The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care (1)

The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care
Part One: The Birth of a Pastor

I have been serving as a hospice chaplain for almost thirteen years now, so my daily work involves visiting those who are in the final season of life, along with their families, friends, and caregivers. Before that, I was in pastoral ministry for about twenty-five years. I did a lot of pastoral care then through visiting folks in their homes and in hospitals and other facilities.

Because I served in mostly evangelical settings, I found I didn’t have the training, the tradition, or the resources for doing pastoral care. In the evangelical world, I found I mainly had a Bible, some hymns, maybe a few devotional resources, and a lot of Christian clichés in my pastoral care toolbox. And I found that the Bible, though I believed it was the best resource available, wasn’t a handbook for what to say to hurting people. I did the best I could, usually quoting a passage from Psalms or something that had encouraged me in my devotional reading.

It wasn’t like Roman Catholic priests, who have an abundance of prayers, liturgies, and rituals at their disposal. It wasn’t like the Episcopalians, who have a resource like the wondrous Book of Common Prayer. Those resources aren’t the Bible but they are infused with Biblical texts, language, metaphors, and imagery, all organized for the minister to access to meet specific needs. Those traditions also have a richer and thicker sacramental theology that I now think the Bible supports, which undergirds the work of caring for people as a pastor. This theology understands providing care in the context of a “divine encounter, “ but I knew little about that at the time.

In my evangelical schooling, the idea of “pastoral care” was effectively non-existent. I went to a Bible college that upheld studying and teaching the Bible and doctrine as the primary task to which a pastor should devote himself. This is what the Bible was and what it was for. It was doctrine and instruction for God’s people, and it should be taught, no matter what the season or circumstance.

On the other hand, I got the idea that routine pastoral visitation like my childhood Methodist ministers did as a regular part of their work, was something only “liberals” or Catholics did. In the view of my teachers, these shepherds had sacrificed truth for love. My profs did not emphasize caring for people, they emphasized teaching people, building people up in the truth, using the Bible to get people to develop correct theology. People didn’t need visits, they needed strong preaching and teaching. The mission was discipleship. The personal and pastoral work of caring for people was greatly deemphasized.

Now, that’s not to say that I and the evangelical pastors I knew didn’t visit people in the hospital, provide support to hurting people and families, or conduct funerals. Life and pain and death has a way of interrupting the minister while he’s in the study trying to prepare that sermon or Bible study. But I have to tell you, we were not well-equipped for that! I guess it was assumed we’d figure it out, that it was just common sense or something.

The first funeral I did was that of a five-month old baby who had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I was all of twenty-two years old, recently married, just recently installed in my first church in a little place on a mountain in Vermont. Five months earlier, in October at my first church board meeting, the father had come to the door to announce the baby’s birth — his firstborn. Then, in March on one of the most miserable weather days I’ve ever seen — a foot of snow on the ground and a cold, icy rain falling — I gathered with the people of the community and conducted a service at the graveside for his little one. To add to this, the father’s family was one of the notable unbelieving clans in our little village. And it was my job to provide pastoral care and words of comfort to them and the rest of the town.

I can’t remember what I said that day, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t have words that were of much lasting value. I can only hope that my own broken heart, a spirit of love toward this family, and perhaps a word of hope and support somehow touched them. What I can tell you is that nothing I had ever learned in Bible college prepared me even remotely for that experience. I found out right away that knowing and teaching the Bible was not all that ministry is about.

That little church, where I served for about five years, gave me experience after experience like that. I recently had the chance to preach there again, and I told the congregation that they were the ones who made me a pastor.  By the time I left there to get my seminary degree, I was still young and lacked a great deal of understanding, but something had changed inside me. The idea of practicing love and exercising pastoral care was beginning to catch up with the concept that had been so ingrained in me — that being a minister was mostly about studying and teaching the Bible.

13 thoughts on “The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care (1)

  1. Dear Chaplain Mike

    The three blog posts The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care provides a valuable lesson for me as a non-professional Bible reader.

    I’ve always admired those who took upon themselves the important task of sharing the Gospel with those who are in Hospitals for one reason or another.

    I see you’ve done this for thirteen years.

    So what were the takeaways for me here?

    First, I learned about the differences operating in evangelical settings versus pastoral care.
    When you said, the Bible “wasn’t a handbook for what to say to hurt people.” I reflected on how many times I’ve used it just as such.

    We do our best until we learn something better.

    This should not hold us back from doing something. Once we’re in the process, we build up a momentum that we can use for learning to do things in a better way.

    Secondly, learned that caring for people is just as important that teaching people. I agree with you on the importance of empathy for those who work professionally in this area.

    Third, I learned something about how a funeral looks like through a pastors eye. It must have been a hard beginning at the age of just 21 to barry the five-month old baby. Us, who are not pastors tend to forget that pastors have exclusive access to many familíes. Pastors are part of the most important events – both the pleasant and unpleasant.

    My favourite part of your blog post was when you say: “nothing I had ever learned in Bible college prepared me even remotely for that experience.”

    When we work for Jesus our Saviour, we learn what he wants us to learn “out in the field.”

    Once again, thank you for sharing these insights with us.

    I’ll give it a share Thursday next week!

    With respect,
    Edna Davidsen


  2. Once again, Oswald Chambers said that ‘when a men affirmed that he knew nothing outside the Bible, it was certain that he knew nothing inside it either.’


  3. even the Bible directs you outward 🙂

    take a look
    from out of the Book of Job, chapter 12:

    But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
    or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
    Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
    In His hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath of all mankind.”


  4. You might say that anyone that gains a broad knowledge of the human condition and can use and or ameliorate the pain of that condition by bringing meaning to it, opening it up to a larger vista, is in the truest sense a minister. In most cases a degree in theology would be a help in that endeavor though it is certainly not a prerequisite. Many years ago when I needed some significant help I went to a “worldly” counselor, a Jewish guy, and he helped me immeasurably. The Bible is my life book. It informs all else for me but to be ‘Bible and Bible only’ is at best dull and fearful and at worst abjectly stupid. Jesus quoted the Scriptures but he more often used illustrations in parables from nature and human nature. He was thoroughly versed in both.


  5. A few years ago I found a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, apparently never used, in a thrift store 50 cent basket. What a treasure! It gave me comfort when praying with a dying family member who could not have verbally responded, just squeezed my hand.


  6. Your comments were certainly evident when my father passed away earlier this year and the new (and young) pastor came to visit. There were some standard verses read but he seemed more intent in giving opportunities to accept Christ.


  7. in memory of Heather Danielle Heyer, who cared,
    in observance of her death as she stood up against the darkness,
    when it descended on her town of Charlottesville


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