Back in seminary, Professor Hoeft taught a lesson about proactive pastoral care. Proactive pastoral care is basically approaching a person without invitation, offering care when they have not expressed a desire or need for it themselves. Visiting nursing home bound people falls into this category. So would calling a person whom you had heard through the grapevine was “having a hard time,” maybe a personal struggle or dealing with a family member’s issues. Calling someone “just to check in” or “see how things are going,” for example.
This kind of unsolicited care can be very meaningful and fruitful ministry. I understand that. The pastor who does a lot of proactive pastoral care is probably well-loved and highly thought of by the congregation. It really is a self-sacrificial kind of ministry, and a truly wonderful calling to fulfill. There are boundaries to observe, certainly, but when done with integrity and respect, it’s all good.
But here’s the rub: Having said all that, I cannot be a proactive pastoral care giver, or at least I haven’t been over the past seven years of my ministry. In truth, there is no way I personally can invest any more time and energy into ministry than I am already doing without coming completely unwound. All of the pastoral care I am able to do is responsive, not proactive. My pastoral care is responding to hospitalizations, people who call, write, or come by my study with issues to discuss, premarital counseling, being present with families upon the death of a loved one, and other situations in which I am contacted with a care request.
I truly treasure these care-giving opportunities as sacred moments of trust and Christian conversation, and I feel my calling to ministry fulfilled when I engage them. But when I add to that the time and energy of worship planning, sermon writing, Bible study prep, Sunday School lesson prep, administrative responsibilities, staff and leader training, etc. my work life is filled to the brim. Then I balance personal spiritual growth and family time into all of that mix, too.
Here’s the way we deal with the situation here in Northtown – we have abandoned the myth that the only person who can do proactive pastoral care is the pastor. Oh, there are some who are still caught in the mindset that says “If the pastor hasn’t visited me, I haven’t been visited.” But by and large this remarkable congregation takes care of one another. We have a dedicated group of Stephen Ministers. We have a compassionate Associate Pastor for Visiting Ministries. We have a Director of Lay Ministries who keeps tabs on things with amazing grace and patience. And, most important, we have a bunch of people who really love each other and know how important it is to care for one another in times of need.
So, there is proactive pastoral care happening, it’s just not me doing it! People are visited, cared for, loved. They stay connected to each other. Sometimes someone “falls through the cracks,” so to speak, meaning that occasionally we lose track of a person who hasn’t been around for a while. But that is definitely the exception, rather than the rule. And how lucky am I to serve a congregation who “gets it” with regard to this issue? I am the “responsive” pastoral care giver; the church themselves are the “proactive” care givers.
That seems to be a pretty healthy arrangement. I wonder if any of you readers have thoughts based on your pastoral care experiences in other congregations. Please feel free to share in the comments.