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.
A question that arises from the first week in an intensive CPE program this summer.
You walk into a hospital room. You meet a man you’ve never seen before and will never see again — in all likelihood — when he leaves the hospital. You are on the staff of the hospital chaplain’s office.
What is your purpose in this encounter? What is your goal? How do you know if you did a good job?
I am quickly discovering in CPE how much of my ministry is tied to the congregation in which it happens. Pastoral care and visiting when it is with people who are connected in some way to the church I serve has a logic to it and purpose that I understand. It is one more facet of an overall ministry with and among a people. It is shaped in important ways by the fact that we worship together. And even when it is with people who do not worship with us, it is shaped by the potential that we may one day share such a community. It is pastoral care that defines care in terms of helping people enter into right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
I find visiting as a chaplain to share little with pastoral visits among my congregations. Perhaps this is a sign that my congregational visits are problematic in some way. Maybe I have not been at CPE long enough yet to see what remains obscure to me.
I wonder how others have experienced this.
Tom Oden in his book Pastoral Theology describes the vocation of a pastor this way:
to know the parish territory, its dangers, its green pastures, its steep precipices, its seasons and possibilities. The pastor leads the flock to spring water and safe vegetation.
This is not the only way he describes the pastoral vocation — and it is worth noting that I do not qualify as a pastor according to his book as I have not been ordained — but it is one that both resonates with me and highlights some of my struggles with our debates in the United Methodist Church.
I am vexed by questions over sexual behavior because I worry about my responsibility to help the people I serve remain safe and to be nourished. I worry about leading them to foul waters and feeding them poisonous herbs rather than life-giving food.
For the better part of 2,000 years, the shepherds who have gone before have pointed to certain inviting pools and warned us that they are not the waters of life, but of death. Now, we are told that the waters they avoided were safe and life-giving all along. The shepherds of the past were wrong. They misunderstood Jesus and the apostles. Drink and be filled.
My prayer is to be a good pastor one day. I seek to learn from the masters of the craft who have come before me. Mostly, I don’t want to lead the sheep to slaughter because I listened to the wrong voices. I want to serve them and help them live as Jesus would have them live.
It would be pastoral malpractice for me to tell the people something is not a sin that is, in fact, one. It would damaging as well to declare something sinful that is not. I am trying to avoid both errors.