Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The demise of pastoral care. . .

I have served on the board of the Pastoral Counseling Center of Clarksville for more than 12 years, half of it as its chairman.  Recently there was a move to change the name.  The reason for the name change was the belief that the word “Pastoral” no longer communicated well with the public.  It was the first time I had considered the idea that once universal terms like “Pastoral” were not effective.  I wonder if the same is true of the whole concept of  “Pastoral Care”.

While we all know what it means, coming up with a succinct definition is not as easy as it seems.  Like the Supreme Court and pornography, we may not be able to define it but we know it when we see it.  The roots of the terminology go back to the early church.  There it was called cura animarum – care of the soul.  Lutherans found it hard to translate and so we adopted a German word into English to describe it – Seelsorge.

Complicating our history is the modern move from the term Pastoral and its context within the Church to a more generalized “spiritual care” that does not require clergy and can be provided just as effectively by lay people.  This spiritual care is not necessarily about Christ or His grace of forgiveness and life but about the person, their happiness, and their overall health.  The modern day program of Stephen’s Ministers certainly highlights this shift to a pastoral care which can be provided without a pastor.  In addition, the focus away from the centrality of forgiveness and its focus upon Law and Gospel to the general health of people and from a priestly model to a psychological one has left both providers and receivers confused about what pastoral care really is.  Instead of being uniquely focused upon God and His gifts and shaped within the dimensions of Law and Gospel, this spiritual care is ultimately focused upon the individual and defined by the individual’s own wants, desires, and happiness.

A troubled soul is not a psychological assessment or diagnosis.  Faith does not guarantee health or healing (physical, emotional, or mental).  Health does not eliminate sin.  The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, put it this way: amid the clinical trends in contemporary pastoral guidance, the pastor will need to keep alive the permanent issues of sin and forgiveness.  To be healthy and to be whole is not a substitute for being penitent, forgiven, and holy.  He recognized that the trend to steal pastoral care from the church and institutionalize it as part of the medical or psychological domain must be countered by a more aggressive and focused pastoral care from the pastor.  This happens when we rightfully reclaim confession of sin and absolution to be at the center of what pastoral care are all about and when we resist the temptation to make it about psychology, diagnosis, and healing.  Pastors are bridges to the very mystery of God through the means of grace.  Pastoral care is not about good advice but the counsel of God's Word and its goal the full restoration of the individual to his or her full life within the assembled community around Word and Table.

Psychology and the scientific study of religious experience became as central to pastoral care as Scripture, the liturgy, and the sacramental life of the church.  In fact, worship and the liturgy were seen as antagonistic at worst or indifferent at best to the pastoral care of the individual.  Pastoral care was directed not to the community but always to the individual and the emphasis on the personal dimension.  The church, on the other hand, was more likely seen as rigid, intolerant, moralistic, and repressive of sexual desire and personal autonomy.  The path shifted from the goal of salvation to self-actualization and the topics from doctrine and practice to sentiment, reason, volition, and tolerance.

Pastoral care has also functioned as a method of firefighting in the church  – soothing those upset, reconciling those offended, preventing problems, and otherwise handling issues of conflict, anger, and dispute.  These things are much on the rise and some have suggested that these occupy the lion’s share of both the pastor’s time and the job of the District President.  Whether or not this is true, we all recognize that church conflict and individual Christians in conflict have consumed an inordinate amount of the time and energy of the church and have not exactly had a subtle influence on the goals and expectations of pastoral care.

Yet it is exactly Pastoral Care that is most needed today.  Pastoral care rooted in the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament, shaped by the focus of daily repentance and the renewal of private confession and absolution, toward the goal of enabling us to fulfill our baptismal vocation of worship, witness, intercession, mercy, and service...  Pastoral care which does not confuse psychological health with repentance or physical health and happiness as the goal of this ministry...  Pastoral care which speaks the Word of God to the troubled soul, carefully distinguishing Law and Gospel while seeking to restore the person to a state of grace and the promised rest that is the fruit of this rest in Christ...

When I was in Seminary one small course covered every parish eventuality -- from what to do if a two headed baby was presented for baptism to how to make a sick call.  I did not learn much about pastoral care from that one class.  When I was on vicarage, my bishop saw himself a counselor and spent well over than half his time in private counseling with individuals.  I preached twice weekly, served as organist for one of the three Sunday services and its liturgist, made most of the hospital calls, taught catechism, and ended up learning this end of pastoral care by doing.  In my first parish, I had a dozen funerals in my first weeks there and learned this element of pastoral care by dealing with dying people and grieving families.  After a while I learned that pastoral care begins with Sunday morning and is not a substitute or an activity disconnected with the Divine Service.  If the Word and Table of the Lord are the center of the church's life, if confession and absolution are the arenas in which we live out our daily repentance, and if we have confidence that the Spirit works through the means of grace, pastoral care is much easier.  Once a wise and cherished member came to me after I had spent an overly abundant amount of time trying to fix all the problems with one family and said You were not called to be a chaplain to individuals or a few families but to shepherd the whole flock of God.  I remain ever in that person's debt.  Yes, pastoral care is focused upon the individual soul and even the family but Lutheran pastoral care never forgets that it flows from and back to the Divine Service, the source and summit of our lives of faith as the Church and individually as members of the same.


Janis Williams said...

Spot on.

Parishioners at least should know what "pastoral" means

I love the short sentence: "Health does not eliminate sin." It would be a huge improvement over most church signs

Timothy C. Schenks said...

We used to have two Sunday Services: 8am and 10:30am. Holy Communion would alternate 1st and 3rd Sundays at 8am and 2nd and 4th Sundays at 10:30am.

When we dropped to one Sunday service at 9am, most of the voters and church officers assumed that we would only have Communion every other Sunday. I was a new member of the board of elders in my late-thirties and probably the youngest member of the voters' assembly by at least fifteen years.

My response was that I'd been alternating my Service times every single week so that I could have the Lord's Supper every Sunday...they were not going to take that away from me! So, we have every-Sunday Communion and I am not sorry that I opposed the majority of the people in this. They were told that we would not vote on this. (Is that impenitence?) :)

Jean said...


Jean said...

^^I just wrote an article, based on my family's experienced, entitled "The demise of pastoral care in Evangelical churches - must pastoral care be earned?" So I came across your article, with essentially the same title.

Well-said, Pastor Peters.