Pastoral Care

why I’m giving up on meeting one to one

Your standard one to one meeting

Meeting with people one to one — to chat about life, pray and read the Bible with the aim of growing as disciples of Jesus — is one of the more stable features the kind of university (aka ‘college’) student ministry I serve in.

But it’s become increasingly clear to me that I need to give it up.

Huh? Give up meeting one to one? What am I smoking?

Let me explain how I reached this conclusion.

To start with, there have been some pragmatic factors pushing me in this direction.

In particular, I’ve only been on campus two days/week for the second half of this year. But I’d already begun meeting with a bunch of students — some currently in leadership, some potential leaders, and some in particular need of pastoral care.

I didn’t want to stop meeting with any more of these people than I had to. But my time and resources were limited.

So I decided to try combining my one to ones into triplets.

After only one semester of trying it, the results are far from conclusive. But tentatively I can report that…

  1. I was able to keep regularly meeting up with almost all of the students I had been meeting with in first semester.
  2. I was forced to act on my conviction that ministry is as much caught as taught (instead of simply telling the student leaders to disciple someone else, I was able to work with them to do it).
  3. I am starting to re-examine the rationale for my pre-existing preference to do discipleship one to one.

I’ve barely even begun thinking through the third point. But I’ve been stimulated by a chapter from Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden, which someone recently pushed my way.

Ogden argues very strongly against our tendency to model discipling on the Paul-Timothy relationship. To his mind, this brings with it an unhelpfully asymmetrical expert-learner dynamic — something like which is perhaps encoded in the language of ‘investing in someone’ that I typically reach for to describe these meetings.

I’m not sure I’m entirely with him.

Theologically, I am drawn to the idea that we serve one another out of our shared weakness and interdependence (rather than me serving you out of my strength and independence).

The most deeply Christian way to serve is to help each other love and trust Jesus more. And anything that helps us actually live this has got to be a good thing.

But the New Testament does seem to grant the possibility that individuals will make an asymmetrical contribution to others — even if it also always recognises a degree of reciprocity. (I’m thinking here of passages like Romans 1.8-15.)

Equally, I don’t buy that switching to triplets will automatically address the more toxic aspects of this dynamic. A tendency to see yourself as God’s gift to another person (in a bad way) won’t necessarily be mitigated by adding an in extra person.

I am, however, inclined to agree that our theological rationale for privileging one to one as the context for discipleship is inadequate.

Or maybe I’ve just inadequately understood and digested it?

instruments in the Redeemer’s hands

A friend recently handed me a copy of Paul Tripp’s book, Instruments In The Redeemer’s Hands. And it’s got me really excited.

I know it’s not exactly a new book. So it’s a good thing this isn’t exactly a book review!

I simply want to share what’s got me excited about it so far. And that is that it’s a practical theology of every-member ministry that’s word-focused and body-contextualised — a la Ephesians 4.

I’m going to try to break this down for you. But before I do, let me give you a little taste of it’s awesomeness:

We are too easily captivated by our self-centred little worlds. But Ephesians 4 propels us beyond a life consumed by personal happiness and achievement. Your life is much bigger than a good job, an understanding spouse, and non-delinquent kids. It is bigger than beautiful gardens, nice vacations, and fashionable clothes. In reality, you are part of something immense, something that began before you were born and will continue after you die. God is rescuing fallen humanity, transporting them into his kingdom, and progressively shaping them into his likeness — and he wants you to be part of it.

Why am I so excited by this?

1. It’s practical theology.

As you can hopefully see even from this brief excerpt, it’s neither a dense theological textbook nor a lightweight toolbox of pastoral counselling resources with the thinnest of theological groundings.

2. It’s all about every-member ministry.

Picking up on the clear emphasis of Ephesians 4 (not to mention the repeated refrain of the various church and ‘one another’ passages in the New Testament), each one of us is addressed by the ‘demanding comfort’ of this announcement that we’re part of something bigger — and called to live out this larger vision of being human.

3. It’s unashamedly word-focused.

Lots of every-member ministry stuff moves very quickly to the diversity of gifts. But that’s not what Ephesians does. And neither does Tripp. Instead, he majors on speaking the truth in love to one another as every-member ministry. Which is awesome.

4. It’s body-contextualised.

Balancing the previous point, it refused to rip its focus on word-ministry out of the context of necessary interdependence, mutual responsibility, and diversity that the body metaphor provides. This is how Tripp resists the tendency to slide towards a ‘one size fits all’ approach to bringing the word to bear on one another’s lives.

So stay tuned…

There’s much more to come!

what’s your pastoral strategy?

A few weeks ago, a friend asked about my pastoral strategy: do I tend towards counselling or proclamation?

I wasn’t sure. In part, because I know the difference must go deeper than whether I spend more of my time listening or talking. It’s more a question of stance:

  • Am I primarily focused on their felt needs — trying to discover where the other person’s “at” and helping them chart a course towards the healing and wholeness found in trusting God and obeying his word?
  • Or am I mainly on about “letting the word do it” (in Luther’s phrase) — opening the Bible, allowing what God has to say reveal the real problem, and leaving them to sort out the rest?

(I’ve presented it as a sharp opposition. No doubt there’s a spectrum — and a lot more overlap — in practice.)

Although I’m still not sure where I sit, two recent incidents have begun to suggest to me the possibility of a third way.

The first was the response of our church’s pastor to the birth of our first son.

His initial response (after expressing his joy and congratulations) was neither “Let me give you some advice…” nor “How are you finding parenting?”. It was “Let’s pray about that!”

It was gentle. It was God-focussed. And, best of all, it both proclaimed something we were may have overlooked (God’s power and presence) and spoke directly to our biggest concern (our sense of powerlessness — “Why is he crying?”).

The second thing that happened, was that I read Bonhoeffer’s commentary on Matthew 7.1-12 in The Cost of Discipleship (SCM 1959). Something he says on pages 166-167 jumped out at me:

What are the disciples to do when they encounter opposition and cannot penetrate the hearts of men? They must admit that in no circumstances do they possess any rights or powers over others, and that they have no direct access to them. The only way to reach others is through him in whose hands they are themselves like all other men … The disciples are taught to pray, and so to learn that the only way to reach others is by praying to God. Judgement and forgiveness are always in the hands of God. He closes and he opens. But the disciples must ask, they must seek and knock, and then God will hear them.

So what’s your pastoral strategy?

Why not try starting with prayer?

Social Design for mission and ministry (2): outside-in ministry

I thought that this series on Social Design should try to integrate theory and application — or at least alternate between my typical up-in-the-clouds musings and something a little more practical and down-to-earth.

Which leads me to the question of how to apply what I’ve said about why Christian mission and ministry needs to work from the outside in.

What will outside-in ministry look like?

I have a few suggestions — adapted from the (strong) criticisms Mike W has levelled against a The Trellis and the Vine-style approach. Outside-in ministry:

  • Takes seriously the call to disciple-making as an activity of the whole Christian community — or, perhaps better, as the outcome of the combination of its activities — rather than as an activity chiefly or soley engaged in by individuals.
  • Is positive about systems and institutions as ways of relating to one another in dependence on Jesus and in response to his call to love, rather than disparaging them as ‘mere’ structures that are as likely to hinder relationships as to help them.
  • Delights in the many and varied ways God gives his people to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus, his church and his world in ways that both learn from past ways of doing it (tradition) and work hard to ‘translate’ it into contemporary contexts.

This, in broad brushstrokes, is my provisional ‘charter’ for outside-in ministry. Let’s try and add flesh to these bones — in conversation with one another — as we proceed through this series…

are you a grace person or a truth person?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been asked this question. I’m not sure I’ve ever had it posed so bluntly — although I have been asked a closely allied question: Are you more a ‘priest’ or a ‘prophet’?

I’m convinced that it’s a profoundly unhelpful either-or.

Now, I’m aware that people have different personalities and different strengths.

Some people are drawn towards the … ahem, unvarnished approach of the Old Testament prophet Amos (who’d barely put down his copy of How To Win Friends And Influence People before he started berating his hearers, addressing them as ‘cows of Bashan’).

Others doubt the pastoral wisdom of such an approach.

Of course, Amos wasn’t the only Old Testament prophet. And, presumably, his approach isn’t the only valid approach to truth-speaking (to say nothing of the fact that we are given barely any insight into his personal psychology — certainly nothing like we get with, say, Jeremiah; how did Amos feel about his mission to deliver such an uncompromising message?)

But, more significantly, Jesus has revolutionised prophecy. This side of the Messiah’s cross and resurrection, we can’t understand what it is to be a truth-speaker apart from his cross and resurrection.

Now the Messiah’s community as a whole is prophetic — its very existence as well as its patterns of living and relating (which are shaped by the cross and resurrection story) speak the truth about the manifold wisdom and grace of our Creator and Redeemer.

And that truth is spoken in practice, in particular, by our (pastoral) care for one another — our relationships saturated in grace, kindness, forgiveness and welcome.

In his beautiful essay ‘The Pastor as Prophet: Ethical Reflections on an Improbable Mission’ in Christian Existence Today (1988), Stanley Hauerwas paints this picture:

Visiting the sick may appear to be mundane, but it is no less a prophetic task than protesting against the idolatry of the nation-state. Indeed, it is, in a sense, part of the protest against such idolatry, as it is one of the ways the church makes clear its refusal to let the state or wider society determine whom it will and will not serve … The only question about whether such work can be prophetic is when such activities no longer draw on the story and habits that form the church, but instead underwrite our cultural assumptions about … the care of the sick.

The truth we speak of is the truth of grace.

present leadership?

Barack Obama

by jamesomalley (on Flickr)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed the theme tying together the media coverage of BP’s Gulf of Mexico debacle and our own controversy surrounding the failure of political leadership in the Black Saturday bushfires.

Overseas, Barack Obama has been constantly called upon to get himself to the Gulf of Mexico and be present — calls which he seems to have heeded. Closer to home, Christine Nixon’s presence — or rather non-presence — on Black Saturday has seen her cop tons of flak.

Why is the leader’s presence (or absence) such a big deal?

In Obama’s case, surely he’s better connected — better able to exercise meaningful leadership — in the White House rather than in the field. And, as I understand it, he’s legally blocked from actually doing anything much anyway. The responsibility for dealing with the disaster lies with BP at this stage.

I guess some of the sting here could be due to the still strong memory of George W’s unseemly delay in simply showing up in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But I suspect it goes deeper. Being present is deeply connected with genuine leadership. I’ve observed this in Christian ministry contexts. Unless you’re connected to the people you’re seeking to exercise leadership among — unless, that is, you’re recognisably one of them (as well as being someone who can do something they can’t do because of time, training, skills, etc) — then you can’t lead. Your solidarity with them — of which your bodily presence is a tangible sign — is too important.

Of course, solidarity may not be everything when it comes to leadership. But it certainly seems to have been important for the ‘pioneer of our salvation’ who came to ‘destroy the one who has the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’. This leader identified with us, shared our flesh and blood, and ultimately tasted death for everyone (see Heb 2.10-18).

the art of spiritual triage

I was discussing the changing nature of modern hospitals with one of the full-time chaplains the other day.

We observed that acute health care is geared more and more towards getting people through and out the door as quickly as possible. This is not only a matter of bottom-line thinking. It’s also indicative of the fact that we’re getting better at helping people recover and rehabilitate more quickly.


This has major implications for pastoral care. Because people often aren’t in hospital long enough to get a visit from a chaplain.

Some people are, of course. Their stays are plenty long enough. And for them hospital can be a pretty lonely and disempowering experience — unable to set your own timetable or rhythms for meals or visits or procedures, often cared for by a different member of nursing staff each day, and sometimes even shuffled from ward to ward.

This means that pastoral care staff have to learn the art of ‘spiritual triage’. Not only do people’s needs differ wildly. Not only is your capacity limited. But you’ve got to balance the need for ‘rapid intervention’ — e.g., with people who are so far away from home that it’s unlikely their family (or church family) will be able to visit and support them — with the opportunity to reach out to someone in the loneliness and isolation that can accompany extended hospitalisation.

Thrown into the mix is the fact that, in my experience at least, it’s easy to overthink it. Because all the weighing up of costs and benefits can go out the window in a flash. Maybe the patient you’ve decided probably needs most care is out getting physio when you visit. Or maybe someone else in the ward wants to start a conversation…

What do you reckon? Has the notion of ‘spiritual triage’ got legs? How might it apply in your pastoral context?

liberating and pastoral care

People who feel trapped need liberating. Although, in situations of conflict both sides tend to claim the experience of oppression and set themselves the task of liberation (which usually translates into a kind of see-saw scenario — the once-oppressed now become the oppressors and vice versa).

Reflecting on the Balkan conflict, Miroslav Volf observes: ‘Categories of oppression and liberation provide combat gear, not a pin-striped suit or a dinner dress; they are good for fighting not for negotiating or celebrating’ (‘Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Reflection in the Wake of “Ethnic Cleansing”‘ in A Spacious Heart: Essays on Identity and Belonging, p 39).

Nevertheless, even in the midst of such a conflict, where something like reconciliation — a theology of embrace — should be the goal, it’s still worthwhile speaking about oppression and liberation. As Volf admits (p 40):

A theology of embrace would … amount to a betrayal both of God and oppressed people if it were pursued in such a way as to marginalize the problems of oppression and liberation.


Of course, sometimes people can be oppressed not by other people, nor even by the ‘transpersonal’ institutions or systems — like governments — that individuals can represent or embody. Sometimes they need to be freed from illness (and the institutionalisation it’s resulted in). Or from their sense of confusion and lostness. The longing for liberation can be welded to a need for healing or guidance.

Assuming therefore that you’re dealing with a situation you have the potential to change (an important point to establish no doubt), I suspect this plays out in the way suggested by solutions-focussed counselling — e.g., trading in the attempt to apportion blame for a more productive focus on ‘mapping’ contribution so that we can begin to figure out how things can be different in future.

But this is more than a matter of pragmatics. The grace of God in Jesus offers precisely this sort of liberation, doesn’t it? God meets us in our entanglement in various oppressions, frees us, and sends us off in new, God-honouring direction: ‘Go, and sin no more’ (John 8.11)…

reconciling and pastoral care

The ancient historian Tacitus reports one of the generals of the Britons describing his Roman adversaries like this: ‘To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a wilderness and call it peace’ (Agricola 30.6).


And so often this is the experience that goes by the name of ‘peace’ or ‘reconciliation’ in our world, isn’t it? Peace not as the fullness of relationship but its absence:

  • Think of the vanquished foe, pacified, crushed (or even annihilated) and thus ‘at peace’ with the victor.
  • Or of chronic conflict avoiders — who achieve an apparent end to conflict by severing relational connection altogether.

Either way, what we have is just a wilderness — alienation masquerading as reconciliation.

And this is where the Christian gospel, and hence any pastoral care we offer that, has something distinctive to offer. God has achieved true and lasting peace in Christ, reconciling all things to Himself in Him, overcoming the hostility between human beings and Him (and between human beings and human beings). And He offers to us — as a gift — participation in it.

On the one hand, this frees us from the burden of needing to forge peace for ourselves. God has done it! Receive the gift with thankfulness and rejoice in it. This gives us such tremendously good news to bring to bear in the messiness of life.

On the other hand, it calls us to be agents of peace and reconciliation. To take up the task of forgiving as He has forgiven us. And this can be a hard ask — almost impossibly hard in some of the conflicts we know and bump up against from day to day: divorce, generations of ploughing deep furrows between ethnic groups, estranged children.

But it’s a task we can’t shirk if the church is to be the arena in which God’s reconciliation breaks out. This is the beauty of some of Jesus’ trenchant, down to earth teaching in Matthew 18, where the key is repentance in response to receiving God’s offer of forgiveness (which perhaps takes us back once again to sanctification by faith)…

sustaining & nurturing in pastoral care

In the world of biology they say that if something’s not growing it’s probably dead. And there’s truth to this when it comes to the two (closely related) pastoral functions of sustaining and nurturing.

People need sustaining and nurturing when they’re feeling overwhelmed or like their identity is being atrophied — a tragically common thing in hospitals and prisons where any sense of control gets stripped away.

Sustaining brings to mind the plants on our balcony. They tend to face not only neglect but my pretty much totally inept attempts at care. And let’s just say they’re quite a long way from flourishing… In the midst of crisis, what they need is sustaining — enough water at regular intervals, the right combination of shade and sun, maybe some fertiliser and occasional inspection for pests.

Nurturing, by contrast, feels more like what goes on in a nursery. Plants are sheltered from the harsh conditions they’ll experience ‘in the wild’ (like on our balcony) and effort is invested in ensuring they’re robust and well-established enough to face future crises.


But how can we approach these in a distinctively Christian way?

Perhaps Tim Keller’s revival of a ‘sanctification by faith’ approach helps us. Keller (following Luther and others) suggests that problems in Christian living boils down to idolatry — trusting something other than Jesus. And idolatry boils down to pride and fear (I’m still trying to figure out exactly how this works).

According to Keller, the way to grow — whether you’re in crisis or preparing to face future crises — in these particular, concrete circumstances is to repent, turning your back on your idolatrous faith, and place your faith in Jesus as the true source of security (or whatever).

I’m not sure how far I want to go with this, but I can see some of its potential in terms of suggesting what trajectories might be worth exploring in caring for someone who needs sustaining and nurturing…