Soul care in the small church

November 15th, 2022

They do not come to worship hoping to be swept up into the gravity of my agenda, these ninety, sixty, or thirty souls. They are not there to hear me wax eloquent about the things that consume me as a called and equipped pastor: the continued disestablishment of the church, the mainline decline, the bishop’s appeal for disaster relief, the needed repairs on the roof, the annual meeting, the loss of biblical literacy, the larger social questions that won’t go away, the connectional church’s debate on sexuality, a postcolonial reading of the Bible, the increase of our impact for good in the community, and so on. Much of leadership is taking people where they would not go on their own. Growing up in Christ means enlarging your horizon of care. But these are destinations not starting lines. I must meet them at their starting lines.

They begin at life! They begin at the things that consume their weekday hours and keep them awake at night. One of them graduated from college a year ago, four years of hard work behind her, a big debt in front of her, and she still hasn’t been able to find a job in her field. Another one has just been told by his doctor that they are down to the last experimental protocol to address his aggressive cancer. Still another wonders what other loss of powers will accompany her MS and how soon. And so on and on for the ninety, sixty, or thirty faces of the weekly congregation and maybe a dozen more who are homebound.

The tradition of the care of souls in the community of faith is deeply biblical. It is justified by the worth of each person created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and the worth of their specific journey through the stages of life (Ps 71). It is affirmed by the God-questions that arise from sudden reversals of fortune (Job), from moral failure (Ps 51), from natural disasters (Ps 121), from experiences of shame (Ps 31) and experiences of dislocation (Ps 22). And most of all, it is validated by the healing ministry of Jesus, by the conspicuous fact that Jesus spends so much of the short time of his public ministry laying hands on persons to pray for their healing.

Soul Care and Church Size

All pastors are called to the care of souls. They share with their colleagues in the medical field a primary vow of non- maleficence, a promise to do no harm to vulnerable persons under their care. They extend the healing benefits of God in many ways, but especially by their timely visits and genuine prayers. They lead ministries that address the well-being of the whole person. They look for the beneficial intersection of the stories of the individual, of the community of faith, and of the Bible. They distribute the healing benefits of the Lord’s Meal.

All pastors are more or less equipped for the care of souls. They take required courses in pastoral care and counseling. Some do advanced work in clinical pastoral education (CPE). They learn current theories and best practices. They experiment with models of soul care that variously emphasize the place of such factors as cultural context, lay participation, or short-term opportunities. They begin the lifelong work of trying out conversation partners for their soul care, now the twentieth-century psycholo- gists with their personality theories, now pastoral theologians who mine the biblical texts for their original wisdom, now the fathers and mothers of the ancient church who first explored the terrain of the Christian soul and left markers.

All pastors are called to the care of souls, not some in certain settings. About forty years ago a pioneering study commissioned for the Episcopal Church, Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry,[1] analyzed the distinctiveness of the cultures of congregations by their size. Arlin Rothauge labeled churches according to their active membership as family church (0-50), pastoral church (50-150), program church (150-350), and corporation church (350-500+). The Rothauge analysis and labeling of congregational cultures has had widespread acceptance. It has proved helpful in a number of ways, but especially at the point of its intended purpose, which was to identify the distinctive ways new members are drawn to, assimilated into, and held by congregations of various sizes.

There are pastoral implications in Rothauge’s analysis, and at this point it is less helpful. In fact, that analysis has helped to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of both the small church and the vocation of soul care. According to Rothauge, the relevant location for the pastor’s exercise of soul care is in the two smaller sizes of congregations. In the family church (0-50) pastors have “a special kind of contact” that allows them to offer “regular friendship,” and to act as “a spiritual guide and confessor.” In the pastoral church (50-150) that soul care is stretched but still has primary impact. In so far as the pastor can extend spiritual friendships to the larger number of persons it generates loyalty to the pastor and thereby to the congregation. But how many spiritually caring relationships can one pastor have? The pastor must learn “the necessity of moving on to others.”

In the program church (150-350) the pastor, now called “leader,” cannot maintain pastoral contact with the whole congregation, but instead must delegate that role to others. The congregation must make the transition from “dependency” on that leader for “basic ministry functions” including counseling and spiritual growth. The pastor of persons must become the facilitator of processes. And in the corporation church (350-500+) that leader must steward the congregation’s sense of purpose and provide executive leadership at a distance for its caring ministries while specialists provide soul care within and beyond the congregation. Persons in the congregation may have a strong identification with the lead pastor, to the point of “legendary status,” but that pastor would not be expected to provide individual soul care.[2]

The call to care for souls transcends the context for ministry. There is no running from it into distant executive positions of preaching or administration. Some introverted pastors may daydream of the day when they can assign that care to staff. Some ambitious pastors may assume that a passion for the vitality of the corporate congregation is enough; “I don’t do hospital!” as one such person put it. But most pastors, in all settings, practice some soul care because they know that is where real life is hap- pening for their parishioners and because it is an intractable element of their call. Effective pastors in program churches, corporate churches, as well as megachurches allow for the interruption and inconvenience of pastoral emergencies. They “do hospital” if only on an occasional and Spirit-selective basis. They build social capital for their leadership by repeated personal contact with persons seeking providence through the discordant elements of their lives. They speak authentic soul care language from the pulpit.

What the Rothauge analysis does accomplish is to acknowledge the naturalness of soul care in family congregations and pastoral congregations, in other words, in small churches. I would put it more strongly than that. There is a certain potential for the flourishing of soul care in the small-church setting that is lacking in other settings. The character of the church of ninety, sixty, or thirty lends itself to the maximum capacities of a pastor and of a congregation to more directly “be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Rom 12:15). Small churches rely on personal contacts and quiet social contracts. They feed on face-to-face communication. They embody the maximum number of persons with whom we can have deeper relationships of sympathy, care, and communication—150 or less according to the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.[3] Churches of larger sizes must find creative ways to replicate soul care; small churches have the favorable climate for it.

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Soul Care and Stories 

Soul care is the work of looking for providence in broken stories, of seeking God’s presence and leadings in the rubble of a narrative collapse. There are three primary agents of that work in the small-church setting: the pastor, the congregation as active partner with the pastor, and the person receiving the care. It is a work framed by the meta stories and lesser stories of the Bible.

Finding Donald 

Donald (not his actual name) was a creature of habit. He always sat at the table closest to the serving line in the congregation’s Wednesday evening meals for the community and toward the back of the sanctuary close to the east exit during worship. He was one of the congregation’s success stories. The congregation addressed some very concrete needs for Donald: food, clothes, and repairs on his ratty old Buick as he fought to not relapse into the state of homelessness he had visited off and on in his late fifties. He found his way into our hearts with his contagious laugh, witty remarks, and disarming sincerity. And from there he found his way into our worship wearing his frayed olive sweatshirt and khaki pants. After he and I cleared the air on who was worthy and why, Donald participated in the Lord’s Meal regularly and with delight. He loved the music and usually had an edgy editorial footnote to my sermon after the service. We were in conversation about his joining the church. Donald was not a “joiner” by nature, but thought he might make an exception for this congregation that cared. 

Then things began to fall apart again for Donald. He was evicted from his apartment in an assisted-living complex because of numerous violations of the apartment code, which he did not dispute. Donald was a confessed hoarder. He had been given several warnings across the years and, by his own admission, just ig- nored them. When the exchanges with the landlord became more menacing, Donald's temper that landed him in trouble many times in the past flared up and sealed his fate. Donald was hoping to get a room at the YMCA. If not there, he would live out of his Buick, at least for the summer and fall months. The bleak prospect of becoming homeless once more weighed heavily on Donald for several weeks. Who knows what part that stress and some long-term health issues played on the medical crisis that landed him in an intensive care unit of a regional medical center.

No one seems to know what happened to Donald. He was apparently alone at the time of a head injury. There was bleeding on the brain. There were seizures. By the time he was found and transported by paramedics, the lively, rascally, twinkle-in-his-eye Donald we knew was gone from us. Donald was brought to the medical center without identification. He was listed as “John Doe” for a couple of weeks. The congregation and I went looking for Donald. We tried the apartment complex from which he had been evicted, his car still parked on a street near that complex, and his friends and acquaintances. Finally, on a suggestion by one of our members I tried the area hospitals for any John Does and was able to locate Donald and give the hospital his name and the name of a family connection.

These days, Donald is cared for in a long-term nursing facility. He can sit in a chair with his eyes open, but to date there is no recognition, no speech. Our final hope is that Donald's lively soul is in the safe keeping of God. We may or may not catch a glimpse of its former self in this lifetime.

Meanwhile, we must be sure to not miss this: a congregation extended its care to a person who challenged its mostly healthy middle-class instincts about dress, responsibility, and planning. Donald in his turn was trying to learn the movements of worship, getting curious about things in the Bible, and starting to believe there was a group of persons who cared about his fate. If not for our life together in this congregation, I and the others would have had little reason or occasion to know someone like Donald. We don’t cross lines of class, up or down, easily. It is a God thing when a Donald finds a church home, when his story and our story with God are mutually transformed by an updraft of providence that crosses cultures.

Soul Care with Excellence

The small church is the natural setting for soul care, the most favorable climate to engage persons whose life stories have been disrupted and now seek God’s presence and leads as they dwell among a community of persons who share a common worship, Bible, sacraments, religious calendar, building, and assorted projects of discipleship. Soul care is the work of both the pastor and the congregation in the small-church setting, but each brings distinct strengths that must be exercised with relational intelligence and from spiritual depth.

The pastor has the power of immediate access. By office and by accrued reputation the pastor does not have to wait to be invited, does not delay for the administrative assistant to arrange an appointment (there probably isn’t an administrative assistant anyway), and does not overly worry about looking presentable. The pastor goes! Writers on small-church ministry sometimes talk about the charismatic nature of pastoral visitation in their settings, the freedom to set out in a car and follow the Spirit’s leads as if there were some divine GPS looking out for the souls of the congregation and the community most in need of a visit.

The pastor brings a scripturally informed mind to the encounter of soul care. The pastor knows when to sit in silence and listen like Job’s friends (Job 2:13) and when to enter into persons’ attempts to make sense of their narrative collapses. The pastor responds in face and word, offers alternative scenarios, coaxes and cheers as the persons rewrite their life stories. And when the occasion calls for it, the pastor offers the sacramental and ritual elements of the church as tangible comfort: the bread, the cup, the oil of anointing.

The pastor remains the pastoral leader during the seasons of soul care, and that is important. In a church of ninety, sixty, or thirty, one or two serious and prolonged crises of health, finance, or family can threaten the vitality of the congregation as a corporate entity. The weight of soul care wears on the collective spirit.

One of the most important things leaders do is to help persons transcend their personal agendas for a common good. Pastoral leaders must counterbalance the weight of soul care on the congregation. They will do it first by keeping themselves as healthy and buoyant personalities. They will do it second by placing before the congregation its joys and celebrations as well as its trials and sorrows, the panoply of human experience not just one dimension (Rom 12:15). And they will do it third by weaving together in front of the congregation an interesting corporate story, The Story of Us, an ongoing subject that mitigates the isolating tendencies that cling to an individual in narrative collapse.

Members of the congregation have even more immediate access to those in need of soul care. It is worth remembering that most of the New Testament exhortations to soul care and instructions for doing it (e.g., Matt 25:31-46; James 5:13-15) are written to the members of the household of faith. And much of soul care literature through the centuries of the church is written not exclusively for or even primarily to clergy; it is written to those who have the longest history with and closest location to those needing soul care, their fellow members in the congregation.

Case in point: in a sermon first published in 1786, “On Visiting the Sick,”[4] John Wesley reminds members of the Methodist societies that visiting the sick is not only their “plain duty” according to scripture but also a “real means of grace”; in performing this work they will find their faith strengthened and their love for God and neighbor intensified.

Soul care must be practiced in person; Wesley accepts no excuses, no proxies. The power of the gospel to break down social barriers is at work in the direct contact. The rich are to visit. “One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them.”[5] They should devote a set time from their daily leisure. The poor are to visit offering prayers if nothing else. The young are not too young to visit. In fact, they have “several advantages” peculiar to their station in life such as a contagious buoyancy of spirit in the presence of illness. And the old are not too old. “With what strength you have left, employ the few moments you have to spare in ministering to those who are weaker than yourselves. Your grey hairs will not fail to give you authority, and add weigh to what you speak.”[6]

The everyday people of God go forth to care for their neighbors, in and beyond the community of faith, leaning on “the Giver of every good gift” for cues appropriate to the moment. There is something like a path of progression for soul care. The visitor will attend first to the outward needs of the person in physical or mental affliction, whether they have the necessities of life, the proper care, an informed diagnosis. Eventually the conversation will turn to the person’s interpretation of the illness, the new narrative they must build to replace the one that collapsed. The visitor offers guided questions of general and particular providence but does not answer for the person. Sometimes the visitor will uncover a fundamental spiritual condition of acute deficit and will go to work “lovingly and gently” pressing the person toward repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The visitor will share reading material to reinforce subjects covered.

Before leaving, the visitor will offer prescriptions of preventive care such as the value of exercise and hygiene. Wesley’s visitors were supplied with a generous repertoire of these in the collection he provided for them called Primitive Physic. The visitor closes with prayer and makes a mental note of the subjects to follow up on at the next visit.


Excerpted from Small on Purpose: Life in a Significant Church by Lewis A. Parks. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Arlin Rothauge, Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry (New York: Episcopal Church Center, 1983).

[2] Ibid., 9, 12, 17–20, 26–27.

[3] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 69–77. “Dunbar’s number” is the maximum number of persons with whom we can have significant relationships because of our cognitive limits, the way our brains are wired. He argues for 150 or less as the ideal size of community and illustrates from ancient clans, modern villages, small businesses, military units, and congregations.

[4] John Wesley, Sermon 98: “On Visiting the Sick” in The Works of John Wesley, Volume 3: Sermons 3 (74–114), ed. Frank Baker (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), 385–97.

[5] Ibid., 387.

[6] Ibid., 394–95.

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