Pastoral Care Should Punch Us In The Face

Sometimes good pastoral care feels like a punch in the face, both for pastors and for individuals, those whose souls pastors are faithfully trying to save.

The idea that a pastor would sometimes say uncomfortable things and impose discipline is foreign to many congregations today, but that is because for more than a generation we in church leadership have promoted the pastor-as-life-coach model while never talking about the hard road and the narrow gate that leads to salvation. Our parishes need priests today who are neither life coaches nor “middle managers for the Lord.” Our parishes need priests who are pastors, shepherds of souls who care more about the salvation of their people than about making people happy or advancing their careers.


Pastoral care should punch us in the face

I am not entirely sure when pastoral became a synonym for nice, but it was already the case when I was in seminary a decade ago. Classes on “pastoral care” focused on things like how to run vestry meetings and how to avoid conflicts. When parishes put together profiles for the priest they want, pastoral is a word that often comes up. The expectation seems to be that a pastoral priest is someone kind and easy to talk to who is highly affirming. This pastor-as-life-coach model of ministry has become dominant in the American Church, and it is killing our congregations.

Of course, Murphy’s Ecclesiastical Law dictates that whenever something terrible catches on in the life of the Church, there is an equal if not more stupid backlash. Enter the Church Growth movement with its emphasis on transforming the work of the pastor into a series of managerial tasks.

“If pastors could figure out how to better tackle the issue of pastoral care, I’m convinced many more churches would grow,” says Carey Nieuwhof in a blog post last month that has been shared more than four thousand times. Nieuwhof says that pastors are spread too thin trying to attend to every tragedy, meet with every family, and handle every baptism or wedding. His solution? Get a team of lay people to do all that stuff while you work on management and leadership development instead.

If a church is going to grow, congregations have to let go of the expectation that their pastor will be available for every medical emergency, every twist and turn in their lives, every family celebration and every crisis.

Nieuwhof is not entirely wrong in his diagnosis, but he severely misses the mark in his attempt at a cure. Small churches do expect the wrong kind of pastoral care from their ordained leaders. The problem, however, is not that people want their pastors to be present in their lives but that they have an unformed sense of what to expect from their pastors. The burnout that so many clergy experience from being stretched thin by what gets called pastoral care often has very little to do with actual, genuine pastoring.

As I wrote a few months ago, the apostle Paul, pastor par excellence, teaches us that pastoral care is primarily about being faithful in the transmission of the Gospel. This means preaching the good news of forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ and celebrating the sacraments by which that grace is received. In our heads, many of us who go into ministry picture this looking a certain way. We imagine ourselves preaching to rooms full of people when in fact much of our work takes place in much smaller and less glamorous settings, in hospital rooms, in people’s homes for pastoral visits, and in the office with couples preparing for marriage or with families preparing to say goodbye to a loved one.

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