In August, 1727, John Wesley left Oxford to become his father’s curate (today we’d call him an assistant pastor). His father was an Anglican clergyman and Epworth, where he served, was an impoverished, marshy region of England northeast of London.
Besides Epworth, his father was also responsible for the village of Wroote, an even more desolate place about five rugged miles away. The people of Wroote were illiterate and ill-mannered folk and it was to them that John Wesley was to offer the services of a curate.
So, what was a “curate” to do in such a situation? He was to bring the “cure” of the gospel to them by preaching and teaching (see last week’s posting) and also by listening carefully to their needs and offering gospel remedies. The latter was done often one-on-one or while meeting with a family.
This was pastoral care, anciently called “the care of souls.” The curate’s resources were principally the Scriptures, prayer, and the wisdom of the church passed down through the ages — plus a God-anointed gift of empathy.
The pastor’s role has become much more complex in modern times. Studies show that pastors are pulled in administrative directions to such an extent that the time to share intimately in the spiritual needs of people is greatly reduced. The shepherding aspect of their role deserves a fresh look.
Pastoral care takes its mode from the metaphor of the shepherd and his sheep. “Pastor” and “shepherd” are intimately connected words. Moses was a shepherd of sheep for 40 years before he became a shepherd of God’s chosen people. David learned some of his life skills from his humble shepherding assignment before he became not only king but also shepherd of Israel. And shepherding — delivering pastoral care — is today a key element in the Christian pastor’s task. It interfaces with biblical preaching, often growing out of it.
Pastoral care may take place in a hospital chapel or a patient’s room, a parishioner’s home, even at a church altar. Or it may be in a pastor’s study, at a jail, by means of a letter or in a long telephone conversation. Ideally, it is experienced face-to-face.
Good pastoral care grows out of the rich soil of Scripture and is enhanced by an ability to listen deeply and confidentially. It also is boosted by a pastor’s strong work ethic because this motivates pastors not only to study and preach but to get out to where the needs are. In fact, the true pastor will most typically seek to connect with those needs. By contrast, other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, routinely though not exclusively wait for the needs to be brought to them.
Pastoral care is given primarily by pastors. Therefore, every church, small or large, should make special provision for this service in congregation and community. In addition to the pastor’s service, however, pastoral care on a broader scale is the task of the whole church. The whole congregation is exhorted by Scripture to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
Large churches with an extensive pastoral staff often assign the task of pastoral care to a particular pastor. Yet, even “preaching pastors” should have a few pastoral contacts each week in order to enrich the pastoral quality of their preaching. And the pastoral outreach of a church may also be broadened by the assignment of lay visitors who are trained and whose work complements the work of assigned pastors in visiting shut-ins and long-care patients.
The pastor’s preparation for this important assignment includes training in how to use the Bible in dealing with human needs and perplexities, and a reasonable understanding of the insights gleaned from the social sciences (psychology and sociology).
Pastoral care should have a strong evangelistic component in that pastors develop connections with people who may have no contact with the church. As well, it puts pastors in touch with church adherents who may have reasons that have never been dealt with for their failure to embrace the gospel and received Christ as Lord and Savior.
It is critical in our highly sexualized and emotionally exposed times that pastors establish within themselves a clear awareness of boundaries with their parishioners. Where, for example, are the lines of demarcation in physical proximity when working with staff of the opposite sex, or counseling in marital crises, or home visitation? They should know their limitations in counseling, and how they are to maintain purity in their thought lives. As pastors gain a reputation for integrity in these areas their opportunities for pastoral care reach an ever-widening circle.
Little more than ten years after John Wesley served as a curate in the remote village of Wroote he became known as a preacher to congregations numbering into the thousands. He began to travel broadly, write for the benefit of new converts, and supervise a growing number of lay pastors. However, it is a matter of record that he never ceased seeing one-on-one pastoral care as an element in his ministry.
Read Part Three
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