, work, church—and discover challenges that would bury a lesser man. Depression, anxiety, and utter confusion were staples of his daily life. His primary job, it seemed, was to manage misery.

The problem was everything was a problem. Where to even begin? I had access to all these pieces, he knew I cared, and we prayed together often. Occasionally I suggested ways to approach his wife, which both he and I knew would not help. Among his habits, the one that charmed me most was meeting people for breakfast. Sons-in-law, friends from church, and other family members. They all seemed to like him and appreciate his input into their lives. 

“You are a pastor,” I said. By that I meant that he cared for the souls of those around him. He tried to understand them, he offered good words that directed them to Jesus, and he remembered them. The description seemed new to him because all he saw were the endless problems and his own inadequacies. But the description oriented him in the midst of the chaos. It became a vision and aspiration. It gave focus to his prayers and even more clarity to his conversations. 

The process behind this is straightforward. Know the person; know Scripture. There were many suitable words for him in Scripture, such as endurance, groaning, and “how long, O Lord?” and we spoke of these. Meanwhile, the question remains: What is most apt for this person at this time? Scripture says much to us. The skill is to identify a theme from it that is most important for someone to have, right now. A struggling person needs one, clear word that is memorable to their soul. When you meet with someone, you could simply ask, “What do you remember from our last time together?” and then build on that. The more topics you address, the less direction the person will have.

The advantage of face-to-face conversations is that you can work to identify what is most important. Consider together: What is God up to right now? How do we keep in step with the work of the Spirit? A question that might seem more familiar is “What is one thing we should take from this time together?” Simplicity and clarity are part of the hard work of pastoral care and counseling.