One of my greatest challenges as a pastor was ‘pastoral care’ and if I was to go back into pastoring a church this is an area where I’d make big changes.
During my ministry I championed the idea that we should practise congregational care not ‘pastoral care’. Nowhere do the Scriptures suggest it is the job of pastors to be the primary care-givers in the church. Rather the bible calls congregation members to care for each other – to love one another, honour one another, be kind and compassionate to one another, instruct one another, accept one another, pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, encourage one another. As a member of the congregation I would try to do these things, but so should everyone else, and to the extent we did we’d have a church where people were cared for.
Given that at any particular point in time at least one in every five households was in some form of crisis a shared care model seemed essential. Some of these crises were very public – terminal illness, relationship breakdown, job loss. Others were kept private – sexual assault, clinical depression, relationship difficulties, financial troubles, and the like. People experiencing a public crisis received lots of care from the congregation, while people experiencing private crises did not (how could congregation members provide care if they were unaware of the problem?). As pastor I was often made privy to these private crises and my counsel sought. I made a decision that where a person was receiving lots of care from others I would not try to provide additional care. I focused my efforts on those whose need wasn’t public. This turned out to be a mistake. Two examples will show why.
We had a congregation member dying from a terminal illness. David received extraordinary levels of care from congregation members at physical, emotional and spiritual levels, so I didn’t get very involved, only occasionally dropping by to visit. David never complained to me about this, but some time later I discovered that some members of the church were very upset about it.
A similar thing occurred when the father of a congregation member died. I was unable to attend the funeral, but made sure that some members of the congregation would be there. The family of the man who died were very upset and decided to leave the church.
If I could turn back the clock I would have spent more time with David and made sure I got to that funeral. I failed to recognise that people need to feel cared for by the church as community and the church as institution. In both the examples I have given there was good care from the church community. Yet this still left many people saying “Bob, Mary, Tom and Jan were great, but the church didn’t care for me at all.” And they will say this even though Bob, Mary, Tom and Jan are part of the church. How can this be? How can people receive care from church members but say the church didn’t care for them? I suspect it’s because churches are both communities and institutions. When people who are not acting in an official capacity visit and provide care this is seen as the church community at work. But they do not see these friends as representing the church as institution. They feel connected with the church both as community and institution and want to know that they are valued by both. And like it or not, pastors tend to be seen as the representative of the institution. So when a pastor doesn’t visit the hurting individual perceives that ‘the church’ doesn’t care.
So if I went back to pastoring I’d make care by official church representatives, including myself, a much greater priority. I’d try to make sure people felt cared for by both the church community and the church institution.
I’m not advocating a return to the days when pastors felt obliged to visit every congregation member on a regular basis. I am however suggesting church care systems will only be effective when we recognise the church is both community and institution and that people will only feel cared for when this is expressed by members of the community and representatives of the institution.