But we have food to offer

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17, NIV)

I was reading in one of my pastoral care books that the point of pastoral care is not to solve people’s problems. This was a theme of my CPE experience this summer as well. We are told that when we encounter a person in spiritual and emotional pain our job is not to do anything but to be with them. Don’t try to solve their problem. Don’t try to fix them.

Of course, this advice is always offered with the assurance that “just being present” is actually doing something for them. Being there is actually doing something, but it is a kind of doing that is acceptable.

I understand the caution against running in and blindly imposing some sort of “fix” on people. I get that we at times try to “help” people when our real motive is to reduce our own discomfort with their suffering. I understand all that and appreciate the counsel to avoid such things.

But I remain unconvinced about the general stance of passivity in pastoral care. I have two primary reactions. First, it feels like it is born out of the sense that we don’t have anything to offer people who are in spiritual and emotional pain. The best we can do is be with them and affirm their experience. I just don’t buy that. We have Jesus and the gospel. Or rather Jesus has us. And since I believe this, my second concern is that taking the passive empathy approach feels like the person James writes about in the quotation at the top of this post. We have food. If we tell a spiritually hungry person, “I feel your pain. Bless you.” are we not falling afoul of James’ teaching?

I got my knuckles gently whacked in CPE this summer more than once for not being able to let go of these ideas. My new pastoral care book notices that such attitudes are the signs of an inexperienced pastoral care provider. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll grow wiser with more experience.

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4 thoughts on “But we have food to offer

  1. I’ll be doing CPE in a few months, so I’m glad to be forewarned of the expectations. I was told that the purpose of CPE is to develop self-awareness in pastoral care situations, but that shouldn’t rule out the possibilities of bringing words that comfort the afflicted or help redirect spiritually unhealthy thought patterns. As long as we’re continuously examining our own motives in how we care for others, I agree that pastoral care is potentially impotent if it is never more than a listening ear.

    1. I think different settings have different expectations. I’m sure my CPE supervisor would probably say “words of comfort” and redirection are not bad.

      The self-awareness piece is a big focus.

      The pluralistic ethos of the hospital setting (where I did CPE) made it a poor fit for me and my sense of what pastoral care entails. It was a valuable experience, but I do not see myself as a hospital chaplain in the future.

  2. After 30 years of pastoral experience, I think you are right on target, John. After all, Wesley charged his followers to “offer them Christ.” If (in the old saying) evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, we do have something to offer. And we can often make a material difference in people’s lives by providing practical help. We need to guard against the things you mention, including imposing our ideas of a “fix” on someone who doesn’t want it. But to reduce pastoral care to Rogerian empathy alone is to miss the mark.

  3. I agree with Tom. CPE trains people to be ministers in INSTITUTIONAL settings. Chaplains may only rarely evangelize. I believe the prominence of CPE training for UM pastors has carried over into the parishes of pastors who went through it. Too many pastors have insulated themselves from the needs of their community and even their own church members because of this training. I know I WAS deluded into thinking that LISTENING was often enough. Sometimes, truly caring about a person means reaching into your OWN pocket (not just the pastor’s discretionary fund), to pay an electric bill, or meet a desperate need. Instead of remembering your CPE training, ask “what would Jesus do” and you will have a better guideline for Christian action,

    (BTW–I LOVED my 5 units of CPE training and did very well with it. In the long run, though, I think it damaged my pastoral ministry.)

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