You would think that pastoral care would be a straightforward practice at this point in the church’s history. After all, we have centuries’ worth of pastoral images to work with. In Psalm 23 and the prophecy of Ezekiel we discover a God who leads his sheep into places of peaceful comfort and who accompanies them and restores them. In Jesus we have the image of a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. This is to say nothing of the writings of Paul or the myriad of modern books that expound on the ways pastors might care for their flock.
Notwithstanding this breadth of resources, however, significant challenges remain today for understanding how exactly a pastor should care. Although the language is strong, we can characterize these challenges in terms of temptations faced by clergy and other pastoral care providers. Here are two examples worth mentioning.
The first temptation is set against the backdrop of a proliferation of professional care-givers in contemporary society (nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists and so on), and the fact that their care is generally backed up by quantitative and qualitative research. Which means there are research-tested solutions to many of our ills, whether anxiety or marital strife or disease or addiction. In this context, the pastor often feels somewhat useless, and may be tempted to become useful – to become a problem solver. “I can direct you to this great therapist.” Or “I can recommend this practice to help you reduce stress.” Or “Let me help your brother find a new apartment, or your sister purge her garage of the things hoarded there.” Above all, the pastor wants to be useful.
Pastors, however, to put it bluntly, are ill-equipped to solve most of our problems. Yet this should not be seen as any kind of problem. Whether our problems can be solved or not – whether a personal challenge can be overcome or not – our lives remain set within the grand story of God’s grace. What we need from our pastors is a reminder of the presence of the risen Christ, the hope of his kingdom, and the new life we have received in him. Pastoral care isn’t about finding solutions for our problems, but about reminding us of the God who accompanies and teaches and confronts us before, after, and in the middle of our struggles.
Here’s another way to say this: The pastor is, fundamentally, a minister of the Word. This is as true in pastoral care as it is in preaching. Rather than being useful to us, the pastor should bear witness to Christ and his kingdom, as these are borne witness to in the poetry and narratives of scripture. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t instances when a pastor might be useful in more concrete ways, but it is to say that pastoral care should not be defined in terms of this usefulness or capacity to solve problems.
A second, perhaps related temptation is to become what I would call a mere listener. Our cultural moment is one in which each person is presumed to know him or herself the best, and to have the capacity to define or narrate his or her own life. In this context, the pastor is tempted to merely listen and then help the other discover who they wish to be and how they wish for their life to unfold.
As with the first temptation, so with the second – the answer for the pastoral care provider is faithfulness in the ministry of the Word. A word that sometimes confronts who we are, sometimes insists that we travel down this path rather than another, and invariably refuses our self-definition apart from the one through whom we have life and new life. A mere listener will have a hard time with this deference to God’s definition of our lives through the living Word.
Whenever we are tempted, whether in context of pastoral care or some other, going back to the Word is always a pretty safe bet!
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