More than funerals: The breadth of pastoral care

October 2nd, 2019

The required pastoral care class in my seminary education was more theory than practice. We learned about family systems theory and the Kubler-Ross stages of grief and being a “non-anxious” presence. Whether intentionally or not, the message communicated in class was that the meat of pastoral care involved ministering to people in the worst moments of their lives, especially moments around death or facing mortality.

But as I have ministered in congregational settings, I have come to appreciate the breadth of pastoral care ministry requires. It is not just funerals or prayers before major surgeries but visiting newborn babies and having drinks with a parishioner on the day her divorce was finalized. As a pastor, congregants have invited me to birthday parties, housewarmings, sports games, and theater performances because the community formed by the church goes beyond the walls of the church building.

Unfortunately, some people in our churches have also gotten the message that their pastors are so busy and put-upon that they hesitate to notify their pastor unless a situation is “serious,” failing to let us care for them in the less-crucial moments. Even at times when it is serious, some congregants get the idea that a “good” pastor will just intuit that something is wrong and appear without being notified.

One time, a woman came to me distressed about some shocking circumstances within her marriage, and when I asked why they had not come to me sooner as a couple, she stated that her husband was embarrassed. I’m afraid that people feeling like they have to put on a persona at church and with their clergy is unfortunately common. Because of their fear of judgment, they hesitate to be vulnerable with us, to share their struggles and brokenness with us. But we cannot pray for, provide referrals for, and offer care for situations we do not know about.

I wish most parishioners knew that I want to know about both the small and large concerns in their lives. I want to provide care in whatever way is helpful. I’m never too busy to pray with you before that minor out-patient surgery because, as my CPE supervisor said, the only “minor” surgery is the one that isn’t happening to you. I want to pray with you about deciding where to send your kids to school. I want to bless your new house and help you decide where God is calling you now that you’ve retired. If you don’t know who to call, I will be the one to sit next to you in the courtroom or visit you in jail or hold your hand while you put your beloved pet down.

A former priest of mine once said that ninety-percent of ministry was showing up, and it took me a while to figure out what that meant. Whether it’s at a hospital bed or a soccer game or a birthday party, the presence of the clergy can signify that the church cares about you outside of Sunday morning. Some of the most meaningful moments of my ministry have been those moments of pastoral care where it was not about what I was saying or doing but about my presence as the official representative of the church.

While I have officiated my fair share of funerals and made plenty of hospital visits, not every pastoral care situation is pathological; some are even joyful. It is just as important for clergy to witness, celebrate, and bless positive transitions and moments in people’s lives, and I am always grateful when I am invited to witness people’s joys and sorrows. I have found the practice of ministry, and specifically pastoral care, to be dramatically more life-giving and hopeful than my education prepared me for.

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