What in the world is Pastoral Care?

Today, I want to tell you a bit more about my approach to pastoral care, maybe even try for a definition, and to give you an idea about why the perspectives I teach have led to my being invited by Friends Peace Teams to teach ministers and priests in the traumatized country of Rwanda. https://friendspeaceteams.org/teach-local-clergy-rwanda/

There’s an old joke, although sometimes it is said seriously, about how great it must be to be a minister or priest and only have to work that one hour on Sunday. It turns out that the joke is not really that funny. The worship service and the sermon may be the most visible part of the job, but so much more happens during the rest of the week.

What the clergy do during the rest of the time is called “pastoral care,” and it’s not primarily or obviously about religious beliefs or behaviors. Pastoral Care might be defined as how belief and religion play out in human relationships and community.

Very often people come into a religious congregation out of a sense of need. These seekers may be wounded by life, or they might not be able to get by economically. They may carry guilt or fear that springs from past behaviors or experiences. They may be preparing for major transitions in their lives, often including preparing for death. In my experience, many people cannot even identify what it is they seek. They may simply have questions about life that the values of the surrounding culture don’t address Their families or culture may be telling them that they should be feeling happy, grateful, or fulfilled. People often don’t feel safe enough to reveal something about themselves that they believe is socially unacceptable or that makes them look weak or foolish. It is the job of pastoral care to create the safe container that allows people talk about the heavy burdens, or merely the questions, that they carry.

Another way to look at pastoral care is by recognizing that our behavior says more about what we believe than what we say. When I was a prison chaplain, there was a chalk board next to my office desk. I had written on it the word, “praxis.” People coming into my office would often ask me about that word. Why had I written it there, and what did it mean? My answer was: “Oh, that’s just a reminder to me that I want what my words say I believe to be consistent with what my actions say I believe.”

Pastoral Care is primarily relational. It looks to what is happening in the relationships between and among people, between people and their surroundings, between a person’s visible self and the hidden self, between the individual and the community, and between the individual and/or community with the divine.

  • It may be exercised in helping people meet practical needs,
  • Or in helping people identify the sources of help.
  • It may help to create an atmosphere where marginalized or isolated people can find a sense of belonging.
  • It may offer experiences where people find meaning for their lives.
  • It may offer people a way to discover the fun and not just the seriousness in religious activities.
  • It may happen with no overt religious references at all.
  • The list is endless.

Rwanda might be considered an extreme example of a traumatized community. Not only have the people been traumatized by violence, but without recognizing better options, they turn to “self-medicating by addictive substances and behaviors. The ministers and priests are on the front lines of what must be difficult work. They need tools, support, encouragement, and a healthy grounding to maintain balance in their vital work.

While I am glad to go there to teach and support them, our own communities are often traumatized as much. We could name weather events, shootings, wildfires, and many other crisis situations that traumatize us. But sometimes the traumatization is more subtle. It overwhelms us slowly and with subtlety. It has been argued by many that our radical American individuality isolates us from relationship, arbitrarily determining our value by how much we earn or how many times we “win.”

I have come to define trauma as “external circumstances overwhelming internal resources.”

Pastoral care helps strengthen internal resources, while at the same time, identifying and trying to address the culturally embedded external forces that weigh on us.

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