Like a mother tenderly caring for her children…

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…

guiding and pastoral care

Our thinking about guidance is often focussed on decision-making (as reflected, for example, in the titles of popular Christian books on guidance — Decision-making and the Will of God, etc). And this is natural and obvious enough.

It’s often precisely in the moment of decision (or at least in the moments leading up to the moment of decision) that we reach out for guidance and advice. Similarly, when offering guidance, it’s typically when people are making decisions that we feel most useful, and can help provide some sense of direction and equipment for navigating through decisions.


Mention of such ‘equipment’ — the moral and spiritual equivalent of sextants, maps, charts and compasses — highlights a problem with this focus on decision-making as the chief moment of guidance. As far as I can see, there are two key aspects of this:

  1. It’s usually not the most effective time to be equipping to make decisions well (ie. in ways that centre on Jesus and his promises for our lives and futures).
  2. Neither is giving particularly effective in these times (I don’t know if you’ve ever met someone who’s nominally seeking advice who it turns out has pretty much already decided and it simply canvassing different opinion until he or she finds someone who agrees with them?).

This is where the kind of approach adopted in Guidance and the Voice of God seems fruitful. The fact that decisions matter is affirmed. But the decisions we normally prioritise are up-ended, such that — at least when matters of godliness aren’t directly at stake — decisions about (i) how to serve God (e.g., matters of character and church), (ii) where to live, and (iii) what job to get are tackled in that order — rather than the reverse.

This can be tremendously liberating, especially if it frees us from anxiety over decisions that seem important (e.g., what job to take) but turn out to be less important than how we’re going to honour God in our workplace and in not being swallowed up by our job.

Helping people develop habits of honouring God should be what Christian guidance is all about.

healing and pastoral care

People who are hurting need healing. Not just physically and/or psychologically — although they certainly need this — but emotionally and spiritually. This is the first function of pastoral care. But what role can we play as Christians?

Some go for a Name It And Claim It-type approach. Healing, they maintain, is promised and available in Jesus. Trust Him and you’ll experience His power. And conversely if you’re not experiencing healing you’re probably not trusting Him — or not trusting Him enough.

Reacting against this emphasis on a felt need for healing, others insist that people’s souls and eternal destinies are far more important than their (temporal) felt needs. ‘Spiritual health’ is what really matters (and what we’re actually trained to deal with). And so we hold out a kind of disembodied hope — for escape from our broken and weak bodies.

But if we turn to Jesus’ healings in the Gospels, we find they don’t quite fit into either box.

Seamen's Hospital, Royal Albert Dock

Seamen's Hospital, Royal Albert Dock

His ‘power encounters’ do effect physical healing. He does drive out demons. Although, He is able in a way we often aren’t — and healing is certainly not all He’s on about. But in line with the full-booded OT expectation for the resurrection and new creation Jesus consistently demonstrates the importance of bodily restoration in the saving work of God.

More, in providing a foretaste of the new creation Jesus humanises — or re-humanises — people. Hence, He treats them as people, not letting their illnesses define them. And, climactically, His restorative work often allows them to rejoin the community of God’s people.

Ultimately, though, Jesus’ healings have a goal beyond themselves. He’s on about re-focusing human faith and worship. Centring our devotion where it should be: on Himself — the Messiah, the unique Son of the Father. Yet such devotion will be costly and painful. For the cross is the shape of redeemed human life. We should expect suffering and service unto death (rather than constant triumphant health) to characterise life this side of the resurrection.

I wonder how these emphases of Jesus’ ministry might shape our offer of healing as a facet of Christian pastoral care?

‘like a mother tenderly caring for her children’


Paul has a beautiful way of portraying his pastoral relationship with the fledgling Thessalonian congregation (1 Thess. 2.5-8):

As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a mother tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

I find this so inspiring. Strong cords of love and mutuality bind Paul and this little congregation. He doesn’t stand on his rights as an apostle. Even in considering himself answerable chiefly to God — not seeking praise from mortals — far from draining all feeling and openness from his pastoral relationships, it actually enables profound care and transparency.

It sounds great. And thrilling (or threatening — which is really just the other side of the same thing). And open-ended.

But compare it with his more functional description his pastoral ministry in Acts 20.18-21:

You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus.

This is no less emotionally-loaded than Thessalonians. But Paul’s account of his ministry in Ephesus seems to have a much more sharply defined shape and texture. It’s all about repentance and faith.

Can you feel the tension here?

This, I suggest, is going to be the fundamental tension as we wrestle together with how to exercise the various functions of pastoral care in a distinctively Christian way.

how can pastoral care be distinctively Christian?


A wise one once gave me this piece of advice: ‘Remember you’re a creature as well as a Christian’.

There’s something profoundly right and helpful about this, isn’t there? It can be easy to answer the call of Christian discipleship by becoming more and more deeply embedded in church-related things — signing up for more rosters, spending ever greater amounts of time and effort (and money) on activities and programmes with other Christians, etc.

In this way, our vision of the Christian life can become narrower and narrower. And things like hobbies and rest can drop off the edge.

In the pastoral care literature a number of different ‘functions’ of pastoral care have been identified which try to help us care holistically about people — care about them as creatures as well as Christians.

I’d like us to explore the following six generally agreed upon ‘functions’ together:

  1. Healing
  2. Guiding
  3. Sustaining
  4. Reconciling
  5. Nurturing
  6. Liberating

To pre-empt a little, I’ve heard it suggested that we can baptise one or more of them in order to render pastoral care distinctively Christian — reconciliation, guidance or maybe even liberation would be solid candidates. But surely the gospel speaks to us in all of our creaturely and not just our narrowly Christian — or (institutional) ‘churchy’ — reality. The announcement of the achievement of God in our Lord Jesus Christ tells us how to be (thoroughly) human!

So the big question I want to probe is, How can the exercise of these functions be distinctively Christian? What shape and texture will pastoral care have if it’s not only to be expansive and holistic but also thoroughly informed by the gospel?