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.