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Keeping Vision, Keeping Perspective - Pastoral Care Today

By Phil Greenslade.

At the Ministry Today conference at High Leigh in February 2001, we asked Phil Greenslade to address two questions: 1) what is the role and task of pastoral ministry and 2) why do we lose so many shepherds? Here are his answers.

“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly and superficially” (Jeremiah 6.14 NRSV/NASB)

Like the church, pastoral care is in a state of flux. Whether this is a creative or merely confusing condition remains to be seen. So where are we in our understanding and practice of pastoral care?

John Patton1 has helpfully outlined three phases of pastoral care which he identifies as the classical, the clinical, and the communal. The classical model obtained from pre-Reformation times through to the impact of modern psychology. It dealt - to use the classical phrase - in the “cure of souls”. Its major emphasis was on the message of pastoral care, the application of traditional Christian theology and practice to the shaping of Christian lives. Its methods included catechetical instruction, confessional absolution, pastoral preaching, priestly intercession, eldership discipline, and - in Orthodoxy - spiritual guidance through the “starets” or holy men. This model also sets great store by the sacraments as effective means of grace.

Its perceived weaknesses were only too apparent.

1. Words masquerading as ‘answers’, abstracted from the real needs of the hearers;

2. Institutional remedies masking the internal agonies of the worshippers;

3. An over-‘spiritualised’ approach to the human predicament and an embarrassed aloofness from the rawness of emotional, psychological and relational pain.

If the classical method often “healed the wound lightly”, it was because it unwittingly bypassed the complexities of human personality and, ironically, underestimated the bondage of the will.

Even recent attempts to turn the clock back, like those of Jay Adams and his nouthetic counselling, seem to some critics to be merely a ‘baptized behaviourism’!

The impact of modern psychology upon Christian ministry has led to what Patton calls the second major model of pastoral care, namely, the clinical model. For the last fifty years and more the emphasis has been upon the persons involved in the pastoral care process. Enormous effort has been expended on probing the fault-lines and stress-points of those being cared for. Great attention has been paid to providing the carers with skills and techniques for the task. The era of “counselling” was at hand!

The gains in sensitivity and effectiveness have been immeasurable. There is now a much greater empathy with all kinds of conditions, and correspondingly much less chance of them being dismissed with bland clichés. But the church is fast succumbing to the danger of being thoroughly “psychologised”. We are now reaping the worst as well as the best of what Philip Rieff prophetically called “the triumph of the therapeutic.”2

A number of criticisms have been made of this surrender to the therapeutic.

1. We risk reducing the value of pastoral work. Ironically just as the Christian ministry began to be de-clericalised and democratised, it was being intimidated into a new form of “professionalism”.

“In trying to resolve their uncertainties about themselves and their place in the world, ministers, especially, are vulnerable to seeking license and legitimacy from the kingdom of psychology”.3

2. We become “problem-orientated” at the expense of developing the human potential of all who are growing by the Spirit. This is to succumb to the tyranny of the technological - that especially North American mentality that “anything can be fixed” given grit and wit. But maybe, it is the case, sometimes, that “the (emotionally) poor you always have with you”.

Faced with a “victim mentality” we may well raise expectations too high about what our new-fangled expertise can do. Not everything can be changed, certainly not, to quote Richard John Neuhaus, in the “romper room of pop-psychology”.4 And this leads to the misleading impression that ‘God loves only those who love themselves’.

The reality is that pastoral care is an on-going ministry to “life’s normalities”, aiming at the “well-being” of all, and the growth to maturity of every disciple of Christ.

3. We lower our sights in pastoral care to social adjustment and fail to challenge the culture. As Christian pastors we are not in business to soothe the ‘angst’ of self-willed careerists or pick up the pieces of a hedonistic lifestyle. It is not our job to cure the victims of materialism and consumerism and return them to more of the same!

Kennech Leech has been an astute critic of this tendency. He comments that, if we define specific ills as ‘problems to be solved’, we may unwittingly be re-inforcing a particular cultural stance, participating in a form of social control and encouraging conformity when dissent would be the healthy response.

“Counselling then becomes a substitute for social change, a way of encouraging adjustment and so reducing discontent.” 5

As a character in one of Flannery O’Connor’s novels has it: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd”!

So where does that leave us?

In the last thirty years, argues John Patton, we have seen the emergence of the communal model of pastoral care. The old clergy-laity divide no longer applies. In this model, we are more likely to be part of a pastoral team. Pastoral care is being carried out by a wide range of believers, professional and voluntary, clerical and lay, within special church based units or attached to medical practices as part of the social services. It is now widely recognized that the whole church is called to be a pastoral community. The proliferation of home-based groups makes this all the more likely.

Yet this development too raises acute questions. The communal model is itself not without flaws. Like the others, on its own it will not do.

Community can too easily become an end in itself, with disillusionment as the inevitable result. The pressure to conform to the mores of the community in some churches may preclude honest inquiry or disagreement with the leadership so that conformity to the group over-rides integrity. This then can lead to an oppressive demand for unity which can quench imaginative initiatives and stunt the flowering of individual gifts and calling.

Many churches trying to operate on the communal model place a high emphasis on the family. But is this counter-productive? Where does it leave singles, the childless, the divorced and the widowed?

And in today’s ‘touchy-feely’ culture, all this may lead to corporate catharsis which may in turn hinder the deeper long term work of the Spirit in individual lives. To say it in a nutshell: where once Christians confessed the faith, now they confess their feelings. In such an environment, “mutual edification” as the fundamental law of life in the body of Christ seems currently to have gone by the board.

Where do we go from here?

Starting from where we are, John Patton urges a determined effort to combine the strengths of all 3 models of pastoral care.

Patton urges that we must not retreat from the Holy Spirit’s recent work of breaking down formalism and institutionalism to create true fellowship, friendship and relationships in Christ. He further encourages us to foster the development of small groups networks for care, upbuilding, mutual encouragement and the formation of specialist pastoral teams targeting special needs. As R A Lambourne has said:

“pastoral care is separated from its very life unless it is substantially concerned with the continual renewal of the holiness-in-service of the church as koinonia rather than being preoccupied with the ego formation, identity-consciousness of its individual members.”6

According to Patton, we need to re-discover dynamic pastoral preaching. We need to forgo thematic exhortation on the leader’s favourite four topics in favour of regular feeding of the flock of God on a healthy diet of sound words. We also need a liturgical structure to worship that is open to the Holy Spirit, but that is responsive to the historic shape of the gospel story rather than to the whim of the leader’s mood.

To care in our post-modern world will inevitably make us counter-cultural. This is another way of saying that care must be prophetic as well as pastoral. Training in righteousness and developing discipleship into joyful self-sacrifice are not readily translatable into the ‘lingua franca’ of consumerism.

To be prophetic without being loving is to stand detached from real-life crises and needs. But to allow the pastoral heart to mist over the prophetic vision is “ to conspire with the spirit of the age and to turn a blind eye to the hopes and lives it is destroying”7

Perhaps above all pastoral care today needs an eschatological perspective.

“How great is the love the father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are ...and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.1-2).

This “undisclosed what-we-will-be” will keep us humble as we realise that our best efforts are short of God’s ultimate intentions. This will keep us hopeful as we realise that nothing short of the ‘End’ will ever justify our ‘means’!

We will refuse to foreclose on the long-term pain needed to become Christlike. We will remain unwilling to pre-empt further encounters with discomfiting reality. And, disinclined to foreshorten our horizons to anything nearer than his Coming, we will not treat the wounds of God’s people carelessly or superficially.

Gregory Jones reminds us that the

“gospel calls us to a radical pastoral care. Its focus is the formation and transformation of our lives through an ever-deepening friendship with the triune God. That friendship is manifested in the friendships and practices of Christian communities in mission to the world. The goal is conformity to the image and likeness of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 8

Tempted to be superficial healers of wounds, we might pray with Wesley;

“Deepen the wound Thy hands have made

In this weak, helpless soul;

Till mercy, with its kindly aid,

Descends to make me whole.”

In such a context, it is perhaps not surprising that so many Christian leaders leave the ministry. But what are the specific underlying causes for their departure? I want to offer five major reasons.

1. The pastoral ministry is lost, when we lose confidence in our calling.

We find ourselves under pressure so often because we are caught between two stools. On the one hand we are expected to live by a superior faith and morality to every one else in the church (and why not? After all, they pay us!) so that we can be looked up to as role models. We may tire of the self-deception involved. Better to end the charade, we sometimes suspect, and admit we are as adulterous, ambitious, gossip-ridden, and venal as any one else: like them, we’re only human!

On the other hand, if we do struggle to attain some godly detachment, we are derided - either through direct criticism or indirectly through patronising disdain - for being out of touch with ordinary life, inhabiting a clerical cocoon insulated from common human experience. You’re right: we can’t win. But then just what is it we are supposed to win? The pressure to please people has to give way at some point to the pressure to be true to ourselves, even if we don’t like what we find when we do! This is hardest of all. To speak the truth to ourselves may be impossible - which is why we need friends, colleagues or overseers who will be lovingly honest with us.

Equally, to speak the truth in love to other people is a hard earned skill. You were not called to be Amos to Upper Middleton Baptist Church nor were you called to St Thomas and All Doubting Angels to be its ‘agony aunt’!

As Stanley Hauerwas has observed, the split between prophets and pastors has been disastrous for the training and practice of ministry. He added:

“What we need is a recovery of how the pastoral tasks are fundamentally prophetic when they are appreciated as necessary for the upbuilding of a prophetic community.” 9

And from where did we ever imagine we would slake our thirst if not from God himself? We are called, if we are called to be anything, to be disciples. Garrison Keillor quipped that we Church people would do better to stop being good Christians and start following Jesus!

And spiritual adultery is as rife as the other kind. Some pastoral egos are massaged by congregational ‘love ins’. Some get their kicks out of manipulating a congregation or managing the church in an overbearing way. If our deep emotional hunger remains unsatisfied in God we are as likely to try to meet it by running an organisation as by running off with the organist. Many pastors are so emotionally insecure and hungry that they are accidents waiting to happen.

2. The Pastoral ministry is lost, when we lose patience with people.

It has been said that ‘where there is no vision the people perish’, but it is equally true that where there is only vision they suffer nervous breakdowns. The mistake again is that we end up trying to make an ideology work rather than working to help people change.

The task of forming Christ in people is a long, slow business. People are intractable, aren’t we? The role of shepherds who worked around Jerusalem in the first century was to fatten sheep for the sacrificial offerings of the Temple rituals. What’s changed? Our purpose as shepherds is to foster the renewal of minds and nurture the redirecting of wills that will enable the ‘sheep in our care’ to make willing and voluntary self-surrender of themselves as living sacrifices to God.

But reversing soul erosion in our culture is slow, mundane, often dirty work - much like farming, as Eugene Peterson is fond of reminding us when commending the insights of Wendell Berry, English professor, Kentucky tobacco farmer and essayist. Berry writes:

“Soul loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soul were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of ‘science and technology’ who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution. But soul is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by the careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires.”10

Of course, Berry didn’t quite write that. For effect, I have simply altered one letter in the one word, changing ‘soil’ to ‘soul’. But dwell on those telling phrases: “saved by small acts and restraints...conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires”. Of such is the kingdom of God and of such, I suggest, is the steady shaping of people into the likeness of Christ. As Bonhoeffer once said, “The true leader must always be able to disillusion”.11

We need to prick the bubble of the modern conceit, albeit as gently as we may, that pain-free authenticity is possible. We may need to point up, not play down, the high cost of holy living. We must stop trying to make the gospel ‘user-friendly’. Where sensation-seekers seek signs of God’s powerful presence that might justify them believing in him; where answer-seekers seek solutions to the questions set by their own agenda: God offers the vulnerable folly of the cross of his Son!

Detoxifying modern consumers is going to take a long time and much patience. Such work is slow and incremental. It will involve the tough and tender lowering of false expectations and the raising of higher hopes, the inflaming of deeper desires.

So sweeten the pill less and put salt into people’s mouths. Wean them off ‘gospel-lite’ and get them blind, stone drunk on vintage grace. Forego the bland clichés, mechanical principles, and the five steps and seven keys to anything! Woo your people with mystery, romance, and the high adventure of passionately loving Jesus.12 Scatter the seeds of divine discontent and they may grumble about you less!

3. The Pastoral ministry is lost, when we lose confidence in Jesus as our pastoral model!

When Jesus tells his disciples, “The rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them” but “it is not so among you”, he is speaking of a radically alternative way of leading people. He is not suggesting a few new techniques or strategies to be added to the expertise in management skills we already have - not Steven Covey or even Rick Warren tarted up with a Jesus flavour.

This very definite “not so among you” raises many questions about where we derive out models of pastoral care from. I won’t labour this because John Frye has done this well in his recent eloquent plea that we follow the pattern of Jesus as our pastoral model13. Frye writes that a

“renewed focus on Jesus as Senior Pastor will result in a lot of extraneous clergy baggage, picked up over the years and associated with our pastoral calling, being gladly jettisoned. Baggage picked up from the social and psychological sciences and public relations industry will be recognised as expendable or at least not as urgently needed as supposed.”

The four Gospels, Frye reminds us, show us Jesus the Pastor at work. He is waiting to mentor us as under-shepherds once again.

“Resentful anger emerges and builds up in those pastors who realise over time that what they accepted as a mighty calling has turned out to be, at times, a dull, irritating job, a job that is often thankless and underpaid.”

Frye quotes Henri Nouwen to the effect that “if there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ”.14

Boredom and condescension, as Eugene Peterson points out, inevitably ensue when we cease seeing ordinary and irritating people as major characters in the story God is telling15. Pastors need to revive the art of being detectives searching for the divine fingerprints of God on people’s lives. One secret of Jesus’ own pastoral acuity was to watch and see where His Father was working and to work with him.

4. The Pastoral ministry is lost, when we lose hope for the church.

We are often stressed out trying to keep up with trends in the church let alone in the surrounding culture. Some high-profile leadership road-show rolls into town or beckons us with its glossy brochures to fly to where the action is. Our heart leaps at the prospect of finding the key to church growth or whatever, and we are confirmed in our suspicion that God’s action is always ‘some place else’. Remember, though, that any old bush will do, even yours, as long as it’s combustible.

Furthermore, why do we persist in trying to fight in Saul’s armour? Like you I am as indebted as the next pastor to the wisdom and inspiration to be had in visiting great churches and stimulating leadership conferences. But we can’t impersonate Bill Hybels. He has his own unique calling, gift and anointing from God. We need less Willow Creek, more Jordan River. Otherwise some churches will find themselves up a creek without a Hybels and it won’t be Bill’s fault!

Evangelicalism has been a populist movement by very definition from the beginning. Its passion for the lost and concern for people has been admirable and to its credit. But one downside of this heritage is the deep-rooted and seemingly ineradicable obsession with numbers. Church life for most pastors is still a competitive arena, with one’s status determined by how large your church is.

As we have said, the situation is exacerbated, if pastors enter ministry with an uncontrolled need to be loved, for they will be disappointed. As Hauerwas and Willimon put it: “One day they wake to find they have sacrificed family, self-esteem, health and happiness for a bunch of selfish people who have eaten them alive from the inside out”16.

The standard answer to this is that pastors should develop their own self-esteem, be more assertive, learn to say ‘no’, take a day off, delegate more - in short become as self-centred as the people.

No, the answer lies in the soil of the church, for when the church lacks confidence in what it is, clergy have no earthly idea what they are doing.

A good deal of our loss of pastoral nerve stems from trying to work unworkable and probably unbiblical models of church. We might do well to follow the Lesslie Newbigin line that we serve the world best by being the Church and that the Church is the “sign, herald and foretaste of the coming kingdom” and then see what pressure that lifts from us and what pressure it imposes.

Above all, for needed perspective, we might do well to ponder Richard John Neuhaus’s wonderful reminder:

“We are premature ambassadors, having arrived at court before the sovereignty of our king has been recognised. It is awkward, of course, and our authority is very much in question. We must resist the temptation to relieve the awkwardness by accepting a lesser authority from another kingdom”.17

This leads to the last observation, namely that ...

5. The Pastoral ministry is lost, when we lose narrative coherence.

The Bible is God’s. It works savingly and pastorally as a compelling narrative which impacts us dramatically, drawing us into the story of God. From first creation to final re-creation, from Exodus to Exile, from Babylonia with Abraham, from Egypt with Moses, to Babylon with the exiles; from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Rome; to the downfall of every ‘Babylon’ and the downcoming of the new Jerusalem...this is the sweeping drama of God’s redemptive activity, centred on the life, cross, and resurrection of the Jewish messiah made Lord of the world, carried on by the impetus of the Spirit to the ends of the earth to the end of time...this is what we are caught up in by grace and faith!

“To be redeemed is nothing less than to learn to place ourselves in God’s history”18

It is precisely the task of pastoral ministry to help people find and relish and live up to their place in God’s story!

Philip Greenslade works for the Crusade for World Revival (CWR).

Ministry Today

You are reading Keeping Vision, Keeping Perspective - Pastoral Care Today by Phil Greenslade, part of Issue 24 of Ministry Today, published in February 2002.

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