NCLS Research

Pastoral care

From: Christopher Walker, 'Seeking Relevant Churches for the 21st Century', JBCE, Melbourne, 1997

In societies characterised by mobility, family breakdown and much social dislocation people need to be noticed for themselves not just for what they can do. Love is always required even if not always received or returned. Churches are called to be communities of love. Secular people may not understand love the way Christians do as it tends to have sexual overtones whereas agape love is what Christianity is primarily about. Nevertheless, secular people think Christians and the church are meant to be caring of people. The most common criticism of Christians is that there are too many hypocrites; that Christians do not practise what they preach. Churches therefore need to become more loving and help their members to become better listeners and be more compassionate. The pastoral care that a church carries out is a major part of this. The Nature of Pastoral Care Pastoral care is central to the life of the church. Christians are to show love for one another. Beyond that they are to reach out to others with compassion. Pastoral care is somewhat different to humanistic concern. While the capacity in all people to love stems from God, Christians know that we can love because God first loved us. Furthermore, we are commanded by Jesus to love one another as he loved us (John 13:34). We are to be channels of God’s grace to others. Christ’s love for us motivates us to love others in response. Pastoral care, therefore, is consciously Christian care. Its source is God and its goal is that people might experience not only human care but God’s love. Many Christians, particularly in mainline denominations, are involved in caring and serving activities yet are reluctant to use faith language.8 While this may be appropriate some of the time, often there is an unwillingness to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus. Pastoral care should not share this inhibition. It is care that stems from the church. It is concern that is carried out by representatives of Christ and his church. As the name implies, 'pastoral' care originally was an image associated with shepherds and their flocks. In the bible the image was readily understood and used of good leaders and their responsible care of their people. The shepherd knew his sheep by name and was prepared to risk his life to protect them. In John’s gospel Jesus is identified as the good shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep (John 10:11). In like manner ministers and pastors are to provide leadership and care for their congregations. They are to represent Christ to others. While not the only ones to be engaged in pastoral care, they have a major responsibility in this area and in giving oversight to the pastoral care carried out by the congregation. Eugene Peterson, an American pastor now professor, highlights the importance of spiritual direction in ministry saying that in our times it has been pushed to the periphery. 'Ironically, this is the work that many people assume that pastors do all the time: teaching people to pray, helping parishioners discern the presence of grace in events and feelings, affirming the presence of God at the very heart of life, sharing a search for light through a dark passage in the pilgrimage, guiding the formation of a self-understanding that is biblically spiritual instead of merely psychological or sociological.'9 Such spiritual direction is at the heart of pastoral care. It is bringing Christian perspectives and resources to bear on caring relationships not only with people in the community of faith but also with those who have yet to become committed Christians. Among Christians, new or mature, pastoral care should readily lead to conversations about the kinds of things Peterson mentions. Pastoral care helps people discern God in their lives. For those who are seeking, these issues can also be raised and followed depending on the receptivity of the person. Even among those who do not seem interested, it is a mistake to avoid such topics altogether as though we are ashamed of our Christian faith. People may well be willing to hear something about how God makes a difference to our lives if we share in a considerate and not dogmatic way. Part of pastoral care is to share the Christian basis of it. We care for people not only in terms of their practical and emotional needs but also acknowledge their spiritual needs. Pastoral Care and the Size of the Church The way in which pastoral care is provided will very considerably depending on the size of the church. In small churches the minister is the shepherd of the people, though a good deal of informal pastoral care takes place among the people. The minister will be expected to be on hand for any crisis or significant event in people’s lives. Contact with people in the community will occur in the course of events as long as opportunities are taken. In middle sized churches many people will have the same expectations of the minister as in small churches. Ministers need to be more intentional as well as responsive to needs. They are shepherds still but have to organise others as well. Elders or their equivalent, along with those with the time and gifts, can be part of a pastoral care team to work with the minister. Ministers do well to provide some training and support for the pastoral care team. They also need to encourage visiting those beyond the committed members. Newcomers, people connected to church members in some way and people served by the church can be visited also. In this way the church shows that it cares for people. Larger regional churches have to be well organised to provide pastoral care. The senior minister or team leader and pastoral staff cannot be personally in touch with all the people. They are leaders and specialists. Visitation by them has to be more strategic. The senior minister or team leader primarily relates to the congregation through leaders of groups and is referred to for crisis or special situations. Other ministers and specialist staff have their areas of responsibility which will include a pastoral dimension. Pastoral care will take place both through groups and by a pastoral care team for those not in groups. People who are new to the church or have some contact through the worship, groups and activities of the church are noticed and visited in some way. When recruiting and deploying people to do pastoral care people’s particular gifts, passion and temperament should be considered. Some people have a passion for caring for those who are sick or in hospital. Those with outgoing personalities may well enjoy meeting and visiting new people. Some have the gift of hospitality, while others are excellent group leaders. If pastoral carers are allocated a number of people and families to keep in touch with, as happens in many churches, it is wise to think relationally and not just geographically. People need to feel some affinity with the pastoral carer. It makes sense to allocate people most likely to relate to the person and be willing to change if the relationship does not develop. Relational considerations are more important than geographical ones. Pastoral care takes place in a variety of ways subject to the type and size of the church. In small, especially family, churches much of it will happen through personal relationships. Middle-sized churches, whether traditional, community or charismatic, have to be more deliberate. Organised visitation, groups and social activities need to be put in place. Personal notes and the telephone are used more intentionally. Larger regional churches have to be more organised still. Pastoral carers are selected, trained and given responsibility. An expanding network of groups is established with the leaders knowing their pastoral role in conducting their groups. A process of finding out about newcomers and particular needs has to be developed. A system of oversight and referral has to be arranged so that support and accountability are provided. A telecare program, visitation using the telephone, may be set up. Glebe Road Uniting Church near Ipswich west of Brisbane, Australia in amalgamating three congregations to form a larger, regional church found that developing various ways of providing pastoral care were required. It does this effectively through its many groups, its pastoral care team and its telecare program. The minister found she had to move the church people from a small to a large church attitude. She could no longer be the kind of minister many would like. Greater attention had to be given to training and oversight. She had to let go some aspects to ministry which gave her satisfaction in order to provide leadership and involve others. This was necessary if effective body ministry and pastoral care in a larger church were to result. A major component of pastoral care is visitation in its various forms. Callahan has four criteria by which a strong program of visitation can be assessed. It includes visitation with members and adherents, with unchurched persons and newcomers, in hospitals, nursing homes and with the housebound. There is also a high quality of sharing and caring.10 He stresses the importance of the pastor or minister being involved in actually doing visitation as well as training others. By being involved the congregation is taught, both directly and indirectly, the value of this activity in the life and mission of the congregation. The purpose of pastoral care is not to get people into the programs and activities of the local church. Primarily it is to build relationships and show God’s love. A self-giving approach is in accordance with the way of Christ. Given time its genuineness will be appreciated by unchurched persons as well as by church members. One to One and Relational Groups In speaking about pastoral care I have implied that it takes place both one to one and through groups. The one to one approach occurs through personal visits to a person at home or at their place of work, through telephone calls, personal letters and notes, collecting people in the car, and inviting people to one’s own home. Churches, especially larger churches, are rediscovering the value of small groups. Pastoral care becomes part of the life of the group as they share hopes and concerns with one another. Historically John Wesley was aware of people’s need for Christian fellowship more than most and effectively developed groups and structures to provide it. Snyder says: 'Perhaps no one in church history was more keenly aware of the relationship between Christian experience and appropriate nurturing structures, or was so successful in matching church forms to church life. Certainly he was more successful at this point than Luther in Saxony or Calvin in Geneva, or even Zinzendorf in Herrnhut.'11 The system Wesley developed of societies, classes and bands to a large degree formed the genius of the discipline, growth and enduring impact of Methodism. Wesley was influenced by a serious man who said, 'you must find companions or make them. The bible knows nothing of solitary religion.'12 For Wesley, Christian fellowship required more than participation in corporate worship. The class meeting in particular enabled people to be pastorally kept in touch with and grow in their Christian lives. Churches are advised to give attention to expanding the number of relational groups they have. Mainline churches in particular need to change the emphasis on committees to giving more attention to involving people in small groups. There can be a range of small groups from study groups to self-help ones. Australian small groups expert John Mallison gives some of the more common categories of small groups found in Christian churches. They are as follows: task groups, friendship groups, interest groups, discussion groups, bible study groups, personal development groups, support groups, koinonia groups, evangelism groups, prayer groups and mission groups.13 In each relationships and caring for one another should be given priority along with the reason for that particular group. Larger churches, especially charismatic ones, have rediscovered the value of Wesley’s approach. The largest churches in the world today are in fact based on having networks of small groups. They are not simply churches with an extensive small group ministry. They are small group ministry churches. The small groups are the foundation blocks of these churches. They are able to provide pastoral care and continue to grow because of an expanding small group network. Church growth exponent Carl George calls this the 'meta-church' because of its changed way of viewing the church.14 This new way of being the church, which enables such churches to grow to an indefinite size, highlights the value of small groups as providers of pastoral care. Making the transition into a small group ministry church, a meta-church, requires a staff person whose responsibility is for the development of the church’s small groups. This involves more than simply giving oversight to the small groups and encouraging participation. Churches that become based on small groups do not have just a fifth or a quarter of their people in small groups; they have eighty to ninety percent involved. In order to achieve this, thorough teaching and implementation are required. At Redcliffe Uniting Church north of Brisbane, Australia an expert in small groups was added to the staff. Preaching and teaching about the nature and value of becoming a small group ministry church were given first. The theological position was explained before the implementation. The staff person spent six months moving around, meeting people and talking with them. Then there was an information night followed by a six session leadership training course. People in the congregation then registered for the groups. They were matched to appropriate groups and leaders. Some adjustments were made in the following weeks. The staff person ensures that leaders are supported, training is provided and the small group network continues to expand. People care for one another in the small groups. Even so there will always be some people who will not join a small group and have to be provided for pastorally in other ways. In modern Western society, which puts great stresses on individuals or else makes them feel unimportant, the church needs to offer effective pastoral care so people are noticed and support is given. For the most part people do not require professional help; they simply need to be cared about. By putting in place pastoral carers and small groups, churches can practice the love for others Jesus called them to display. By being a loving community in this way the church will be carrying out one of its most essential tasks.


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