Pastoral care sits at the center of our vocation as ministers. In addition to preaching and leading worship, celebrating the sacraments, and shepherding souls, we care for the sick, and we counsel the anxious, the fearful, and the grieving. But as pastors, to honor and revere and care for others is to be affected by the care that we give. We gathered four practitioners of pastoral care to reflect on the inherent challenges of this aspect of ministry.
Lindsay Rich is pastor of congregational care and faith development at SouthPark Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Ronnie Martin is lead pastor of Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio, and cohost of CT’s The Art of Pastoring podcast with Jared Wilson.
Toni Kim is a former pastor who now serves as a spiritual director, nonprofit administrator, and board member. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Derek McNeil is a psychologist and president of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.
CT's editor in chief Daniel Harrell, a former pastor, moderated this discussion.
This article has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full conversation at this link.
I’ve always held that the best pastoral care does not aim to fix a crisis so much as to frame a crisis within the cross of Jesus. In your experience, how can we help the people we are caring for see God in what is happening in their lives?
Martin: If you’re somebody who preaches the Cross, it confronts some of the complexities of our comforts. And it confronts those complexities with the sobriety of our suffering Savior. We all face fragility. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said. The Cross frames our crises by adjusting our expectations. How will I face the inevitable without blaming God, without seeing him as unkind, or without just believing I deserve better and I’m entitled to something beyond what Jesus even experienced?
Kim: We serve a God who suffered. I do frame crises within the cross of Jesus, but I also frame the cross of Jesus within the larger story of redemption and resurrection. Isaiah 53 says of the prophesied suffering servant, “He will see the light of life and be satisfied.” Tragedy and trauma are part of Jesus’ story, but just as his suffering would redeem, so also our suffering can be redeeming.
So one of the things I try to do is to dignify the depth of a crisis but also to frame it as only one part of who that person is. Trauma or tragedy is an important part of a person’s story, but not the defining part. We are defined, ultimately, as beloved by God and, specifically, beloved by a God whose own suffering was just a part of his story.
One of the strangest aspects of the gospel is the Cross as the supreme expression of God’s love. It’s rare that we see suffering in that vein, but this is exactly what the gospel calls us into.
Rich: Yes. The churches where I’ve served have predominantly been white, evangelical, and younger where many have not had significant experiences of suffering. Their theology tends toward a triumphant Jesus, one formed by some of the popular songs like Elevation Worship’s “See a Victory”—as if God knows only how to triumph. But where does that leave you when you have a child with a chronic illness or your business is going under and your marriage is struggling? For me, pastoral care often means helping people develop a more robust theology of suffering. Platitudes don’t cut it when life is falling apart. We need something with grit. We need to know our hope doesn’t wash out with the rain. Pastoral care is giving people permission and encouraging them to wrestle with some of life’s bigger questions, sometimes for the first time as they deal with a major trauma or loss.
On that point, sometimes this sort of pastoral care needs to happen when life is too good or too easy, because we will all suffer loss at some point.
Martin: I think we do our people a disservice if we wait for suffering to happen before we address it. We live in a culture where we want to keep things positive—a “best life now” theology. But we have to prepare people for the trouble Jesus said is going to come. There’s a tendency to want to back away from that because it makes us vulnerable. We’re unsure of what people are going to think about us if we talk about suffering not as an if but as a when.
We have a good precedent for this in the life of Christ. If we constantly point people to Jesus and his suffering, then it gives us an incredible and hopeful way of talking to them about their suffering without cynicism or hopelessness. Jesus’ suffering creates an incredible culture of hope, so that when suffering does eventually come, it’s not anything they’ll be incredibly surprised by or shocked to the point of disillusionment and questioning God’s goodness or their own faith.
McNeil: Sometimes we think of suffering as an individual commodity. Maybe we need to think about the collective nature of suffering—that there are people suffering all around us. In other words, if I’m doing okay, if my things are going well, if those things that matter to me are functioning, then I tend not to look and see that I’m linked to other people.
But how might we begin to perceive Christ through the suffering of others? It is not just on the cross where we see suffering. We also see suffering around us that might actually help us to engage with what the Cross means, not in the abstract, but in a profound, feel-it-in-our-body sort of way—that sort of knot in your chest or that pit of your stomach. Ours is a wonderful story of redemption in Christ. From death can come life. How do we actually invite people into relationships with others who are struggling and suffering?
From my own experience, I know that we pastors are often subject to messiah complexes. We want to help; we want to be a hero. But, as John the Baptist reminds us, we are not the Christ. In this vein, what are some of the pitfalls of pastoral care? Or the boundaries to which pastors should most critically attend?
Kim: The pitfalls are many. One broad category for these pitfalls is the pride that leads to isolation. When you’re the one consistently dispensing advice, it becomes easy to think that you know all the right answers. But pastors need humility. Eugene Peterson wrote an article called “Teach Us to Care and Not to Care” that formed how I approach pastoral care. The phrase is from a T. S. Eliot poem called Ash Wednesday. Peterson contrasts two other poems that Eliot wrote, The Waste Land and then, after his conversion, the Four Quartets. In The Waste Land, God is dead. There’s nothing good. There’s not even sin. There’s just dead. Need is sovereign there. But in the Four Quartets, the world is a rose garden, and no need is sovereign because God is sovereign. God is an active, loving gardener, and he’s at work.
In The Waste Land, there are no limits because there’s a desperation to your work. You have to take care of this and go take care of that because there’s nothing there except for you and your ability to meet needs. But in a rose garden, you have to be careful because you don’t want to trample on the roses and interfere in what the gardener is doing. Christ is the gardener, and we must be careful to listen and recognize what he is already doing and further his work and not our own.
Rich: Our desire to be heroes creeps up on us. It starts out with well-intentioned desires to help, but then we slip into thinking of ourselves as the hope of the world rather than Jesus. Sometimes our congregations want us to be Jesus for them too. Our souls aren’t really created for fame and don’t always thrive in that situation, but people push us up onto pedestals—as with Old Testament Israel’s desire for a king. Sometimes we just have too much influence.
McNeil: For each parishioner, there’s a different set of expectations, along with our own challenge of How do I boundary myself? How do I mange my own needs to be important and feel important and significant and helpful? It’s kind of a cumulative effect. I don’t think people start off feeling overwhelmed, but increasingly, the pulls from parishioners and life’s challenges and conflicts well up and wear out those of us who want to show care and give care to people.
Martin: We sometimes believe people won’t be able to function without us. I think that’s insidious and directly related to the sin in the Garden—wanting to be the ones in control, wanting to be God, believing that God has no other means of help and healing than what we provide.
Limitations are a gracious thing. They allow us to rest physically, emotionally, spiritually. Limitations guard against narcissism, which is a huge issue in pastoral ministry. Boundaries remind people that they shouldn’t look to us as their functional saviors. We can do little things to create good boundaries. We can book appointments out—everything doesn’t have to be that day or the next day. We don’t need to attend every church function. We can let our people know that there are others who are able and available to minister to them. We can delegate better, equip other leaders, relax our death grip on the pulpit. We were never meant to be all things to all people, but we’re meant to repent for trying.
Rich: We talk about boundaries as a means to protect ourselves, but boundaries protect other people as well.
Martin: I think the tendency in all of us is we want to elevate ourselves and be seen as pastors worthy of our paychecks. We feel pressure to say, “Look how valuable I am, at what I contribute.” I don’t want you to think I might not add up to your vision of me. We’re too concerned about people’s perceptions rather than just doing the good work God has given us.
Kim: Too many of us feel the need to be needed, and we feed upon the crises people bring. John the Baptist said, “I must decrease, and he must increase.” We have to decrease ourselves and then increase Jesus by teaching others to pray and trust our Lord, who knows everything and can direct your path. By doing so, we help people see our limits but then see the limitlessness of God.
McNeil: We have to be more self-aware. Some of this desire to be a rescuer or savior often comes from people’s families of origin—much earlier than even our vocation or other choices. Our conversations with God and our calling and our sense of “Who am I?” need to occur in community. There are going to be blind spots if we attempt to be self-aware by ourselves. We need to seek out mentors and peers who might hold us accountable. I have important friends who can challenge me and say, “Is that really true?” When I start to feel like I’m responsible to be in charge and tell other people what to do, I have peers outside my institution say, “That may not be the best way to approach that. That may not be the most helpful way to think about that.”
Martin: There’s a lot of misplaced guilt in our calling. We don’t allow ourselves to be human beings and model the pastoral schedule we see from Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus took a nap. Jesus would pause for an afternoon break for a drink served to him from a Samaritan woman. It’s all these little things that we have to allow ourselves. Prayer against misplaced guilt can keep us from burnout, from frustration, and from be-
ing embroiled in some dangerous, disqualifying sins.
In ministry, we must ask ourselves, Can I trust God to care for individuals and communities better than I can? I remember pastoral care situations when I’d offer a prayer and say “Amen,” and I felt like, That’s all I’ve got—as if that somehow was not enough. I like the picture of Jesus taking a nap in the boat during that most tumultuous moment, as the boat is capsizing on the sea and the disciples are freaking out about drowning. It’s as if Jesus seems to wonder, Can you wake me up for something serious? His restful trust—that’s really something significant for us to ponder in terms of our own care of others.
Is there anything else you feel is critical for pastors to think and pray about in terms of the impact providing pastoral care has on pastors themselves?
Martin: We must remember to have compassion on ourselves. God is not upset with us, disillusioned and angry at our lack of productivity. I know how much compassion the Father has on me. My people need to know that too.
Rich: Many of us got into pastoring because we recognize the goodness of God and his compassion for people. But we have a hard time applying that compassion to ourselves.
McNeil: How do we care for ourselves and have grace for ourselves? We need community to do this well. I don’t have to be an ideal self in a way that presumes others’ disappointment if I’m not what I have internally decided I must be for them. We need to train our congregations too. With all the external, stressful things we bring into church, how do we have grace for each other? How do we have grace for our pastors?