What a Minister Does: Pastoral Care

Pastoral care is the hardest part of ministry to quantify.  That may seem odd.  After all, can’t you just add up the time you spent visiting people?  Well, yes and no.  I can add up the hours spent in hospital rooms or in people’s homes, but that would miss the majority of the pastoral ministry I do.

Ministers are “on call” at all times for pastoral care.  But it’s a different kind of “on call.”  Yes, even our days off and vacation are interrupted when someone in the congregation experiences a death, a diagnosis, or another life-altering situation.  But we’re not just “on call” for emergencies.  I know that every time I encounter someone who knows I’m a minister (not just congregants or “friends” of the church, but anyone…) I may end up in a conversation where I am called upon to minister.

I remember my first “Church Clean-up” day.  I naively went to the church, believing I’d be pulling weeds or cleaning windows.  Instead, I was immediately immersed in five hours of intense pastoral care.  Two people knew they needed care and asked for time with me in private.  The other conversations happened while we were wiping down chairs, sweeping out corners, and cleaning closets.

Don’t get me wrong, I value each of those conversations.  I understand how amazing it is that I am immediately invited into the “real stuff” that’s on people’s minds and hearts.  I get to have theological and meaningful conversations everywhere I go: the church picnic, coffee hour, meetings, church parties, even the grocery store.  I am allowed into people’s lives and that is a gift.

It’s also exhausting.  I’ve had to create boundaries that are sometimes hard for congregants to understand.  For instance, I don’t attend the whole church campout on Labor Day weekend.  I learned quickly that every minute I am there, I am “on” as minister.  Every intereaction with every adult, child, dog, is being observed and measured.  About ninety percent of the conversations I have at any church event are about church, theology, or the deep issues and concerns in people’s lives.  It is rich and powerful conversation, but it’s also work.

Now, the good people of my congregation would tell me that it’s fine for me to relax and “just be.”  And they mean it.  They don’t believe they are observing, measuring, judging.  But I know that if I were to give into frustration and fuss at my kids or  my dog, it would be noticed.  And sadly, my experience thus far in ministry is that if it’s noticed it will eventually come up in some conversation about my ministry.  People are constantly considering whether or not the minister is living up to the high ideals of Unitarian Universalism.

And so the pastoral care a minister does is hard to measure.  It consists of visits, conversations, phone calls, emails, and cards and letters. It happens at work, at home, on vacation.  In my congregation, the minister is expected to be “first contact” for anyone we know is facing a difficult situation.  In a congregation with around 160 members, 140 friends, 120 children and youth–and a number of folks who are in the process of getting to know us, that’s a lot of people to respond to. And, because so many of these conversations need to be held in confidence, pastoral care ministry is often invisible.

So it’s here that our “hours per week” breaks down.  Each week is different, and often the pastoral care is happening at the same time as other work is getting done. I try very hard to check in with everyone I see and work with.  Sometimes that slows us down a bit, but it’s always worth it.  It keeps us connected and reminds us that we are doing more than just volunteer work, we are building beloved community.

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4 thoughts on “What a Minister Does: Pastoral Care

  1. Yeah, I really enjoy being friends with ministers and try to require this from them minimally. I am sensitive to what it is like to feel like you have to be “on” and I try to talk to my minister friends about Project Runway instead.

    CC

  2. Thanks, Sean, for putting it so well. My dear folks say the same thing—just relax!—but they don’t see all the expectations floating in the breeze.

    And thanks to CC for her comment. Except I never watch Project Runway. Could we talk about something else instead? Like Steven Colbert, maybe?

  3. I don’t want to be friends with my Doctor. I’d be a bit put off if he tried to be mine.

    I really don’t want to be friends with my Minister either.

    I expect a professional service from both, and I think they’ll deliver that service best if we’re not buddies.

  4. PS And that doesn’t mean we can’t talk Project Runway together either (although I’m sure my Doc would have no idea what it is… not sure about my ministers either)… but my whole family does enjoy the show.

    Auf Wiedersehen…

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