Shepherding Women In Crisis

Black and white image of a young woman crying and covering her f

When I first stepped into leadership roles in the church, over 17 years ago, there were some things I was never prepared to encounter.  Even to this day I can be caught off guard by the phone calls that will come my way.  I don’t always know the right thing to say, but I am getting better at it.  This is an area where I think we are failing to prepare our leaders in any facet of ministry leadership.

What do you do when your phone rings at two in the morning, and a woman from your church is crying out for help?  What is the appropriate way to respond, when a woman approaches you after church on Sunday and confesses that her husband abuses her?  How do you counsel the woman who has just admitted to you, after small group, that she’s been having an affair?  How do you comfort the woman who just shared with you that she had an abortion?  Do you know what resources are available in your area for a woman who is struggling with addiction?  And, do you know what the laws are in your area for mandatory reporting?

If any of these questions have left you stumped, scratching your head, you are not alone.

The first step, begins in the Pastor’s office.  I find it is better to head things off before they are a real life problem.  Speak with your Pastor about what the laws are in your state for mandatory reporting (as a ministry leader you may not have the same privilege protections in place as a Pastor would).  Also, ask him for a list of services that he recommends to members who come to him for counseling.  What Christian counselors are in the area that he refers people to, and what local addiction services does he recommend?  If he is unaware of other services you may need (like help for a homeless mom), take to the internet and begin searching for resources in your area.  Or, ask on Facebook.  You’d be surprised what your friends may know about that you don’t.

The second step, is to share all of this information with your team (including small group leaders).  As the leader of the Women’s Ministry, you will get some calls.  However, I believe that the majority of the phone calls or personal confessions are going to come to the leaders you serve with.  It is important for them to understand how to address these calls too.

The third step, is to help the women on your team understand their role in responding to the women who are in crisis.

  • You are NOT a problem solver.  It is impossible for you to have all the answers to all of their questions, or solutions to all of their problems. 
  • You are NOT a licensed counselor. There are going to be issues that are too big for you, and you should not attempt to address them.
  • You are NOT responsible for their choices.  There will be people who don’t listen to your advice or guidance, and you can not take that personally.
  • You are NOT their Holy Spirit or their Savior.  Be wise in the role you take in there crisis, we can walk along side a person without stepping into a role not meant for you.
  • You are NOT always the right person.  Friends may seek your advice because you are loyal to them, and not potentially the other person involved.  This means you are biased, and it may be wiser for someone else to walk along side them during this time.
  • You are NOT always in the right space.  If you are currently going through your own crisis, now is not the time to try to help someone else. 

The fourth step, is to set up some ground rules for dealing with women in crisis.

  • You will NOT talk or counsel the person while they are currently under the influence.  You have taken the call, heard what the person said, and verified that they are currently safe.  That is the most important thing you can do in that moment.  Set a time that you are going to call them the next day.  How they respond the next day will shed light on how serious they are about getting help.  If the person is not safe, then you can proceed with asking where they are & what you can do to get them to a safe location for the evening. You may want to bring your spouse or an elder along with you, for your safety (depending on the answer you get).
  • You will NOT make a promise you are not able to keep.  Do not tell a person they can call you at all times of the night, unless you are really ok with that.  You can answer the call, and instruct them to call the next day after a certain time. 
  • You CAN set expectations on how you will counsel the person.  It is absolutely okay to come to an agreement on biblical counseling that puts the load on the person in crisis.  If she admitted to having an affair, you can tell her that you will walk with her once she has ended the affair.  If there is a confession of addiction, you can tell the person you will not help them until they have told their spouse first… and you are happy to be there when they do for support.  You can suggest scripture readings to take place between meetings with the woman, and if she fails to keep her end of the bargain… your meetings will stop.  Clear expectations keep this relationship safe, structured, and nothing is a surprise.  There may be more practical boundaries as well, such as willingness to buy groceries but not give cash; or to help them create a budget plan without paying off their debts.
  • You will NOT “fight the fight” for the person in crisis.  If she continues to cancel meetings with you, doesn’t answer your calls when you set an appointed time to talk, didn’t call the resources you recommended, always has an excuse, etc… then she is not ready.  You can’t make her be ready to receive help, and you will need to know when to walk away.
  • REMEMBER that you are probably not getting the whole truth.  A person in crisis may not be telling you all of the facts.  It may be worse than you think, they may place blame on someone who is innocent, there will be plenty of reasons and excuses for their situation, etc.  Stay objective.  If you lose your objectivity, you need to walk away and recommend her to someone who can.
  • Don’t be SURPRISED if after counseling the person along, things get better, and then you find her in the same situation again.  Some forms of crisis, like addiction, are cyclical and take several attempts before recovery is possible.   Only you can decide how long you will be apart of that ride, before you trust them to the professionals.  You may also find out that you are not the first person to receive this type of call.  This behavior could have been happening for years, and you are just the next person on the list. The first person who answered their phone that night, the new face that doesn’t know her history, etc.
  • You WILL NOT feel guilty for mandatory reporting.  When a woman confesses to you that she (or her spouse/boyfriend) is abusing their child… and you have to make that phone call… you will NOT feel guilty.  At this point, the safety of the child is your priority and getting her help is the second one.  If someone confesses to you that they are suicidal, you will not feel guilty for calling their spouse or parent (if a minor) in order to get the help they need.  At this point, their safety is priority. 
  • You WILL NOT allow yourself to be a secret vault where people dump their burdens on you.  If you are going to allow yourself to take on this type of role in a person’s life, you need to be able to not carry their load for them.  Some people will dump and dump their issues into your head.  You can be weighted down by their problems.  Learn how to listen and lead without carrying.  Additionally, you are not helping them by keeping it a secret.  One tool that I use is asking:  “Do I have your permission to research some resources for you?”.  If the person gives me permission, since this is a woman in the church, my first stop is usually to call our Pastor’s wife.  She is actively involved in the leadership of the church.  Through her, I am able to discern if this is an issue the church is aware of and already helping with.  If not, then she can help point me in the right direction of resources that I may be unaware of.  If the church is already helping, then she can bring me into the fold (remember the woman invited me into the situation).

There is SO MUCH MORE on this subject than I could fit into a single post, especially with the various types of crisis women face.  However, this is a good starting point to get conversation happening between your leaders.

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