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A Christian Perspective on Pastrol Care

John Breadon's picture

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The shepherd

Although we live in what some call a post-Christian age, the imprint of our country’s Christian past can be seen in every corner of British culture, especially in everyday words and phrases. Take the word ‘pastor’ for example (from which we get ‘pastoral’ and the concept of ‘pastoral care’.) The word derives from the Latin for shepherd. Clearly, this can be traced back to Jesus’ shepherd stories and sayings in the Gospels. Consider this example from John 10: 11-15:


I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.


This is a very rich model for care-giving, although some will find it perhaps overly protective and a bit too fatherly. And then there’s the obvious corollary, that religious followers are, well, rather like sheep (they run around in groups and are a bit thick). Atheists, understandably, have had some real fun with this self-chosen Christian metaphor. Gospel language of shepherding as a way of approaching Christian leadership (ordained and lay) continues in the rest of the New Testament. As early missionary endeavours got underway, fragile Christian communities soon found they needed some structure and a grasp of who should do what, and why. What better way to reflect on the qualities of a good leader than via that familiar language of shepherding? I Peter 5: 2-4 urges the leaders of an early Christian community to be wise and good shepherds:


Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it — not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.


Shepherd talk however didn’t begin with Jesus. It springs into life way back in the pages of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). That is obvious enough considering how the ancient Hebrews were always on the move and needed the ease of a mobile food supply. It’s hardly surprising then that Jesus uses shepherd, sheep and goats imagery because he knew the ancient writings very well, according to the Gospels. Even those who rarely open a Bible will probably have heard these famous words, taken from the opening verses of Psalm 23, read at a funeral service or some other rite of passage:


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths

for his name’s sake.


The pastor

Today, most mainstream Christian churches still refer to the priest or minister as pastor: one set apart to care for, tend and love his (or in many cases now, her) people through good times and bad. Few perhaps would go so far as to lay down their life of their flock.


Metaphors are one thing, but do priests today live up to the lofty calling of selfless shepherding? Well, they should, even if they don’t. When I was ordained deacon (the probation period as you start out in the ministry), I was given my very own diaconate ‘job description’ (called the Ordinal). Here it is:


Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ's name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.


This short but dense paragraph contains more than enough pastoral care related guidelines for your average fallible priest.

In order it says they must aim:

  • to be watchful (signs of God’s new creation to be hopeful and optimistic in other words)

  • to teach and admonish (pastoral care is not counselling; sometimes you need to be very clear about the difference between truth and lies)

  • to search out the weak and vulnerable (the liturgy puts it rather more beautifully than this)

  • to call individuals to repentance (Christian pastoral care doesn’t buy into the idea that we spring into maturity without struggle, effort and the making of mistakes)

  • to declare forgiveness (back to the hopeful business; everyone deserves a second, third and fourth chance).


It should be stressed that this liturgy is written for priests about to begin serving in a parish (ah, serving, another element of pastoral care – there is to be no Big Priestly Ego on show for all to see). These edicts would not be wholly appropriate if, for instance, one is a chaplain in a college, university, hospital or prison giving pastoral care to a Muslim or a humanist. That said, there is still much here that can provide sound guidelines for the behaviour of all Christians, whatever their pastoral and leadership context.


Love and wisdom

Two important qualities are missing from the list, however. Without them the whole business of pastoral care will become stiff and inhuman. They are love and wisdom. Together they ensure that the chaplain or minister will approach the one in need with complete respect and awe. In the words of the scriptures, when you stand before another human being, ‘take off your shoes because you are on holy ground’.


What I like about the Ordinal is that it’s truly holistic. People who are depressed, confused, bereaved, angry or addicted need plenty of love, acceptance, listening and even the occasional hug. But they’ll also need help with thinking and reflecting. It helps to look at the detail of their lives in order to find out what’s going wrong and what they might need to do to live a more fulfilling life in the here and now.


This attitude of tough love is reflected in some of Jesus’ more difficult pastoral encounters. An Anglican bishop comments on these: ‘You couldn’t simply count on a hug and a handkerchief [from Jesus]. The woman caught with her lover had to change her life-style. A young man with a lot of money had to give it all away … Jesus’ compassion had a challenging edge.’ (John Pritchard, The Life and Work of a Priest.)


Pastoral care is about being, a critical friend (to use a modern phrase) as well as offering unconditional support and acceptance.


The counsellor and the life-coach

I made a passing reference earlier to counselling (or psychotherapy). It’s been said that once we had priests to turn to for confession, support and even the odd word of sound advice; today we have counsellors and life-coaches. For myself, I’m glad that these multiple versions of pastoral care are available (or should be available). In any case the two can’t really be compared. They operate in different spheres, with different expectations and desired outcomes. That isn’t to deny the side of ministry (the ministry to all in other words) where general counselling skills should come into play. Pastoral care, as an important subject in its own right, is a relatively recent phenomenon in most strands of the Christian Church. The catalyst for this was external rather than internal pressure. It arose as a direct encounter with mid twentieth-century secular psychological/psychotherapeutic practice and theory. Another instance of the Holy Spirit working outside the Church!