Since the mission of the church is to, “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” is pastoral care missional? In terms of time spent, probably nothing takes up more of a pastor’s time than pastoral care. But is this a missional leader’s most important concern? Are hospital visits, counseling, conducting weddings and funerals, and visiting the bereaved, those in nursing homes and home bound missional? In the next two posts, I’d like to invite us to think about the ministry that takes up the most time for most pastors. (BTW, I think the answer is, “Yes,” and, “No.”)
I came into the ministry feeling called to pastoral care. In seminary, I took all the pastoral care courses I could. Before receiving my first appointment, I took five quarters of Clinical Pastoral Education – and probably would not be in the ministry today were it not for what I learned there. Pastoral care was my dominant model of ministry during my first several appointments. There was little I liked doing more than visiting people in the hospital and in their homes, talking about what was going on in their lives and providing whatever comfort and help I might at the point of their need.
It was also very clear that this is what the people in my congregations most expected from me as their pastor. It seemed like a perfect match: I enjoyed and felt fulfilled as a pastoral care provider, and the people expected and affirmed me when I was there for them. What could be more perfect?
Except that, well, even in a congregation with an average worship attendance of 120, it was more than I could do to keep up the pastoral care demands on my time. There was not enough of me to go around. I soon realized that no matter how many hours I worked and no matter how little I saw my family, the call for care exceeded my capacity. As important as pastoral care is, one pastor couldn’t provide all the caring needed.
And so I began to identify other persons in the congregation who were gifted for caring. I began to invite them to make visits with me and eventually -- as their skills and my confidence in them grew – to make visits on their own and share back with me how it went. That’s when I learned something that proved a challenge to overcome: visits from persons other than the pastor “don’t count” for many parishioners.
I remember one church leader who was upset with me for not being there when she expected – even though one of the other church care givers provided great support for her. She quoted Scripture to me: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) She then declared that it was my role as the pastor to provide the caring that made this verse a reality in our congregation. She even said that that is why a congregation hires a pastor: to care for their parishioners. Well, that certainly put the issue out on the table!
I said that I’d like to think about this more and then get back with her to discuss it further. As I reflected, I remembered a conversation with a Rabbi in our area a couple months before. We were having lunch and talking about our roles when she said, “Pastoral care is not the primary role of a Rabbi. Other people in the congregation provide most of the caring.” I was surprised and confused at the time. Remembering this, I realized that while Jesus said that his community would be characterized by caring, nothing suggests that all the caring should come from the pastor. In fact, it suggests a mutuality of caring. Jesus’ disciples are recognized by the love they have one for another – not by the caring they receive from their pastor.
When I sat down to speak with the church leader about this again, I acknowledged that overseeing pastoral care in the congregation is the pastor’s responsibility, but that does not mean that I am supposed to personally do all of the caring – even if that is the expectation people have of me. Biblically, pastoral care is the responsibility of the whole Body of Christ: to care for one another. The Holy Spirit has gifted many different persons with the capacity of caring. And when the pastor does all of the caring, the fulfillment of using their gifts in ways that bless others is taken away from all those people. What’s more, because of their life experiences some of these persons are far better equipped to provide care to people in the congregation than their pastor.
As time went on, we discussed this matter at length in the Staff Parish Relations Committee until they were prepared to support me in it. I often shared publicly about me being incapable of providing all of the caring and about how Christ has equipped His whole Body to care for one another. Overcoming consumer expectations for receiving pastoral care only from me was not a quick transition. It required patience and flexibility, as well the recognition that some people would just never agree. Slowly, we trained our small group leaders to provide pastoral care for their group. We trained and organized teams of people who visited in the hospital, who visited shut-ins and nursing homes, and who did bereavement ministry. We even started a Stephen’s Ministry.
The pastor is not responsible for doing all the pastoral care, but is responsible for equipping the congregation to love for one another. (Ephesians 4) Eventually, I even came to realize that focusing too much of my time on pastoral care was keeping me from being a good missional leader. I’ll share about that in our next post.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence