Some time ago I found myself debriefing a couple who were working in a southern African country. He is a doctor and servicing a small hospital in a remote area.
After they had shared some of their experiences with me I asked him to tell me what a day at the hospital looked like. This is how he responded:
“Into the hospital around 7 or 8. Dead baby. Dead baby. Woman with AIDs, infected by her husband or another man, who knows. Dead baby. Triage for a number of people in a car accident. Maybe a scheduled surgery. Then maybe home for lunch around 1 or 2. I would sit down for lunch and then I’d hear wailing from the hospital and think, ‘Bed number 3 must have died.'”
I was stunned, though did not show it. He shared how he used to come home at meals and the evenings (their home was on the hospital grounds) and he would sit in a chair and just stair into space. After a while he knew he needed help and his organization did a marvelous job of getting help to him. He found he was depressed and had been working to address that the past year. He was definitely in better shape when he came through the debriefing, yet their life was demanding. With a young family and ever being on call, margins were slim to none. The wife was an absolute gem, she loved Africa, loved her life, and her marriage. They are a stellar couple.
After we had processed life and the impact over several days we began to speak in terms of a more sustainable model of life and work. At one point he began to cry. I let him sit with his tears for a while. Finally he said, “I am so afraid someone’s going to tell me something is wrong with me and I cannot go back. There is nothing else I want to do than serve those people in that place.”
What was I to tell him? That his life is way too broken and the demands way too unrealistic and the flow of dead babies would never end and he will eventually crash so he is crazy to go back? Of course not. This is where God sends his people – into broken places with broken systems and oppressive elements to proclaim Him and lay their lives down for others.
My responsibility as a shepherd was to not tell him it was too hard. My responsibility is to offer guidance that would help them consider ways and means to grow in resiliency and personal vibrancy as they follow God in a profoundly demanding and sacrificial work.
And so it is for all of us. I tell this story briefly, leaving out many elements of our conversation to simply make a point. One of the roles of a shepherd is to protect the sheep. But that must not move into over-protection. The fact remains God calls his people to harsh places that will cost them much, sometimes their very lives. Jesus told us that in a number of places in the Gospels and the Apostles affirmed it in many of their writings. No, shepherds are to care for sheep, resource them, guide them, equip them to live and serve well in such harsh places. And we shepherds must be willing to go after the sheep to provide care for them on-site in such harsh places as well. Of course, I do not mean to over-simplify, there are so many variables and nuances to every single story. But in general, we want to guard against over-protection.
How are you running into this tension in your care of others?