Pastoral Care in the Church (1)

If you’ve been raised in the church, you’ve heard of ‘pastoral care’. Most often the term is associated with the work of the ‘pastor’, the ordained leader in the church. Sometimes it is also connected to the work of the elders, also ordained leaders in the church. My conviction is that we have narrowed the meaning and impact of pastoral care by limiting it to the pastor(s) or to the annual visit of the elders in the church.  I want to expand how we think about pastoral care in the church, to make it more comprehensive and more effective.

The root meaning of the word pastor goes back to the Greek word ‘poimen’ meaning shepherd. This word was one of three words used by the early church to describe the church leaders: elders (prebyteros), overseers (episkopos) and shepherds (poimen). These three words were interchangeable, different ways of describing the person and their position/task in the church.

As shepherds, the elders are to care for God’s sheep (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Shepherds care for ALL the needs of the sheep. Like Jesus the Good Shepherd (John 10:11,14), they are to keep watch for and protect from enemies, they are to help them meet their physical and spiritual needs, they are to seek them when they are lost, they are to help them when they struggle. This kind of care is comprehensive, it ‘keeps watch over’ their whole well-being. Psalm 23 serves as a great description of Jesus-like pastoral care.

In the church we can identify different levels of care:

Mutual Care: Believers are called to care for one another. This is the informal, ongoing support, encouragement and accountability that disciples offer one another.

Pastoral Care: Elders are responsible to oversee and organize care for the sheep. When the flock is small they can do it themselves; as the flock grows they should raise up helpers to make sure no one is missed, and the best care can be provided. This level of care is more than mutual care, but less than professional care.

Professional Care: When the needs or challenges among the sheep exceed the knowledge or experience of the congregation and elders, the church can provide and support opportunities to access professional care, like a christian counselor.

In order for pastoral care (organized care in the church) to be beneficial to the sheep, there are some qualities necessary to make it effective:

Effective pastoral care requires spiritual depth (faith, hope and love): Caregivers need a spiritual maturity and depth to address the pastoral challenges and concerns being raised today.

Effective pastoral care requires pastoral gifts: Caregivers need certain gifts such as compassion, empathy, sensitivity, the ability to know when to listen and when to speak. In every church God will have gifted some members with these gifts.

Effective pastoral care requires training: Caregivers ought to be trained, to develop their gifts for greater benefit and effectiveness.

Effective pastoral care requires trust: Caregivers need to be trustworthy, to convey a sense of safety and acceptance and non-judgment.

Effective pastoral care requires relationship building: Caregivers need to do more than show up once a year, they need to invest in getting to know the people they serve.

Effective pastoral care requires continual follow up: Caregivers need to follow-up after a person has shared, to continue to care and support them.

The Elders (called Shepherds/Pastors) in the church are responsible for making sure this kind of care is provided for the sheep. They are responsible to see that best form of mutual, pastoral and professional care are available to the church. They are responsible to see to it that spiritually deep, gifted and trained individuals are providing this pastoral care.

But the Elders are NOT – I repeat NOT – required to DO this work themselves. Nor should it be assumed that the staff pastor(s) can do this work themselves. This kind of pastoral care is much bigger than one person (the pastor) can handle, and is much bigger than an elder visiting once or twice a year can offer. The most important task for the Elders is to figure out HOW effective pastoral care can be provided.

In my next post I will look at different methods of pastoral care in the church.

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