Envisioning Pastoral Care Ministery

Pastoral care is the caring action performed by a pastor for spiritual nurture and direction to those within the pastor’s community of faith. Although it is often found in one on one ministry, it is not limited to that area. It can include “general ministerial functions in the church – preaching, worship, committees [and] church gatherings” (Ethics in Spiritual Care, Karen Lebacq and Joseph D. Driskill, pg. 61.) Pastoral care then can include all aspects of the pastor’s contact with those within his or her care.

There is a special place in the heart of Christ for those who are hurting, seeking mercy and yearning to grow. Therefore, I view pastoral care as the highest calling I have ever – and may ever – enter into. It comes with great responsibility, for Christ, expressing His care over vulnerable persons, warned that it would be better to have a millstone tied about one’s neck and be tossed into the sea than to offend any of these “little ones” (Luke 17:2). It is a sacred call and, therefore, should not be entered into lightly.

Pastoral care begins then with an understanding of the sacredness of the call. Yet, as important as it is to recognize this, the blessedness of the work is not limited to the call alone. For, pastoral care is tending to the needs of the holy. It is a holy call touching a holy need. It is entering into the sacred moments of holy persons in the presence of Christ. The holiness of my own calling does not, nor will it ever, exceed the holiness of the ones within my care.

Pastoral care is a focus on the spiritual nurture and formation of people. But tending to one’s spirit can be a multifaceted task. For the spirit of a person is deeply braided in all elements of that person. The apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, sharing his pastoral prayer for them, that God sanctify them wholly, “spirit and soul and body” (1 Thess. 5:23). He saw the whole person as made up of these aspects. Therefore, to attend to the spiritual needs of a person, it is vital to know that often a person’s spirit can be touched through the ministering work toward their whole person. Jesus Himself often ministered to a person’s spirit by first tending to their other needs. In some cases, he fed them (Matt. 14), while in other cases he physically healed them (John 9). Once, Jesus was confronted with a woman “taken in adultery” and an angry mob ready to stone her (John 8). His response was to first remove the woman from danger and then tend to her spiritual condition.

But, one might argue, Jesus was omniscient and knew when and how to minister to people perfectly. He knew a person’s needs even before they were voiced. How then do we who are imperfect carry out His work effectively? This is first answered through the art of spiritual listening. No greater care can be displayed toward a person than by listening with contemplation and compassion. To see that a person’s physical or other immediate needs are met without ever listening in quiet devotion would be to fall short of real pastoral care. In providing for them a sanctuary for expression, we create a place where the care-receiver’s spirit, even if they do not fully recognize it, is being tended.

Holy pastoral care must always be displayed within proper boundaries. Jesus was often surrounded by people who were in great need. Some of these people, relying on the compassion of Jesus, desired to have certain needs met that were not in keeping with His ministry among them. In John 6:26, Jesus said that He was being sought by the multitude, not because they were convinced of who He was with His miracle of feeding them, but because they wanted fed again. He did not repeat the miracle, for He refused to allow Himself to be misused by the many people who came to Him. The boundaries He established about Himself prevented this from happening.

It is important, therefore, for the pastoral caregiver to have boundaries set in place before he or she begins to minister. If a pastor is pressed by a person to meet certain needs not in keeping with the ministry of that pastor, with proper boundaries in place the relationship between the pastor and care-receiver may remain appropriate and with the capacity to nurture still intact.

But how do we find these boundaries? How do we know the difference between a healthy response to someone in need that promotes their growth and one that might allow them to continue in a difficult place – or even more unacceptable – cause them to feel worse about themselves? How awful it would be for a pastor with undefined boundaries to begin to allow her or his own needs to enter into the “holy conversation” and actually retard spiritual formation.

The answer to this question begins first with knowing one’s self. None of us are exempt from having problems or experiencing difficulty in relationships that affect us in some way. Not only are we not exempt from it, but it has been the observation of this writer that God often chooses women and men with these experiences as the very vessels of healing toward others. These same experiences that one might consider an obstruction to grace are often used by God to bring healing and comfort to the community of faith. Therefore, in learning to know ourselves, we recognize the areas where we might have a weakness and can be watchful whenever a “holy conversation” nears this buoy. For example, a pastor who finds a great sense of personal worth in helping others might too easily allow his or her boundaries to fail whenever she or he ministers to someone who has great need. Instead of effectively practicing the art of holy listening, where the needs of the care-receiver are recognized, this pastor may attempt to have his or her own need of self-worth met by an over-involvement in the person’s life.

But simply knowing one’s self is not enough. Recognizing one’s weaknesses does not prevent those weaknesses from having an effect on a “holy call touching a holy need.” What does prevent this from happening is an effective standard of ethics implemented by the pastor – a standard that comes only as a result of a spiritually disciplined lifestyle. John Wesley, whose ministry effectively touched many people, saw the continual need to lead a disciplined life. He could not consider himself ready for ministerial work unless he arose each morning at 4 a.m. and spent the first two hours of the day in prayer. By staying connected to God in this way, Wesley saw himself better enabled to be in right connection with people. But, in addition to having a personal life filled with disciplines such as prayer and Bible study, Wesley nurtured himself by “doing no harm” and “by doing good” toward others (The Book of Discipline, page 72.) Both these inward and outward expressions of discipline provided him with strong pastoral ethics.

So, with appropriate boundaries held in place by solid ethical standards, shall we expect unbridled success in entering the “holy moments” of others while providing pastoral care? Certainly not. For even if we carefully consider our roles as pastors, we cannot control the responses of others. In Matthew 19, Jesus ministered to a rich young man who upon hearing His words, “went away sorrowful.” If Jesus, the greatest example of a pastor, experienced resistance, we should not expect any less. Various circumstances and reasons beyond anyone’s control cause some to extend barriers to pastoral care – resistance, in some cases, not even recognized by the one resisting.

How can the caring pastor minister where there is resistance? This answer is found once again in holy listening. For in listening effectively, resistance to care will be made known. Opportunities for nurture and care can still be realized as the care-receiver is provided with the latitude to express even thoughts of resistance. Holy listening should be willing to appreciate and accept silence. It should be without judgment. Resistance may or may not be lessened with this understanding but either way, it is important to recognize that the ministering of effective pastoral care is independent of the response.

I envision pastoral care within my own ministry to be effective only as it is grounded in holy listening, secured by appropriate boundaries, governed by proper ethics and guided by personal discipline.