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The Power of Pastoral Care

The Tablet - Mon, Feb 12th 2018

The word “pastoral” has widely lost its power. It is used frequently in churches to mean a nice person, someone easy going, a good listener. “Pastoral care” has readily been elided with models of chaplaincy, rather than say a radical re-engagement with the corporal works of mercy, or a radical prophetic ministry, or good strategic planning. But “pastoral” is a big word. It has deep roots in the theology of the incarnation, and comprehends sacramental ministry, prophetic ministry and evangelisation. And yes, even good strategic planning. What modern handbooks call “conflict management” with all its challenges is certainly a fundamental part of the pastoral ministry of the priest. Just read Gregory the Great to see that.

This does not mean that the “soft” disciplines of pastoral care are unimportant. The priestly ministry of simply being there with people is a critical part of the vocation – in Pope Francis’ striking and widely repeated phrase, “smell like your sheep!”

A priest recently commented to me that what most affected how he preached on a Sunday was who he had visited through the week. Pastoral care does include patterns of regular visiting, the encounters around baptisms, weddings and funerals and so forth. But it is by no means confined to this and fundamentally needs to take seriously that clergy are not chaplains to a gathered community but priests for a parish.

The idea of the priest as the agent of pastoral care is both familiar territory and important – it is part of what clergy do, day in and day out. I would suggest that many clergy could be encouraged to be a bit more proud of this key representative ministry (and, when I say proud, I also of course mean humble!).

It does mean the priest taking on roles as school governor, chair of the community project, director of the food bank. Community advocate, yes, but therefore also someone who has earned the right to that role – visible, accessible, known.

The other week, I was walking through the middle of Chelmsford. A motorist caught at traffic lights rolled down his window and said “Bless me.” So before the traffic moved on, that’s exactly what I did.

When I went home feeling very pleased with myself for this piece of ministry and told my wife about it, she simply replied, “Well, you were just doing your job!” Priest as agent of such encounters is core to the calling.

But equally important is the role of the priest as enabler of pastoral care. This is increasingly important given the developing picture of ministry, but it is also fundamental if churches are to grow.

Any church community above a relatively small size – and many studies suggest that the limit is 120-150 people – is just within the scope of one person in terms of pastoral care, but already seriously stretched.

Above that size, congregational flourishing and some of the essential patterns of pastoral care depend not on the priest as agent but as enabler.

I spent the first 14 years of my ministry leading small inner-city communities, in many ways not viable as established congregations, but extraordinarily prophetic places called deeply to be salt and light in the wider context. For the next 14 years I have served in larger church communities alongside a range of paid staff, both lay and ordained.

Especially in my last parish in Harrogate I realised from the outset that my inherited understanding of pastoral care would be completely inadequate to meet the needs of the congregation, let alone the schools, care homes and networks of the wider community. It became clear that one of my primary roles was to be the enabler of pastoral care for a much wider circle of people.

Six months in, a young woman emerged with a strong sense of a call to developing a pastoral care team. At that point, we barely knew what that might mean. But with advice and models from other parishes, the team developed rapidly.

Soon we had a team of 15 lay pastoral assistants, and out of this grew a whole range of lay teams – the pastoral care team itself, the bereavement support team, the Baptism group, the wedding team – each with different (but overlapping) remits.

In terms of leadership it became clear that if they were to be effective, each of these teams needed to be lay-led. I – or another member of the clergy team – was a member of each team or group, but they were all led by a lay person with the appropriate gifts, organisational skills and calling.

This was absolutely transformative. Yes, the clergy of the parish were still fundamental to both delivery and oversight, and constantly on call for sacramental ministry. But this could be done in the confidence that week by week the sick were visited by people with time and energy, ready to develop all sorts of opportunities and relationships; that Baptism families and the bereaved had a whole range of sustaining and sustained contacts across the worshipping community. When I moved on from Harrogate, I could do so in the absolute confidence that the continuities of pastoral care were intact.

In this context, it is worth noting that the priest as enabler of pastoral care does of course need to be deeply attentive to the pastoral and spiritual care of the team leaders and team members. The regular Wednesday morning prayer group for 30 minutes before the weekday Eucharist was a fundamental focus for prayerful support for all those involved, alongside appropriate patterns of supervision and group accountability.

Just as we expect clergy to practise developed spiritual disciplines because of the ministry they are called to, so in the same way it is critical that lay people involved in active apostolic ministry are nurtured by spiritual disciplines appropriate to their calling.

Above all priest and people together need to be clear that pastoral care as a whole is not simply the offer of compassion, but an invitation to a journey.

It is not a sticking-plaster God that Christians follow – though that has too often been the impression some Christian communities give. Rather it is a God of transformative power whose invitation in pastoral care – whether as agent or enabler – is to lead people from death to life, from slavery to freedom.

Nicholas Henshall is Dean of Chelmsford Cathedral.


To Do

Remember that the “priest as enabler of pastoral care” does need to be deeply attentive to the pastoral and spiritual care of the lay team leaders and team members.

Choose lay leaders with the appropriate gifts, organisational skills and calling.

Be clear that pastoral care as a whole is not simply the offer of compassion, but an invitation to a journey.

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