A Caring Model for Pastoral Conversations

July 1st, 2019

The following is excerpted from Caring: Six Steps for Effective Pastoral ConversationsCopyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved.


Most parishioners value a minister’s ability to guide them toward their goals and dreams or to solve their problems. CARING teaches a basic introductory framework for pastoral conversations that helps persons achieve their goals or solve their problems. The methodology taught in this book is not intended for either counseling or crisis intervention. Other resources are available to teach you those types of ministries. The methodology provided in this book is a spiritual process to powerfully guide parishioners who seek help solving their problems or reaching their goals.

Here is an overview of the ministry process designed to help you have powerful, effective, and spiritual conversations that help your congregants find solutions to their problems and move toward their dreams. I use the acronym CARING to facilitate remembering the steps of the process. Note that each step is something that you invite the person to do in partnership with you. Here are the six steps to follow in pastoral conversations:

C: Connect with God, Self, and Others

A: Attend to the Journey and Assess the Need

R: Reach Clarity about the Realistic Focus for This Conversation

I: Inspire the Development of a Loving Action Plan

N: Navigate around Obstacles to the Plan

G: Generate Commitment to a Specific, Loving Action Plan

The CARING model can be utilized in any conversation when your parishioners ask for your help to reach a goal or solve a problem, unless you discern that you need to provide crisis ministry or refer the person for specialized help. The steps can be used when people ask for your help in informal settings, as well as when you have a scheduled appointment with a congregant.

Listen Well

Attending to the person’s journey and assessing the need begins with listening well. Listening well involves seeking to understand the concern of the person, expressing accurate empathy, and responding in ways that let the other know that you are listening. Listening well is difficult. If you doubt the previous assertion, I encourage you to try an exercise I use in my classes. (As is true with all exercises I suggest in this book, be upfront with the person that you are practicing a ministry skill.) Test your listening skills with your learning assistant. For a ten-minute period, allow her to share with you a concern in her life while you listen well.

"Caring" by Denise Massey. Order here: http://bit.ly/2SZxmQD

Your only responses to the person will be to indicate that you are listening. For example, you might make attentive sounds, like “um-hmm” or short phrases like “I see” or “oh my.” Your assignment is to listen without interjecting your own opinions or advice. You are not to attempt to solve his problem or to lead him to find a solution. Do not follow any process of guiding a conversation that you learned in your training or use in ministry or social conversations.

The only question you are allowed to ask is one to clarify what the person is saying. Do not ask something such as, “Have you considered doing this . . . ?” That is advice disguised as a question. Your job is simply to hear and comprehend the messages of the other. Seek only to advance your understanding of the person’s concerns and to let her know that you are listening to her.

How did it go? If you are like my students, you experienced one of several outcomes. Perhaps you learned that listening is harder work than you realized, and you are not as good at it as you thought. You may also have recognized the importance of listening well to people. The other person told you more than you expected in a short time because of your careful listening. You realized how much can happen in a brief conversation. Your careful listening may have been the catalyst for the person’s discovering a solution for his own problem. Students are amazed by how often this happens when they are “only” listening.

An experience of many of my students deserves further elaboration. Often, a student will listen carefully to the concern being expressed. The student does not offer the advice that he would like because of the parameters of the exercise. Then after a few more minutes of listening, it becomes clear to the student that the answer he would have offered will not work given what he now knows of the person’s situation. Listening well can prevent much wasted time and advice-giving that is irrelevant because the minister does not fully understand the situation.

If you attend to the person’s journey well, the rest of the conversation will flow more easily and effectively. Stephen Covey has an excellent discussion of empathic listening in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey postulates that there are four levels of listening that we normally use: (1) ignoring the other person; (2) pretending to listen; (3) selective listening, which is hearing only parts of the conversation; and (4) attentive listening, which gives attention and energy to the words being said. He also suggests that there is a very rare fifth level that is the highest type of listening, which he calls empathic listening.[i] He critiques active or reflective listening and contrasts it with empathic listening as follows: “You listen with reflective skills, but you listen with intent to reply, to control, to manipulate. When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm.”[ii]

Covey even suggests that empathic listening helps you hear the soul of the other person. As he said: “Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.”[iii]

At this stage of the CARING process you are seeking to understand the deep, soulful concerns of the other person without offering help or suggestions. Your focus should be on deeply understanding the other, knowing that steps to provide help will come later. The more accurately you understand the person’s journey at step two, the more helpful your guidance during later steps will be.

In my experience, seeking to understand the concern of the person through empathic listening requires several types of inner work on the minister’s part. First, you must put aside any desire to impress the person with your wisdom, helpfulness, or competence. You will also put aside your wish to be Superman or Wonder Woman, messiah, savior, or rescuer. Second, bring your full attention to the person and her needs, bracketing out anything that stands in the way of being fully present and aware of the person. Third, keep your attention on understanding the individual’s concern, holding any solutions that come to my mind for later in the conversation if they prove to be appropriate responses.

When your attention wanders to unrelated areas, gently bring it back to the needs of the other. This process is similar to meditation in that when your attention wanders you bring it back to being still in the presence of God. Bringing your attention back to the person reminds you of the value of the person to God and the spiritual significance of all our concerns. This practice is a way to maintain your connection to your parishioner.

Your goal is to fully understand the person’s journey. You accomplish this task by attending empathically to the journey. You pay attention to the person, the story, the journey being described. You listen well. You seek to understand the person’s experiences. You listen for descriptions of where your congregant is currently and where this person hopes to be in the future. You pay attention to the problem(s) the person hopes to solve and to the concerns expressed. You listen for discussions of the obstacles that are blocking the journey. You attend to the journey from where the person is, through the obstacles, to where the person wants to be.


[i] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), 240.

[ii] Covey, 240.

[iii] Covey, 241.

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