Seminary…The place where you learn many skills and gain lots of knowledge, right? Systematic theology, how to do vocal exercises, preach a great funeral or a righteous social issue sermon, and all the necessary things about the Old and New Testaments. But the one thing seminary has always gotten so totally wrong is pastoral care – both teaching it in the classroom, and fostering it to others. Now others may disagree, and that’s perfectly fine, but in my experience, the only way to truly learn the so-called “methods” of pastoral care is to simply dive on in and do it. Talking about it, reading about it, and being lectured to about it won’t make a difference, nor will it prepare you for the plethora of situations ministry contexts will see.
But one place there is absolutely no room for pastoral care is in a personal relationship – friendship, marriage, dating, etc. “Don’t pastoral care me…” is a phrase I have used a few times in interactions when I have picked up on classmates using studied techniques from the classroom. Seminary creates a very special environment, a place where people gather for three years to study, build their pastoral skills, and even gain lifetime partners and supporters in ministry. But supporter does not equal pastoral care; pastoral care is crossing a sacred boundary, asking for the sharing of sacred bonds that cannot be shared between friends, but only between pastor and congregant, chaplain and patient, soldier and chaplain, etc. Friends share sacred bonds as well, but the relationship is different – friends shoulder each other’s burdens, but are not one another’s therapists.
Pastoral care and friendship are separate entities, and seminary life seems to forget that. When you spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week immersed in ministry matters, thinking and pondering what every aspect of study actually looks like in reality, not in the abstract like it seems in the classroom, unfortunately, these materials transfer into personal interactions – in the dining hall, at the meal table, in the coffee shop, and even, at the bar. It may be a sign of true and genuine caring, but instead of practicing your newfound skills from “Pastoral Care of ______” on your classmate who may be suffering from ______ scenario you just studied, just ask them how they’re doing and genuinely listen. Don’t be planning the follow up question in your head, or thinking how the professor taught you to respond. Think of how YOU would want someone to respond, and be genuine, because life isn’t class, and real people and their emotions are at stake, which isn’t the way it is in class. Real people need care and compassion, not to be shrunk in their time of whatever. They need a friend, to know that someone is thinking of them and praying for them. That is friendship, not pastoral care, and what makes you a better pastor and member of the body of Christ as well in the end.
Its hard, I know. Enthusiasm truly gets the better of us all. But to show love and compassion is better than to pastoral care those you love – showing love and compassion will mend and strengthen bonds; pastoral care carried out between two in a relationship can potentially cause great and irreparable harm. Stick with the love, stick with sticking it out, and when in doubt, just be there. That is the best form of non-pastoral care pastoral care a person can offer.
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