Photo Description: TE Brad Mills (left) and TE Lee Hutchings (right) at the 2023 annual GRN PCA General Assembly lunch in Memphis, TN.
The following post is part of our ‘The Work of the PCA Elder’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.
Pastoral care is an act of love. God’s minister provides pastoral care because he loves the Word of God, and he loves God’s people. His care brings the ministry of the Word to wherever his flock is found, whether gathered before his pulpit on the Lord’s Day or in his study during the week: homes, hospitals, cemeteries, and prisons become places of the Lord’s mercy and grace. This requires that the man of God be available to his people – ready to go to them, and willing to care for them. It is the God-breathed Word that comforts the mourner, encourages the struggler, directs the confused, and rebukes the careless. The caring pastor trains his congregation in righteousness.
Biblical pastoral care does not exist apart from the ministry of the Word, and the Word must be ministered wherever the Lord opens for the pastor a door of opportunity.
Theodore Beza (1519-1605) understood that the caring pastor is out and among his flock:
It is not only necessary that [a pastor] have a general knowledge of his flock, but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick… In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd.
As we care for God’s people, five words come to mind: prayer, planning, accountability, mentoring, and tone.
Pastoral care is a spiritual work. Just as the pastor would never enter the pulpit without praying for his own clear proclamation of the Word and his congregation’s reception of it, neither should he conduct his pastoral care apart from prayer. Prayer before entering a home or hospital, prayer with those visited, and prayer for continued blessings after his departure.
People regularly share matters with pastors that need his earnest prayer. I carry a pocket notebook. When someone shares a concern or prayer request, I write it down. My memory is not trustworthy. When I get back to my study, I enter a follow-up time to my calendar. For example, someone shares that he will be having a job interview next Friday: I enter that in my calendar and call him the day before to assure him of my prayers. I pray with him before the call ends.
Much pastoral care is done on the fly. Emergency hospitalizations, deaths, personal and family crises – none of these are scheduled. The pastor must be flexible, and ready to respond.
But inquiry into the physical, material, and spiritual well-being of all members must be methodical. This requires planning – putting in place a system – that provides for regular visitation in homes, at lunches and coffees, or by phone.
These systems require preparation and refinement. Pastors and ruling elders will find Timothy Witmer’s The Shepherd Leader a valuable resource in planning for the care of a congregation.
The best of plans dies without accountability. Pastors should work with their elders and make sure that no individual or family is overlooked. In smaller churches, this may mean no more than reviewing the membership roll regularly, reporting on whom has been contacted the previous month and determining whom will be contacted in the coming month.
In one of my larger churches, each elder was assigned a shepherding list. After the opening prayer, the first order of Session business was having each elder provide an update on his people. When all elders had shared, there was a season of prayer for the congregation. This approach provided built-in accountability: each elder knew that he would report on his list at the start of every meeting.
In my experience, Presbyterian ministers do formal elder training well. Doctrine and responsibilities of the office are taught clearly. Not so well done is hands-on mentoring, demonstrating to pastoral staff and elders how to provide spiritual care.
Take your fellow pastors and elders with you – have them join you on a visit. On the way, you talk about what you’ve planned for the visit, and on the return you debrief. Through this experience, mentees learn by example. Eventually they can assume personal responsibility and provide spiritual care on their own and equip others. In this you provide both training in pastoral care and mentoring.
I share further thoughts on mentoring here.
Effective pastoral care requires the right tone. A minister must carefully measure how his words will affect the listener. He must consider tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and timing. When difficult truths must be said, his people must understand how much he loves them.
Some of us pride ourselves in being direct, getting to the point and telling it like it is. But that ordinarily means “telling it like I think it is.” Bluntness may say more about the character of the messenger than the veracity of his message. Often brusqueness is accompanied by an unwillingness to listen.
Pastoral care means caring for people in difficult circumstances. It’s critical that the minister carry himself with humility. Without humility, we may speak the truth – but if we speak without love, we risk reducing our ministry to nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
When we speak hard truths, we must speak with firmness and a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1). Our love, sincerity, and integrity must be unquestioned. Full of sympathy, we speak as one sinner to another, a fellow struggler on the arduous path of Christian discipleship. Then, by God’s grace, the bonds of affection established during consistent pastoral care may sustain severely tested relationships. Even when our words are not well received or rejected, we want people to know that the door to our study and our heart remains open.
  Theodore Beza in Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford: 2013), 281.