Podcast: How Can We Show God's Heart for the Widow? (Brian Croft)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Caring for Widows
In today's episode, Brian Croft discusses one area of church ministry that still remains largely in the shadows and too often neglected: the care of widows.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview:
- The Need for Practical Shepherding
- What Does the Bible Have to Say about Widows?
- What We Can Learn from Widows
- Where to Begin
- Practical Tips
00:57 - The Need for Practical Shepherding
Brian, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.
I’m glad to be with you. Thanks for having me.
You’re the founder and director of a ministry called Practical Shepherding, which is focused on training and equipping pastors in relation to a lot of different practical areas of ministry. Can you speak to that a little bit? I think that connects to what we’re going to talk about today. When did you found Practical Shepherding and what’s your vision for what you’re trying to do there?
I’ve been a pastor for the last twenty-five years. About twelve years ago, out of my own pastoral ministry in the local church training guys for ministry—I’m in Louisville, Kentucky, so I know a lot of them are at the seminary getting great theological training, but seminaries don’t train pastors for practical ministry. It’s just kind of a reality, so I took it upon myself that it’s my responsibility as a pastor of a local church to train guys to know how to do ministry. So I just started doing that. I started taking them to the hospitals and to the widow’s homes and taking them to the funerals and teaching them how to do it, dragging them with me to all these places. I just thought I was doing what every pastor is supposed to be doing. By the way, I think every pastor should be doing that, but many are not. Out of that, some of them asked me to write some stuff down for them after a hospital visitation. So I just wrote some practical notes down for them, and it eventually turned into this little book on hospital visitation called Visit the Sick. It blew up on the Internet about ten years ago when book publishing was radically changing with the Internet, as you guys at Crossway well know. From that, it exposed this gaping hole of practical resources. Practical Shepherding came out of that. We started a blog and called it “Practical Shepherding.” It started as little interactions online to talk about practical ministry and let pastors jump in and speak into the comments. It just kept growing to the point where we have about twenty-five resources now and our ministry has grown to multiple staff members. It just hit a point where I had to make a decision that if I wanted it to let it keep growing, I needed to give all my time to it. At the end of last year—after seventeen years of being the pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church—I moved to a full-time role with Practical Shepherding. Over the course of the last twelve years, it’s just continued to grow because the needs are great. After about seven or eight years, we shifted to not just training pastors for practical ministry, but we started caring for pastors, because who pastors the pastors? We would teach them how to do a hospital or funeral visit, and then they would say, By the way, I have these two people in the church that are trying to fire me or, My wife is about to leave me. Will you talk to me? We started to realize there was this whole other lane to care for pastors. So that’s the two parallel tracks of what our ministry is at Practical Shepherding now.
When it comes to some of those tricky issues that pastors face—whether they are directed at themselves but also even just shepherding those who are in these difficult seasons of life that require a practical know how or an experience—when you think about the seminary education, are there certain trends that you’ve seen in terms of the training that they are getting when they come into actual pastoral ministry? Are guys expressing a sense of, Whoa! I didn’t know it was going to be like this or, I feel like I’m missing something? Has that been the case, and if so, are the things they’ve shared on that front changed over the years?
Most seminary presidents—and this includes Dr. Mohler, which I’m grateful for—tell students, Look, we’re theologically training you. You need to be in a local church, involved in ministry, learning from a local pastor. He recognizes that’s the full piece of training that every pastor needs. But the reality is that a lot of students come to seminary or Bible college and they’re just assuming they’re going to get everything that they need. So, a lot of times they don’t realize they’re ill-equipped until they get into pastoral ministry and they don’t know how to do these things. Of course, I don’t blame the seminaries as much as their local churches on that, because I do think it’s the pastor’s responsibility to be training guys for the ministry so that they know how to do these kinds of things. Seminaries are beginning to come around a bit more with this to try to engage with pastoral ministry classes, but it’s still not a predominant aspect to seminary education. It’s got to come from the pastors and it’s got to be learned in the local church, which is the best place to do it. What we find is a lot of guys either get into pastoral ministry and learn the hard way, which was what I had to do. That’s why this became such a passion of mine. Or, they realize they’re ill-equipped and they start to ask for help, and that’s when they come to ministries like ours. The third option, which is really not good, is that guys get in and see they’re ill-equipped, so they farm out these tasks to somebody else. They’re afraid of it, so they ask deacons to go visit widows or to go to the hospitals instead of them as pastors. Part of that problem is also just an ideological understanding that pastoral ministry is just about preaching. Preaching is a big part of it, but it’s certainly not the only part. I think those are the three things that make a lot of young guys feel ill-equipped. They don’t know what they don’t know, and then they get into it and they don’t know what to do or how to do it. A lot of times, that’s when they’ll reach out to us. Of course, we’re glad to help, but that’s a bad time to learn it. It’s better to get a handle on it before you go into it, at least theoretically.
I wanted to get into that feeling that I think maybe all of us can resonate with a little bit. We can put ourselves in the shoes of that young pastor who feels intimidated and maybe uncomfortable at the idea of having to—let’s focus in a little bit on the elderly people who are widows or are in a hospital context or in a nursing home, and they’re in pain or on hospice. Maybe their emotional state is not great because of the things that they’re facing. It’s hard. As you think back to your early days, you mention that this is something that you had to learn the hard way. Can you resonate with those feelings of not sure that you feel like you want to, or are equipped, to engage in that area?
One of the advantages I had was that I always had a love for people. I’m an extrovert; I’m a people person. That actually serves you really well as a pastor. But what I didn’t know is how to care for people as well as I needed to know how. There is an intuitiveness to the way God gifts a pastor. I think there are certain gifts that you can’t learn, that God just has to give you to be called into the ministry and to be called to be a pastor in the way the New Testament describes it. One of those is that you have to have a love for people. To be in the ministry and to not love people is a disaster a lot of times. I think that was a help to me because I just had a natural intuition and love for people. That helped the learning curve a lot. But at the same time, there are skills to learn of what to do and what not to do if you go into a hospital and care for somebody. There are skills that you need to learn to know what’s helpful when you go to an elderly widow’s home. What ministers to her and what helps her? There is certainly an intuitive gifting that needs to be there, but there’s also a lot that can be learned. Even people that don’t have those intuitive gift, I think, can be pretty competent in visiting and caring for people, especially the elderly, if they’re just taught how to do that. For some pastors, young guys especially, who weren’t around a grandmother or they weren’t around old people in the church, it’s really hard for them to be around old people. They just don’t know how to relate to them. So that’s one of the things I look for in young guys. You just watch how they relate. This is getting off on a tangent, but that’s why a multi-generational church is the biblical model from Titus 2. One of the practical aspects to that is old people need to learn how to relate to young people, and young people need to learn how to relate to old people. I think that God is glorified in that design. For guys who are looking to be pastors, are they able to relate to people who are not their age? I think that’s a big piece to it.
10:03 - What Does the Bible Have to Say about Widows?
Let’s zero in on the issue of widows and caring for widows. I think we all have a general sense, a vague notion, that the Bible talks about widows and places some kind of special emphasis on widows, but that’s probably the extent of it for many of us. Are there a couple of passages that come to mind that really stand out as a good summary of what the Bible actually teaches us about caring for widows?
I think there’s just a general theme in the Old and New Testament towards caring for the widow and the orphan. Certainly in the first century and in the early church, but also before that when we look at the Old Testament, when a woman’s husband died, she had very few ways to be able to take care of herself. They didn’t have social security and they didn’t have jobs for women to be able to go and make a lot of money. When you see the passages in Scripture have a particular calling and imperative toward caring for widows and orphans, there’s a helplessness that existed there. That shows to be true in the New Testament. You have Paul writing to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5. It’s one of the few categories of people in the New Testament where Paul writes to Timothy to say, Make sure you care for these people. In that chapter, it specifies who a widow is and who a widow is not. It outlines how you care for them and reach out to them. So, there are clear imperatives towards caring for widows in the New Testament. I think there is a general feel of God’s heart for the poor and the orphan and the widow—people who potentially cannot take care of themselves—that God’s people are equipped and called to be able to go and care for them. What I think is ironic is the category of widow and the need for the church to care for them is all over the New Testament in different ways, and specifically in 1 Timothy. But James mentions it as well, so there are passages that address it, yet I think it’s one of the most neglected groups in all of the local church in our modern day.
Speak to maybe why you think that might be. You mentioned that in our day and age there’s the advent of social security and a lot of social safety net programs, and even just culturally, a woman’s role in society and the options available to women today are very different than they were in the biblical time. I’ve heard the idea expressed that the emphasis of the New Testament, while not irrelevant for us today, it’s sort of reflecting a different era, so maybe there are other people who would be more vulnerable in our society than widows. Do you resonate with that? Is there truth in that? Or does that miss a more foundational emphasis that Scripture is giving to this?
A couple of things come to mind when you ask that, and one is I think the principles of the New Testament that are addressed towards widows do need to be broadened in some ways. For example, we had a young woman who had a seven or eight-year-old, and her husband abandoned the faith and abandoned her. He was the only one who was working in the home, so she was stuck trying to figure out how to create a career and how to survive. All of a sudden, the church had to step in and really do a lot of work around that. As elders, we actually considered her in the category of a widow. She was abandoned by her husband and faced a lot of the lots that widows in the first century faced—abandonment and having no way of caring for yourself and providing. So, I think there are categories like that where I think the spirit of the care of widows that’s mentioned in the New Testament applies there. The second thing I would say is widowers—men who have lost their spouses. The reason that there is such an emphasis on widows, I’m convinced, is mainly because of that—the providing of the physical needs. You see it in the Psalms and in the Old Testament, you see it in Paul writing to Timothy, as well as James writing about it. It’s talking about material provision. But there are tons of needs that widows have who have lost their spouse, whether old or young, and that certainly applies to widowers. In fact, as a pastor when I look back on all the widows and widowers that I had the privilege to care for, the widows almost seem a bit more resilient to be able to move forward in life without their husbands. I watched several husbands just die slowly of a broken heart. They just never recovered. They had a deep love for their wife and their wife took care of them in so many ways, and they just never were the same. I watched many men die of a broken heart. So, the church has to step up and really care for those emotional and spiritual needs of that man—in some ways, more so than some of the women who are pretty resilient through all of it. So, I think those are two categories of broadening that I think are important for modern local churches to think about.
One verse that you mention in the book is Psalm 68:5 where God is called “a Father of the fatherless, a defender of widows.” I think many of us are familiar with those kinds of verses and we’ve read them before, but as you take a step back and think about how God is in a very real sense defining himself along these lines and these categories, what do you think about that? What does that tell us about God’s heart for widows, orphans, and for people who are vulnerable like this? Is there something significant there that we should stop and pay attention to?
I certainly think there is, and I think it reveals the heart of God towards the weak and the vulnerable. We need to apply that across the board, that that reveals the depths of God’s love and his mercy for not just sinners, but people like that who need help and care in special, unique ways. One of the things I find fascinating is that you see that triad all throughout Scripture—the poor, the orphan, and the widow. In the last ten years, I’ve been really encouraged to see progress there. Think about this eruption in caring for the poor—mercy ministry things have just exploded everywhere in a great way. You have orphan care—adoption—and how that has sprung up in wonderful ways in the last decade. Where is the care of the widow? Out of the triad, that has yet to see a movement arise in the church to care for widows in that way. So, I do think it’s a neglected area. I think it touches the very heart of God for obvious reasons, and I think as we seek to know God and know who he is and know what he loves, we need to assume those same kinds of burdens. Jesus’s life, and when you read the gospels, he modeled the exact same thing and revealed the same heart of God towards these kinds of people.
Do you have a theory as to why the care of widows has been, in your words, neglected as we’ve seen progress in these other areas?
I do have a theory. A couple of things come to mind. One is that when you’re talking about orphan care and caring for the poor, it can become a very exciting and vibrant ministry that shows a tangible fruit that a church can hold up and say, Look! Look what we’ve done. I think that’s good in a lot of ways. But what’s unique about widow care is it’s not the same type of glamorous work. When I’m training pastors I say, The daily grind of being a pastor is that you go and you sit alone with a widow for an hour. Love and care for her in her home, maybe drink bad coffee, and just show love to her. Then you leave that house and the only people who knew you were there is that widow and God. That’s the daily grind of the ministry. It’s not glamorous; it’s not flashy. I think we’re less drawn, obviously, to that kind of work. So, I think that’s part of it. The second thing I would say is that (and you don’t want to just think elderly widow category, but oftentimes that’s the case) that group in the church do not fight for the pastor’s time the way everybody else does. Take a pastor who is feeling pulled in all kinds of different directions. That woman is sitting back in the shadows, alone in her house; and as a matter of fact, she doesn’t even want to bother the pastor. So, what I’m having to do in training pastors is say, You have to take the initiative and make it a priority because she will not bother you. She will not fight for your time. If you have a pastor who gets distracted by noise and busyness and everybody who is fighting for their time, isn’t everybody else in the church going to function in that way? All of a sudden, you have these widows who just really sit at home, and the big chief battle of widows is loneliness.
19:37 - What We Can Learn from Widows
In your book, you share the story of a woman named Tilly Roberts. She was a widow in your church who you visited regularly for years. Tell us a little bit about her and her story.
Tilly was an amazing lady. It was a gift to be her pastor. She lived to be 106 years old and she was three months shy of her 107th birthday. She never had any children. She joked that that was the secret to longevity, and since I have four children, that resonates with me. She was witty, she was funny. She had an incredible mind even all the way up to the point she died. She would run into my wife at the grocery store when my kids were little and she would look at each of my children and know their names and their birthdays. I just joked about that. You know when you go to the pharmacy and get medicine for one of the kids and they ask what the birth date is for your child, I actually have to sit and think about it. I used to joke that I would call Tilly to confirm my kid’s birthdays when I go get medicine at the pharmacy. She was just one of those ladies who was super supportive, loved the church, had her own opinions but just picked her battles well. She was beloved and everybody loved her. She was widowed in her sixties and never remarried, so she practically lived another life as a widow. I just learned a ton from her both in how long she lived but also to be married for forty years, be widowed, and then to figure out how to live your life and to not aspire to remarry. She was just an amazing lady. She was one of five or six ladies in their eighties and nineties who used to go out to lunch all the time. At some point in their nineties, none of them could drive. I used to get the van from my wife for the day and I would go and pick all these ladies up and I would take them somewhere to get lunch. Then I would drive them all home and drop them off. That took a big chunk of my day, but they’ve all gone home to be with the Lord and as I reflect on those times, there are such sweet memories. To not just spend time with Tilly, but to then be able to be with her and her friends and to interact with them, it was a really special privilege as a pastor.
Reflect on that a little bit more. Oftentimes, even in this conversation, the emphasis is on how can we (pastors and other lay people) minister to and care for widows and the elderly. But as you mention there, you feel like you learned a lot from her and from her friends by watching their faith. What are some of those lessons that you feel like you learned in those hours that you spent eating lunch together at Cracker Barrel and driving to and fro?
I think one of the things that’s neglected in local churches by younger folks is they don’t see the value of the older because the younger might be more theologically astute than the older. I dealt with this in spades in Louisville, Kentucky, as you can imagine. A thirty-year-old seminary student who knows Greek and Hebrew and knows his Bible well can look at an eighty-year-old widow like, What in the world am I going to learn from her? They’re too narrow minded. They’re probably not going to change your view on the atonement or eschatology, but you have to look at the practicality of value and benefit of people who have lived a long life and have walked with Jesus for fifty, sixty, or seventy years and persevered in their faith. If you live that long, you’ve suffered. Everybody has suffered in a fallen world. So, to hear these women talk about their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren, to hear what it was like to be married to their husbands, what it was like to face the loss of their husbands and all those kinds of things. Just think of life stuff like parenting, and some of these women worked jobs about fifty years ago when women were not working outside of the home a lot. Some of these ladies really pushed against that and were working full time as well as taking care of kids. So, there are so many life things to learn from someone who is older than you. That’s really the value around. But there’s also something really beautiful about hearing about a simplistic but long persevering faith in someone who has followed Jesus that long and has not fallen away and has not become disenchanted or bitter with following Jesus. There’s something really sweet to hear an older saint talk about walking with Jesus. There’s a maturity, there’s a wisdom that comes with that, even if they are maybe not theologically astute, there is something to be said about how long they’ve walked with Jesus and there’s tons to learn around that, even for pastors.
24:43 - Where to Begin
What would you say to the person listening right now who maybe feels a little bit of conviction. They may be thinking, There are older people in my church or in my community that I know of that maybe I should check in with and try to spend some time with. But as we mentioned before, maybe the thought of that is nerve-wracking. They’ve never done it before, they haven’t spent a lot of time around older people, so it feels a little intimidating and uncomfortable. Maybe these people are in a nursing home or in a hospital somewhere, and all those environments can often be unsettling if you don’t have a lot of experience there. What encouragement would you offer to a person who’s thinking about that right now?
If you’ll allow me, I’ll answer it in two ways. I first want to answer it to pastors. Pastors battle that. They have the sermon in front of them, they have demanding meetings, and they know they need to go see them as well, but they’re having trouble finding that time. I found a tremendous amount of help in having all my members on a list and then divided them up into twenty-eight days. I went through and prayed for each two, three, or four families on those days, and in a month’s time I was able to pray at least for every member. And then that became a checklist for me to find out, When’s the last time I talked to them? When was the last time I interacted with them? That actually became a checklist for me to ask, When was the last time I went and saw this widow? When was the last time I talked with her? Especially those who are either home-bound or those who are in nursing homes. So, as a pastor, you will not just naturally say, Oh, I need to go see Tilly. You have to have a structure that reminds you that you haven’t been there in two months and you need to make it a priority to get there. I want to say that first just because I think that pastors battle the same thing. The other answer I want to give is to church members who may want to engage in this ministry. First, start with your pastor. Hopefully he knows these widows. If you go and say, I want to care for Tilly or this lady, but I just don’t know how to do it or what to do, any pastor worth his salt should look at you and go, Let’s go next week. I’ll take you with me. If your pastor is not doing that, feel free to chastise him—or send him to me—and then you need to try to find somebody else who maybe knows that lady (or that man). Go through somebody who knows them. I used to do this with my interns. I would drag them with me to visit a widow, and then the next month I would send him without me. So, that’s the best way to get that person comfortable, but also for that widow to be comfortable with some stranger showing up at their house and wanting to visit them.
27:29 - Practical Tips
You mentioned earlier that one of the biggest things that widows can struggle with is loneliness and maybe feelings of being forgotten or that there’s no one who knows them. One of the practical suggestions that you mention in your book is just the simple idea of sending notes and cards in the mail as a way to keep up with them, especially when it’s sometimes hard to find the time that might work for both parties to be together. I think back to this pandemic that we’ve all been living through. It’s probably been harder to access people who are maybe in a nursing home than it would have been in the past. Do you have any tips or suggestions for how to write a really good and encouraging note?
This is actually a good time to acknowledge my coauthor, Austin Walker. Austin has been a pastor just south of London for forty plus years. He planted a church in a dark town called Crawley, England. He pastored faithfully at that same church for forty-five years. He just recently retired. Austin is the one that taught me a lot about these kinds of things—how to say thoughtful and helpful things and to write them as well. A couple of things I would say is when you write a note, it’s key, whether you’re talking to a widow or whether you’re going to the hospital to visit somebody there, is to really stay away from doing two things: minimizing what’s going on, or trying to fix whatever is going on. A lot of times when people do that, there’s a lack of self-awareness. It’s actually more about that person than it is them wanting to care for the other person. So, presence is a big deal. Just go and sit with somebody. Don’t worry about having to have something wise or pithy to say to them. Just your presence is big. A note represents that presence, in a sense, by just sending it and showing thoughtfulness about it. Feel free to share Scripture passages that are helpful; those certainly give hope in that. But I think what is even the most helpful thing for widows than writing a note is just to say, I just wanted you to know I was thinking of you. I’m praying for you, and this is how I’m praying for you. If loneliness is the chief struggle for widows, then allow a note to communicate that you’re not forgotten. We’re thinking of you. I used to pray publicly in our church services for widows, and then that next week I would write them a card and say, We prayed for you in church with everybody. You are not forgotten. You are loved. I think just doing things to reiterate to them that they’re just not forgotten is one of the best ways to write a note vs. I’m sure things will get better. People mean well in saying that and writing that, but that’s not helpful generally. By the way, just in general, whether you’re at a funeral home or a hospital or a nursing home, to look at them and say, I’m sure things will get better when you don’t know that, that usually is a response of your being uncomfortable in the moment, not necessarily what you think is going to be helpful to them. So, just listen and be silent if you have to, but just remind them that they’re not forgotten. That’s the one thing you certainly can say that’s true.
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