Some of the ways that clergy provide care for individuals and families are by sustaining them through crisis or illness, guiding them through problems or life’s questions, aiding them through emotional or spiritual trauma, and helping them to reconcile and restore broken relationships with a significant person, group, or God. Significant life events, like marriage, birth, and death, or meaningful spiritual events, like dedication, baptism, and confirmation, are areas where pastors express care for their flock and their community. As E. Brooks Holifield relates in A History of Pastoral Care in America, “For almost 20 centuries the Christian clergy have spent more time listening to people than preaching to them.”
Many images and metaphors have been suggested for pastoral care. Like physicians who care for the sick, pastors have been charged with the guidance and care of souls, preparing them for life now and throughout eternity. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest, advanced the widely embraced image of the minister as “wounded healer.” Rather than remain professional and aloof, the wounds and sufferings of clergy enable them to join in solidarity with those they serve. Many Nazarene pastors have related that an attitude of spiritual vulnerability and authenticity has helped them build positive and nurturing relationships with laity seeking a relevant faith.
Pastoral care can be challenging, especially for bi-vocational ministers who often must rely on lay leadership to provide care, due to secular work demands and limited time. Nazarene educator Bruce L. Peterson, in his splendid book, Foundations of Pastoral Care, notes that grace-filled opportunities to express pastoral care can be found in the life of the church through corporate worship, public prayers, the sacraments, and preaching. Effective pastors are sensitive to these opportunities and find ways to demonstrate care in a variety of settings, such as a local coffee shop or school event. Social media has especially enabled clergy to touch and connect meaningfully to congregants, to their community, and beyond.
Some leaders, like William Willimon, former Methodist Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, caution that care can be taken too far. In a recent clergy leadership session at MidAmerica Nazarene University, Willimon expressed concern that excessive caregiving encouraged congregants to be consumers of religious goods and services. He stressed, “Our challenge is to love Christ and his Word more than we love our people.”
Genuine pastoral care is always Kingdom-focused and works to help people achieve wholeness. Many Nazarene pastors relate that pastoral care is one of the ways in which the experience of holiness is validated for laity. A ministry of presence to a family in tragedy can say more than a thousand carefully-worded sermons. As clergy extend care, people see holiness embodied and modeled; this enables them to learn to do the same for others. Pastoral care was never intended for an insular people seeking religious comfort, but for a missional people pursuing an inward, outward, and upward journey with God and others.
This issue of Grace and Peace seeks to help clergy understand what it means to be caregivers and to shepherd their congregations and communities toward wholeness.