The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care
Part Two: A World Between Sundays
In part one, I said that my first congregational ministry experience changed something inside me and made me more open to the work of pastoral care.
However, I must also admit that a battle about this raged inside me when I went back to seminary. The work of pastoral care could be so demanding and so much of it seemed mundane and unproductive, that I didn’t always like it, at times I was discouraged and didn’t think I wasn’t very good at it. On the other hand, I was good with books and had long been affirmed as a good teacher and preacher. Perhaps I should pursue a calling in teaching rather than in pastoral ministry.
When we moved back to the Chicago area, I explored this, but didn’t come to any immediate conclusions. Then, over the course of my seminary training at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), I abandoned the idea. God brought another group of people into my life who opened my heart even more to the work of congregational ministry and pastoral care. Ironically, these were my seminary professors, who were some of the most respected academic teachers in the evangelical world! They had found their vocation in the academy, but as I took classes from them, I kept hearing something over and over again in my spirit:
“Teaching is good and necessary, but the campus is, in the end, not where it’s at. The front line of God’s work is in the church and the real work of ministry is done by congregations and their pastors right where people live.”
It seemed my teachers really believed this, even though they had come to find their own calling as seminary profs. They salted their lectures with intriguing stories about church and pastoral ministry, and continually emphasized that the lofty truths they were teaching were only important as they were integrated and applied into the real lives of individuals, families, and communities. It helped that I had been in ministry already, for I could visualize the things they were saying, and could participate with keen interest in class discussions, having had a little experience. I didn’t have many answers about being a minister, but I had learned a few questions, and seminary proved to be a good place to ask them.
However, my seminary experience with the Bible was still primarily about studying it, preaching it, and teaching it. It happened on a much deeper level, and I received much more help in studying scripture for myself rather than just being fed a set program of doctrine and teachings, but there was still only a token nod to subjects of worship, congregational life, and the actual work of a pastor with people.
It helped that I began reading the books of Eugene Peterson during these years. The one that had the most impact then was The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. It’s almost cliché now to point to Peterson as the person who awakened the soul of an evangelical to the true nature of pastoral work, but I’m one of those that found true resonance with what he was saying way back when. During seminary I became the pastor of a small church, and Peterson became an important guide for me there.
In particular, he confirmed what I had known and continued to experience in church ministry: that Sundays were easy, that preaching, teaching, and leading worship were celebratory acts based on clear expectations in a “clean and orderly” environment where we tend to be well-behaved. On the other hand, what Peterson calls “ministry amid the traffic” Monday through Saturday is messy, unpredictable, confusing, and humbling.
But after the sun goes down on Sunday, the clarity diffuses. From Monday through Saturday, an unaccountably unruly people track mud through the holy places, leaving it a mess. The order of worship gives way to the disorder of argument and doubt, bodies in pain and emotions in confusion, misbehaving children and misdirected parents. I don’t know what I am doing half the time. I am interrupted. I am asked questions to which I have no answers. I am put in situations for which I am not adequate. I find myself attempting tasks for which I have neither aptitude nor inclination. The vision of myself as pastor, so clear in Lord’s Day worship, is now blurred and distorted as it is reflected back from the eyes of people who view me as pawn to their egos. The affirmations I experience in Sunday greetings are now precarious in the slippery mud of put-downs and fault-finding. (p. 61f)
This accurate description of the pastoral life outside the sanctuary confirmed to me how important it must be. The realistic picture he painted of the lives of my congregation stood in stark contrast to the more artificial atmosphere on campus. I developed a hunger to immerse myself in the unpredictable circumstances of real life rather than retreat into controlled settings. As Peterson urged us, “an equivalent attention” must be given to this aspect of the ministry, since this is where most pastoral work is meant to take place.
I must mention one more profitable experience that opened my spirit to the work of pastoral care during these years. As part of my seminary training, I discovered that I could take a quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at a local hospital. CPE is a program to teach pastoral care to clergy and others. Here in the U.S. it is one of the primary methods of training hospital and hospice chaplains and other spiritual care providers. It uses a combination of teaching, clinical practice, small group work, and supervision to help students become better pastoral caregivers. However, it was not something I had heard about in the world of evangelical pastoral ministry. CPE bills itself as an intercultural and interfaith program, and that is probably why. Those adjectives did not fit my evangelical culture.
The best part of taking CPE was that it helped me to know myself better. In fact, that is one of its goals. I had a wise supervisor who gently but insistently prompted me to evaluate my thoughts and feelings about what I was experiencing as I worked with people in the hospital. For example, it was in CPE that I had to tell someone for the first time that her loved one had died and take her to the morgue to view the body. I distinctly remember how that shook me and how hard it was to process. Talking through those experiences with a wise and caring mentor was invaluable for my personal and pastoral development.
Somehow, in my evangelical training, study, and service, the benefits of knowing myself had not been explained to me. I guess, in a world where spiritual development is emphasized as it is, people either ignore the concept of human development or simply assume that it will take place. I never saw the connection between the two. Spirituality as I understood it was all about learning the Bible, having quiet times with God, worshiping and enjoying fellowship with church people, and witnessing to others about Jesus as Savior.
In the perspective of that world, the Bible was given to help me improve my relationship with God, know how to make good choices so that I might please God, and convince others to follow Jesus. In essence, spirituality was about being a person who was saved from the world, separated from the world, and sent into the world as a missionary. This world was not my home, and the Bible was focused on making me “spiritual;” it wasn’t helping me learn to live among my neighbors. When I tried to use the Bible in ministry to them, it was like we were speaking two different languages. I just couldn’t make the connection between the Bible and my development as an adult human being living among other human beings in a complex world of experience.
But what about the little boy in my congregation who had been hit by a car while riding his bicycle, who lay for years in a minimally responsive condition? What about his family, whose world had been forever altered by this experience? What about that little boy’s family, who waited and watched and cared and cried for years until he died?
What about the woman with mental health issues that I had to commit to the psychiatric ward after a manic episode?
What about my fellow seminary student, who went into the ministry and died a year later from an unknown heart defect?
What about the community where I was pastoring — located in a deteriorating urban setting? What did I even know about my neighbors? The indigent people I saw walking up and down the main street? The families I knew who were fostering children that came to them out of the chaos of the social services system? The large number of folks who were battling lung cancer and other terminal diseases after working at the asbestos plant in our town? The lives of those in our increasingly diverse city who looked different than me, spoke other languages, and brought other cultural influences?
How could I help my young daughter, whose good friend participated in our church, who was murdered by her father when he went off the deep end during a divorce?
What about the people I met in the hospital from broken families, those who were alone and without support, those who had incredibly complex issues to deal with in addition to their health problems?
And what then about me, who believed God had called him to show God’s love and bring God’s good news to all these people? Did the Bible in my hand give me anything that could enable me to grasp such real world complexity? That could give me a deeper sense of human connection with my neighbors in a world like this? That could help me flourish as a fellow human being among them, and not just as someone living a “separated” Christian life and standing before a congregation to preach and teach on Sunday mornings?