As some of you may know, I’m in the process of writing my final year dissertation for seminary. It’s a 10,000 word document that focuses specifically on how to care for the depressed in the context of a local church. This is a topic that has been close to my heart for many years probably resulting from my own season of depression (which I’ve written about here). As I’ve been working on my dissertation this week, I’ve been thinking a little bit more about pastoral care. I’ve been thinking specifically about how we holistically care for someone…
Pastoral care is maybe a strange phrase that you’d not heard before, or maybe you think that pastoral care is reserved only for pastors and elders. That isn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, be the case. Every Christian has a responsibility to care for their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and to build them up in the Lord, to spur them on to good works and service for Jesus. Pastoral care, at its most basic definition, is caring for another individual. There are countless books out there for pastors on how to conduct pastoral counselling, how to help people in certain circumstances and how to point people to Jesus. There are also a few books for Christians about what care should look like amongst the flock of a local church.
However, I wonder if we’re in danger of losing the focus of our pastoral care because we narrow it down. Pastoral care can easily be narrowed down to a one off phone call, a text message or a simple “I’m praying for you” that doesn’t actually happen. But is that really enough? I’m not convinced.
I think that there are three elements to holistic pastoral care;
If we put too much emphasis on one of these three, at the detriment of others, I’m not sure we’re caring for people as best as we should be. So, how do these differ and why are they important?
Caring for someone practically means that you’re looking after them for their day to day necessities, or the practical things that they need doing. This can look like doing their shopping, cutting the grass, fixing something in their house or helping them sort out life admin and making sure they’re ok.
I don’t think that we should make people dependent on the church and that they get to the point where they rely on assistance or help simply to live. However, there are times when people will need help to do things and the church should be there to support them. If that means cancelling a few meetings to go and paint an older members ceiling. Go do it. If it means leaving the house in the rain because ‘Bobby’ now feels up for going out for a walk after weeks of not leaving the house due to health reasons. Get your trainers on.
The church is called to be a community that looks out for each other, that builds each other up and that serves each other. It’s too easy to focus on this element of pastoral care and forget the rest. Practical help is important and necessary, but it is not the only aspect of care that should be given to a fellow Christian.
Don’t run! There are those who run at the first sign of any emotion and that is foolish. As human beings, we are emotional creatures. We can react with strong emotions to people or events that happen right before our eyes and things that took place many moons ago, yet the scars remain. The role of a Christian brother or sister is to stand with their fellow believer and support them. Weep with those who weep, laugh with those who laugh and the much neglected one; be silent with those who need silence.
The emotional aspect of pastoral care does not mean that we simply sit and give a pat on the back, speak snappy ‘Christian’ motivational phrases. It means that we stand with our wounded brother and sister and we fight alongside them. It means that we pull up a chair and we sit with them in their misery, in their rejoicing and in their indifference and we point them to Jesus. There will be times where this kind of support should be done alongside professionals who are trained to care for suffering individuals, but that is no excuse for the church to look for the exit. Stick around and draw alongside your fellow Christian and care for their emotional wellbeing.
This is probably the one that is focused on more than most, but even then do we do enough? I’m not sure that the normal middle-class ‘meet me in a coffee shop once a week’ is enough. As a pastor, part of my role is teaching and equipping saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12) and teaching the truth faithfully. Part of the role of every Christian is speaking the truth in love to each other so that we may grow more into the likeness of Christ (Ephesians 4:15). Caring for other spiritually means pointing them to Jesus, getting their heads into the Bible and helping them worship our wonderful Triune God who deserves all the praise in the world.
This goes beyond the coffee shop, beyond the walk and beyond a one hour slot in the day. Caring for someone spiritually means inviting them into your own life and showing them what it means to live the Christian life. It means pointing them to the truth of the Bible and how that is lived out in the every day and it means showing people how amazing and life-transforming the gospel is.
Neglecting to care for someone in all of these three areas should not be an option. We’re not called to be a charity, to only be a shoulder to cry on or to be a motivational speaker with a bit of Jesus sprinkled on top. We are the body of Christ. We are the bride of the great Bridegroom. We are the Lord’s people. Our desire should be to care for the Lord’s people holistically. To see them served well practically, to help them view their emotional life through the Christian perspective and to see them pointing to Jesus every day. Pastoral care is not a quick phone call or a text message, pastoral care requires a holistic approach to every person.