When I used to have an actual office, I frequently had people show up asking for something. Sometimes, it was fairly innocuous stuff: someone wanting me to perform a wedding or borrow a hymn book or a get a photocopy made or needing some money for groceries. Those were easy to deal with: the wedding is fine as long as I am not on vacation; help yourself to the hymnbook; pass on the key to the photocopy room; make sure the person meets the church criteria for groceries.
But some requests were of a different nature. Someone would come in or call and tell me about a third person who needed counselling desperately and would I see the person, preferable right now and with no previous contact. The person making the request was trying to help–their friend was obviously in trouble and they were trying to help out by making arrangements for them to see me.
Often, the petitioner was surprised and even upset by my response. I would tell the person that I would see the person–as long that the individual in question personally contacted me and made arrangements. I would be treated to a recap of how serious the person’s problems were, of how they really needed to see someone now, of how this was the best way of getting them the help they needed. Occasionally, there would be some anger and accusations that I wasn’t doing my job. I would listen, tell the person I would be glad to see the person as long as they would make contact with me themselves.
This wasn’t just a ploy to avoid work. I have lots of those and don’t really need more of them. This was an attempt to make sure that the person in question wasn’t being railroaded into seeing me or didn’t need or want help. Too many “helpers” end up trying to put both me and the person they think needs help in a very awkward position. I decided a long time ago that it is much better to seek permission before stepping in to help someone. So, while I am generally willing to see people and provide counselling, I want their permission first and that can only come from the individual, not from their concerned friends.
I sometimes run into people who obviously need to listening ear or a shoulder to cry on–I am, after all, a pastor and tend to spend a lot of time in situations where people are struggling. And while I have been trained as a counsellor and find that counselling techniques come in very handy in my pastoral work, I don’t provide counselling without permission. I can and do offer counselling to people but I never expect an immediate answer and I don’t counsel covertly.
There are occasions when I need to break this rule. The day someone passed out in the worship service, I didn’t bother asking their permission before I ran to the office to call an ambulance. When a parishioner suffers a loss or celebrates a milestone, I don’t ask permission before connecting with them–although I will call them first to see if it is a good time to see them so maybe I am actually asking permission more often than I realize.
I think it is important to have respect for the freedom that God has given us all–and that respect includes respecting an individual’s freedom not to get the help we think they need. As I read the stories of Jesus’ encounters with people, he seems to have approached everyone with this kind of respect. Rather than just broadcast help, he entered into a relationship with people and sought their permission before helping them. In fact, he clearly asks one disabled person, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5.5, NIV). This, I think, becomes the pattern for the way we help others. As long as they are conscious and able to make decisions, we get permission before we help. To do otherwise it to reduce the other person to a less than human status. We might see it as just helping out someone who clearly needs help but if we trample their freedom in the process, our help becomes a hindrance to them and them and their continued development as beings created in God’s image.
May the peace of God be with you.