Introduction: 15-21 May 2017
Last week we examined how pastoral care refers primarily to the love that members of the Christian community show to one another each and every day. To this end, pastoral care is based in fellowship and is proactive.
Each of us will, however, also go through particular events that take us outside the ‘day-to-day’. Perhaps you have lost a loved one. Maybe you are struggling financially to put food on the table. Or perhaps you are getting married, or have just become a parent or grandparent, and trying to figure out what life now looks like.
At the heart of pastoral care is the idea of ‘abundant life’ (John 10.10): in caring for one another, we seek to look after the whole person. In fact, in Matt. 25: 31-46, Jesus makes explicit instruction for us to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. Pastoral care then responds to people as they are, and seeks to care for people physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally:
The pastoral relationship is concerned for maturity in Christian life, and for fullness of life for all people, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, economic circumstances or other personal characteristics. It is a relationship in which Ministers seeks to express an ethic of care, which includes nurturing the other person’s power over their own life as they relate to others and to God.
(Uniting Church in Australia, Code of Ethics and Ministry Practice, 2.2)
But how do we care for others who might be quite different from us, and have quite different needs, hopes and expectations?
The Art of Being There
In many ways, pastoral care can be summarised as the art of ‘being there’. We are often very good at saying to someone in crisis, “I’m here for you if you need it,” but what do we actually mean when we say this? How far would we be willing to journey with someone who is really struggling? And why are we there? Because we love them, or because we are trying to ‘fix’ them?
In the readings and reflections below, we are invited to ground our practice of ‘being there’ for others in the life of God, who has modelled for us a way of caring for others – being present to people for their sake, not ours, out of love.
The Pastoral Partners Program (Mediacom, 1998), identifies some key features of what ‘being there’ for others might look like:
- Affirmation: ‘The cornerstone of helping another, is not really about great projects or time-consuming tasks. It begins with the messages we give people about who they are.’ (p. 33) In everything we say and do, are we building people up or tearing them down? Are we helping others to know that they are a beloved child and God and belong by simple gestures like a smile, the tone of our voice, and treating them as an equal? In fact, sometimes the most powerful and affirming pastoral care involves simply sitting with someone in silence.
- Helping: Good helping responds appropriately to real needs, not what we think is best for somebody. Sometimes the motivation to help others actually comes from something in our own life (perhaps their pain makes us feel uncomfortable, or we went through a similar situation and really wished someone had just done this) rather than what the person we are ‘being there’ for actually wants or needs. In these situations, our attempts to help can cause more harm then good. We need to be careful to listen to what others are actually saying, and to be mindful of our own limitations to provide it (more on this below).
- Listening: Are you really listening to what another person is saying about their own story? Or are you making assumptions that you know best? The art of listening requires us to be present and attentive to the person who is sharing their story with us. This means that we need to avoid blaming, criticising or judging, and not try to ‘fix’ their problems. Instead, we are invited to truly listen, to understand the person’s story, and to practice empathy.
Sometimes, pastoral care for individuals will involve special worship services that involve a community coming together to mourn or celebrate, laugh or cry. These services are also often points where the church might connect to the wider community during times of need. They include things like:
- Funerals and Memorials
While such services are conducted by ministers or lay worship leaders, often the presence of other members of the community at such events can provide great support and comfort to a family or individual.
Ethics and Self Care
An important part of ‘being there’ for others in their times of need, is being ‘self-aware’. Each of carries with us baggage from our own life and stories that define who we are. There is nothing wrong with this. If these stories start to affect and harm the people we are caring for, however, that is a problem.
It is important therefore to be aware of our own stories and why we react the way we do to different events. Then, when we are caring for others, we can be honest with ourselves and think about our reactions. Am I trying to ‘fix’ this person because that is what they want, or because their grief is making me uncomfortable? In caring for others, we need to present to them, and not trying to fulfil our own needs.
As such, another important part of pastoral care is self-care. The Uniting Church Code of Ethics includes a whole section dedicated to the need for pastoral carers to look after themselves as well. In Mark 12.31, Jesus instructs his disciples to “love your neighbour as yourself.” If we don’t look after ourselves very well, then there is a good chance that we will end up doing harm to our neighbour as well. This means sometimes being quite strict on ourselves. If I am grieving because I have recently lost a loved one, perhaps I’m not the best person to care for someone else who has also lost a loved one: maybe I need to refer them to someone else so that I don’t cause them harm.
Finally, it is important to be aware of my own limitations. If I am not a counsellor, then I shouldn’t pretend to be, or I might risk causing pain to another. If I am not a medical professional, then I shouldn’t pretend I know how to solve someone’s medical problems. When pastoral conversations get to a point that is beyond my skills or knowledge, it is important to refer people on to the right professionals. This doesn’t mean abandoning them, or passing the buck. Instead, it means acknowledging what I can or cannot do to help them.
Worship and Events
Workshop 1: Introduction to Pastoral Care
Saturday 20 May, 9:00 – 12:30: Wesley Uniting Church, Goulburn St, Crookwell.
Sunday 21 May, 9am: Wesley Uniting Church.
Focus Passage: John 14.15-21
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
- What do the readings tell you about how God cares for people?
- What, if anything, do these passages tell you about the art of ‘being there’?
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Teresa of Avila, Christ Has No Body
Learning from others: How not to do Pastoral Care
This short video from YouTube is a comic look at how NOT to provide pastoral care to someone. Have a watch, and see what lessons you might learn from it.