A long time ago, when I was studying to become a pastor, the husband of one of my colleagues gave me this gem of advice, "A professional is someone who knows what to do when she doesn't know what to do."
At the time, I didn't know what to do. I was just out of my first year of seminary, running a summer program for kids in inner-city Minneapolis. One day the refrigerator broke down and all of the lunches spoiled. Another day one of my counselors (a fifteen year old African American) was yelled at by one of the parents (white), and the counselors were divided about whether the angry exchange was a legitimate grievance or an example of racism.
Clearly, I didn't know what to do.
But, that experience was a good training for me. Because, as a pastor, I have often been in a position where I didn't know what to do. What do you do when you don't know what to do, if you are a pastor?
1. Ask questions. One of the traps of ministry is thinking that you have to have all of the answers. Other people sometimes think this, but sometimes we think it too. Therefore, asking questions is a good thing to do. I don't mean just asking questions to which other people will have the answer (although sometimes that is the case). Ask questions to help you remember that the right question is as important as the right answer. Ask questions to keep yourself humble. Ask questions to cultivate a sense of wonder.
2. Pray. I mean it. Pray alone. Pray with other people. Pray without words. Pray with words. There have been times when I have been visiting with someone, and I'm not sure what to say, I will say, "Shall we pray?" I remember meeting with a young mother one day. She was about to have heart surgery to repair damage she had sustained as a child. But our conversation ranged over many topics. At the end, for some reason, I said, "Shall we pray?" When she had her surgery later, she did not recover.
3. Listen. Listen to God, listen to respected friends, listen to parish members. But then, find some quiet.
4. Sin boldly, that grace may abound. Make mistakes, that forgiveness may abound. Fail, so that you can learn from failure.
5. Sing. I'm not sure why, but it's about the most radical thing you can do if you don't know what to do. I still remember one of the first times I went over to a nursing home, because someone was dying. I was a new pastor, and I was even filling in for another pastor. I didn't know the person who was dying. I didn't know what to do, and that's a fact. I had my prayer book, I had my prayers. But the person I didn't know who was a child of God was simply dying: not talking to me, not asking questions. So I sang. I sang "What a Friend we Have in Jesus". I sang "Beautiful Savior." I sang "Amazing Grace." I still sing when I visit people who are dying and I don't know what to do.
At the heart of it, that's the truth: we are all dying, and we are all being born, and we don't know what to do, professional or not. And of all the things we can do when we don't know what to do, this is the most important: Sing.
That's what I do, anyway.