A single parent, Deborah recalls that during her first month as pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Western Pennsylvania, she performed nine funerals, four of which related to a boating accident. Already weary from moving across country to a new parsonage and getting to know a new congregation, Deborah knew that she soon would be spiritually and relationally depleted if she did not take time for self-care and personal and professional support. She asked her recently retired parents to come visit for two weeks to help her organize the house, cook meals, and care for her ten-year-old son. She also called her regional judicatory official for a referral to a spiritual director who would help her stay “spiritually grounded during this time of congregational crisis and personal stress.” In addition, she also sought out the spiritual and professional counsel of two experienced women pastors in the area. Several years later, Deborah still meets regularly with her spiritual director and has become close friends with the colleagues she initially called upon for nurture and support during this critical time.
Thankfully, the majority of our pastoral care encounters are not as fraught with complex congregational and community dynamics of grief and loss as what Deborah faced. Most encounters typically relate to ongoing issues of illness, personal growth, relationships, self-discovery, trauma, and bereavement. While these pastoral care issues are not as dramatic as unexpected deaths and diagnoses of life-threatening illness, they require just as much pastoral sensitivity and healing care, because every crisis is unique to those who are in the midst of it. Every crisis is a spiritual emergency in which the care of a sensitive and professional pastor can make the difference between hope and hopelessness, courage and cowardice, and responsibility and helplessness. Indeed, one of our tasks as pastors is to present images of hope and new life to people for whom, at the moment, the future appears bleak and uncertain.
Holistically practicing the presence of God in ministry enables us to prepare and to respond to various dramatic and ongoing pastoral care crises. A life devoted to prayerful attentiveness to God’s lively presence in our bodies as well as our minds opens us to unexpected guidance in responding with care and sensitivity to unexpected deaths, traumatic situations of grief and loss, and life-threatening illnesses among our congregants. Such prayerful awareness also enables spiritual leaders to minister patiently and creatively with chronic issues of mind, body, emotion, and spirit. Each encounter can be a potential theophany—a moment when God appears to us within the guise of another’s physical and emotional pain. God is here, embodied in your life and the one with whom you are ministering, giving you insights into ways you can respond in a healing way.
Process-relational theologian Bernard Loomer believed that size or stature was among the most essential spiritual and theological virtues. According to Loomer, spiritual and theological stature involves our ability to embrace as much of reality as possible, including contrast and contradiction, and joy and depression, without losing our personal center. Stature is not just a matter of our ability to entertain a variety of theological perspectives. It involves our openness to experiencing another person’s emotional life by opening to their body as well as their emotions as reflective of the dynamic interplay of pain and healing.
A person of professional and spiritual stature can embrace stories of pain and hopelessness, let go of the need to fix situations, accept others’ anger and anguish, and even unbelief, while maintaining an open heart and a non-anxious presence. Pastors become God’s healing partners when we follow the way of Jesus; we grow in wisdom and stature through integrating holistic spiritual practices and theological reflection with pastoral care skills in responding to the realities of trauma, bereavement, chronic illness, mental health issues, sickness, and death.
Spiritual stature involves the dynamic interplay of radical acceptance and healing intentionality. On the one hand, radical acceptance involves empathetically identifying with the experiences of others and claiming our own experiences as completely as possible without judgment, fear, or revulsion, while remaining grounded and aware of our authentic responses to these experiences. In pastoral care, radical acceptance is anything but passive. To listen completely to another and claim the fullness of your own experience in response requires tremendous effort and focus. On the other hand, healing intentionality enables us to see our presence in every pastoral encounter as a crucible for creative and healing transformation. The lively interplay of radical acceptance and healing intentionality in pastoral care joins the virtues of contemplation and action, listening and responding, letting go and moving forward, and fluidity and boundary keeping that are characteristic of God’s holy adventure in our lives.
Growing in wisdom and stature is a theological as well as a spiritual issue that beckons us to experience God’s overarching lure toward healing and wholeness in all things and, in particular, God’s ever-present, lively healing possibilities in every situation of need and brokenness. Because of God’s constant and graceful lure toward creative transformation, we can trust that God will provide a way when there is no way, both for us and for those to whom we minister. As pastoral care givers trusting this ever-present healing force, we are comforted and guided in such a way that we realize we are never alone, nor are the people who come to us in all their pain, anger, and uncertainty. God’s acceptance, affirmation, and possibility encircle and embrace pastor and congregant alike.
Pastoral care also deals with those unfixable events of life, whether dramatic or chronic, that force both pastors and parishioners to face their limits, vulnerability, and mortality. Just as the pastor’s calling to be a spiritual guide inspires his own commitment to spiritual growth through practices of prayer and meditation, the pastor’s call to share in people’s vulnerability and pain calls her to face squarely her own experiences of brokenness, pain, hopelessness, grief, and mortality.
Fear often comes in many disguises. The senior pastor of a midsized, multigenerational congregation, Ed found himself dragging his feet or delegating hospital visits to the associate pastor whenever the hospitalized person was someone with a life-threatening illness. One day his associate asked him point blank, “Why don’t you ever visit people with cancer? Do you have a problem with death?” As he reflected on his colleague’s remark, he realized that he was still grieving his father’s unexpected death from pancreatic cancer several years earlier. “I really hadn’t given myself a chance to grieve when my father died,” Ed admitted. “I was asked to conduct his funeral and a week after his death, there were two deaths from cancer in my congregation and I felt that I needed to be present at the deathbed and in comforting the family. I guess I just shut down emotionally. I was there in body but not in spirit. I guess I’ve been shut down ever since. I never realized that I may have short-circuited my own tears and grief.” Following this realization, Ed chose to enter counseling not just to support his pastoral ministry but also to claim the whole range of emotions that he had been suppressing as a result of unhealed grief. When we suppress or deny one area of our
emotional life, the whole range of our emotional life suffers.
After a few months, Ed noted, “Now I can feel joy again, and I’m beginning to minister with a whole heart. I feel comfortable with tears and laughter, even my own, when I am responding to families facing a loved one’s impending or recent death. I am grateful that my associate was courageous enough to share his insights.”
Healthy interdependence, grounded in the recognition that we live in a dynamic web of relationships, palpably strengthens us and reminds us that we are all in this together. We have come to realize that within the body of Christ, there is no ultimate distinction between giver and receiver, healthy and sick, pastor and layperson, caregiver and patient. When we face our own vulnerability and fear embraced by God’s faithful companionship and the gifts of faithful friends and communities, we discover strength in our weakness and grace in our vulnerability. As we open prayerfully to God’s inspiring and comforting companionship, our wounds become the media of God’s healing touch to other vulnerable people.
Adapted from Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry.
Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
Four Seasons of Ministry serves as a guide for what you will find on your ministerial journey and gives meaning to the routine and repetitive tasks of ministry. Authors Bruce and Katherine Epperly invite clergy to see their ministries in the present as part of a lifelong adventure in companionship with God, their loves ones, and their congregations.
All For God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork
by Louis B. Weeks
Nobody likes scutwork, the unwanted dregs of the working day. However, it is through focused attention to the details of scutwork that pastors are able to build solid relationships within the congregation, and without the trust that comes from these relationships, no true pastoral care and leadership is possible. All for God’s Glory explores ways in which churches are engaged and can engage in practices of administration that deepen care and build a healthy congregational community.
Cross-Shaped Leadership: On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice
by John A. Berntsen
For Lutheran pastor John Berntsen, those who lead are subject to the cross no le
ss than others. Cross-shaped leaders are not primarily the providers of master plans, nor are they master builders. Cross-shaped leadership is provisional, contextual, and fallible—an open-ended ministry that is always under construction and revision. Our moment-by-moment functioning in ministry is subject to countless deaths and resurrections, few of which are heroic or glorious. But Berntsen offers hope and challenge in the midst of the rough and tumble of parish practice.
The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles
by Timothy C. Geoffrion
Designed for pastors, executives, administrators, managers, coordinators, and all who see themselves as leaders and who want to fulfill their God-given purpose, The Spirit-Led Leader addresses the critical fusion of spiritual life and leadership for those who not only want to see results but also desire to care just as deeply about who they are and how they lead as they do about what they produce and accomplish. Geoffrion creates a new vision for spiritual leadership as partly an art, partly a result of careful planning, and always a working of the grace of God.
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