I am not entirely sure when pastoral became a synonym for nice, but it was already the case when I was in seminary a decade ago. Classes on “pastoral care” focused on things like how to run vestry meetings and how to avoid conflicts. When parishes put together profiles for the priest they want, pastoral is a word that often comes up. The expectation seems to be that a pastoral priest is someone kind and easy to talk to who is highly affirming. This pastor-as-life-coach model of ministry has become dominant in the American Church, and it is killing our congregations.
Of course, Murphy’s Ecclesiastical Law dictates that whenever something terrible catches on in the life of the Church, there is an equal if not more stupid backlash. Enter the Church Growth movement with its emphasis on transforming the work of the pastor into a series of managerial tasks.
“If pastors could figure out how to better tackle the issue of pastoral care, I’m convinced many more churches would grow,” says Carey Nieuwhof in a blog post last month that has been shared more than four thousand times. Nieuwhof says that pastors are spread too thin trying to attend to every tragedy, meet with every family, and handle every baptism or wedding. His solution? Get a team of lay people to do all that stuff while you work on management and leadership development instead.
If a church is going to grow, congregations have to let go of the expectation that their pastor will be available for every medical emergency, every twist and turn in their lives, every family celebration and every crisis.
Nieuwhof is not entirely wrong in his diagnosis, but he severely misses the mark in his attempt at a cure. Small churches do expect the wrong kind of pastoral care from their ordained leaders. The problem, however, is not that people want their pastors to be present in their lives but that they have an unformed sense of what to expect from their pastors. The burnout that so many clergy experience from being stretched thin by what gets called pastoral care often has very little to do with actual, genuine pastoring.
As I wrote a few months ago, the apostle Paul, pastor par excellence, teaches us that pastoral care is primarily about being faithful in the transmission of the Gospel. This means preaching the good news of forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ and celebrating the sacraments by which that grace is received. In our heads, many of us who go into ministry picture this looking a certain way. We imagine ourselves preaching to rooms full of people when in fact much of our work takes place in much smaller and less glamorous settings, in hospital rooms, in people’s homes for pastoral visits, and in the office with couples preparing for marriage or with families preparing to say goodbye to a loved one. That is preaching every bit as much as what we say from the pulpit. In many ways, it is harder. Explaining a passage of Scripture to a whole bunch of people is one thing, but attempting to apply that same passage directly to someone’s life when that person is sitting right in front of you and can talk back is quite another.
The expectation people have that their pastor will visit them is not something to discourage. In my experience, people often go years without having a pastor show any interest in them at all and therefore do not know how to react when one mentions coming by. Many people do not want their pastors to visit and actively work to shut that situation out. So, if you have someone who actually wants you to visit and minister to them, whatever their motivation, you take them up on it. Regardless of why they think they are having you come by, the Holy Spirit is the one who has made this possible so that you can apply the Word of God to their lives. This may be the first and only time this person will hear the Gospel, even if you have been preaching it to them from the pulpit for years. People can tune out sermons. They have a harder time tuning you out when you are right in front of them, speaking directly to their situation.
This is not the sort of work that can be farmed out. If pastors are not visiting their people, they are not doing their job. Of course teams of lay people can help care for people and build up the community, but there is no substitute for the priest standing in the place of Christ. That is not just what the priest does, it is what the priest is. If pastors spend their time engaging in other sorts of tasks, perhaps they will see growth in the church’s average attendance (or perhaps not: I am dubious of such claims being offered without evidence), but they will be doing so at the expense of their calling and possibly at the expense of the souls of the people entrusted to them.
Yet if pastors do their job the right way, there is no guarantee that the person at whose bedside they pray is going to be happy with them either. The work of a pastor is a singular task: to shepherd souls. That’s what pastoral means. To be pastoral is to be someone who knows the Scriptures and is willing to apply them to the lives of the people, regardless of how that makes them feel, because the goal is not to affirm them at all costs but to lead them towards salvation.
This is where the life coach model comes crumbling down. Sometimes the word that God has for an individual is a hard word. Sometimes the work of the pastor is to say no to a request, to point out a pattern of sin that needs to be remedied, or simply to correct a misunderstanding that someone has about the nature of God and his or her own relationship with him. Sometimes good pastoral care feels like a punch in the face, both for pastors and for individuals — those whose souls pastors are faithfully trying to save. But if it’s truly what God calls for in his word, it is a punch that we need to take, as surely as Christ needed to take a bullwhip to the thieves in the Temple, as surely as he needed to take nails into his own hands and feet.
The idea that a pastor would sometimes say uncomfortable things and impose discipline is foreign to many congregations today, but that is because for more than a generation we in church leadership have promoted the pastor-as-life-coach model while never talking about the hard road and the narrow gate that leads to salvation. Our parishes need priests today who are neither life coaches nor “middle managers for the Lord.” Our parishes need priests who are pastors, shepherds of souls who care more about the salvation of their people than about making people happy or advancing their careers.