The Dying Art of Pastoral Care


I may have said this before, but I think pastoral care is a dying art.

The evidence for this is overwhelming, at least from my vantage point. Seminaries demand multiple years of attention to developing skill and knowledge in exegesis, languages, hermeneutics, and preaching, but I doubt if most require more than a semester devoted to pastoral care issues such as counseling and crisis management. I’m thankful that at Yale Divinity School I was able to focus my attention on this area, and that it offered several different courses on pastoral care and counseling to different groups. I had a great deal of freedom to do this in that I was not tied to denominational requirements. I didn’t take any languages because I never saw myself as an exegete to that degree. However most of the other students there were following programs to meet their respective denominations’ requirements. In some cases this required a semester of pastoral care or CPE, but I don’t know if that was across the board.

When did ministry become an academic exercise, focused primarily on sermon writing and exegesis? When did ministry become a business for that matter? When did pastoral care become something that only happens in a couple marriage counseling sessions or when talking with a family about what songs or scriptures they want at their dad’s funeral? When did pastoral care get assigned to lay volunteer prayer and care groups, who may get little if any training or support beyond a space and time to meet at the church? When did clergy become too busy managing the church to provide care to the people in that church?

I say this knowing that there are plenty of good ministers who are also very good in the area of pastoral care.  I know clergy that have dropped everything to make a visit to someone they may not even know. I know also that ministers’ time is taxed to the n’th degree and that competing demands often mean that something gets left behind. I am still always a bit dumbfounded though whenever I reach out to another minister to help someone and I’m met with a cold response. I remember being told by a clergyman, after I asked him to see a dying patient, that he would do it this one time but that I should have thought of this earlier and that it wasn’t his responsibility. Last week I called another to come see a dying patient at home. After several tries to reach him I was told that he was very busy with meetings and that he wouldn’t be able to go out for two weeks. This was for a patient who lived about two miles from the church. Please excuse me if I sound jaded.

Pastoral care tends now to be outsourced to professional counselors and lay groups. In the best of situations these groups are trained and supported by the head pastor. These groups can do a world of good, and are necessary even if the pastor is a good caregiver. One person often can’t meet the care needs of an entire congregation. Some clergy are simply not good at care and need to pass that responsibility on to others. However this cannot simply be a “that’s not my job because I’m not good at it” scenario. Care is part of the role of the pastor, and it is not a minor one.

I wish all ministers would see that Christ’s call to “care for my sheep” doesn’t involve making really awesome exegetical or theological references along with a smattering of funny cultural references in a four-point sermon Sunday morning. It’s not telling us to create an awesome worship experience or to upgrade our A/V equipment. It’s telling us that caring for others is part of our job – a necessary part. It’s something that we all need to take seriously if we call ourselves disciples of Jesus and emulators of his ministry on earth. We are called to preach Christ crucified, but we need to remember that to those we come in contact with that we are Christ crucified to them.  Jesus preached and taught, but it seems in the gospels that he spent the majority of his time simply caring for people.

When did we lose that?

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2 thoughts on “The Dying Art of Pastoral Care

  1. I understand your complaint. While nothing is as simple as a single cause, I think much of it is that we practice the way we were taught. If our seminary curriculum clearly valued Biblical scholarship and devalued or tolerated pastoral care training, seminary graduates are likely to carry the same values into their practice. You and I were fortunate to go to a seminary which at least semi-valued clinical training but that is still very rare. And clergy are not alone here, I know a lot of physicians and even nurses who make the same kind of claims about/against medical and nursing schools. “Science” is all that is valued. Fortunately, some of this is changing in medical education where aspiring doctors have to interview and examine actors playing patients and are graded not only on the science but also on their “bedside manner”. What is the same kind of “exam” were mandatory in seminaries? That is, you couldn’t graduate unless you were able to demonstrate that you could “care” for an actor/congregant? And the actor/congregant gave the grade. As I said, we practice the way we are taught. Thanks for raising this

    • Thanks so much for your comments. As you point out it’s difficult to pin a simple, single cause down. I think overall the vision of what a minister is has become narrowed to minimize the care aspect in deference to the more concrete areas including preaching and theological training. This vision is cast not only by the seminary but also by the congregations themselves. I remember some years ago that my sister asked me what seminaries and schools their pastoral search committee should look at so they got someone that is theologically on board with where they are. I told her just to find someone who wasn’t a jerk like their last one.

      Whenever I do come across a minster that is caring and responsive to their congregation’s subjective emotional/spiritual needs I thank them profusely.

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