The heart of the matter: The being of pastoral care

  • Sally Sims
  • 3 November 2016

In this two-part series, Sally Sims outlines some guidelines for pastoral care in a church setting. In this first article Sally looks at being present with others, and reminds us that pastoral care flows out of God’s grace and the Christian love and integrity, which should follow. Being must come before doing because who we are always impacts what we do, and our wholehearted presence is one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone who is in need.

The voice on the other end of the phone was shaky and strained. I listened as a friend told me her mother-in-law was seriously ill, the family had no workable kitchen due to a delay on a renovation project, and she had just crashed their only car. All this was on top of a long struggle with depression.

When something like this happens, knowing that God has not abandoned you, and that you’re not alone and others care, can make the difference between making it through a crisis and being totally overwhelmed. Sadly, when we see an opportunity to help others we often feel hesitant because we’re concerned that we might not have the right words to say. We can feel helpless when we witness someone else’s pain and we can’t fix it. We’re also reminded of our own vulnerability.

These feelings are understandable, but with God’s help through prayer, we can put aside our fears and learn to “sit with our own discomfort”. If we do this we will be in a good position to listen with empathy and acknowledge the other person’s feelings, empower the person to make their own decisions, and offer appropriate practical help. But we must always make being our priority before we start doing.

Ministry through presence

There are many different ways to show we care, and caring is the privilege and responsibility of every member of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:24-25). However, one of the most powerful ways of comforting individuals who are suffering is through our presence—through showing up and just being there with someone. 

Being present involves putting our own concerns aside and listening with our full concentration for that moment in time. Central to the ministry of presence, as it’s called, is the biblical understanding that, as we sit alongside others in their moment of crisis, we embody the love and presence of God (1 John 4:15-16). We are bearers of his grace and living hope (1 Pet 2:9). 

Being with others and respecting their intrinsic worth as people made in the image of God conveys God’s love for them, and our presence is a reminder to those in need that God has not forgotten or forsaken them (Heb 13:5). 

Being present with others has lasting significance

We are called to be Christ’s representatives and to remember that Jesus is the source of all lasting comfort, love and hope. We will therefore want to keep Jesus and his gospel at the centre of all we do, and interact with one another in ways that help to strengthen our relationship with him. This means that making ourselves available and turning up when others need us isn’t an optional extra. God calls all believers to serve one another in love and to help carry one another’s burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 5:13, 6:2). He calls us to be intentional, sharing our lives with one another and being a loving gospel presence in times of need.

Besides, when God comforts us, it isn’t solely for our own benefit. He comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort others with that same comfort (2 Cor 1:3-5). We should therefore offer to pray and share God’s word with each other, making sure we do so sensitively and asking for permission first. We need to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of all Christian ministry is making disciples and building the church up so that we all reach maturity in Christ (Eph 4:11-15).

Being transformed into Christ’s likeness

Being is important because who we are always impacts what we do, so, in addition to being present, we will want to think about the sort of people we are called to be. We are to express our love for God by doing good in response to Jesus’ love for us (John 13:34-35). As we do this, we must remember that any lasting difference we make in the lives of others is only possible because of God’s transforming grace at work in our hearts and minds through his Spirit. God’s desire is for us to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus and that should be our desire also.

Being a servant

Serving others in love requires us to think like a servant. When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet he didn’t simply perform the task of a servant, he was a servant (John 13:12-16). By God’s grace, we can have the same mindset as Jesus, and in our relationships with one another we can be self-giving and concerned about the interests of others (Phil 2:1-11).

Being authentic

Genuine connection with others requires us to be authentic as well as self-giving. Authenticity is about being who we really are at all times and not hiding behind a façade or role as we help others. We are all needy and must learn to receive as well as give, resisting the temptation to give the impression that we have life all worked out. 

When we take a genuine interest we show it by listening well. This gives each other permission to speak openly, to share our burdens and express our emotions. Being listened to makes us feel better, not because our pain has been taken away but because someone has heard and acknowledged it.

Your call to care for others will be unique, but it will come, and when it does there is no need to shy away because of fear or lack of confidence. The wonderful thing is that, as we step out in faith, God works in and through us so that we can serve one another in love, for the good of all concerned and to his glory.

Through God’s power and our relationship with Jesus, we can be growing in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love, and the Bible assures us that “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:3-9).

In her second article, ‘How can I help?: The doing of pastoral care’, Sally will provide tips for helping a fellow Christian going through a difficult time. If you found this article helpful, then check out Sally's new book on Christian care, Together Through the Storm.

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