Pastoral Care

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?

the charitable supposition

I’m more and more convinced that pastoral ministry should operate on a charitable supposition.

What I mean is that we ought to try put the best construction on the things people say — whether they’re saying that they understand and agree to what they’re promising when they bring their kid to be baptised or expressing the aspiration of their heart as they sing words like ‘Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand’.

In Knots Untied (Chapter 7), J. C. Ryle helpfully applies this principle to the case of the strong declaration in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Infant Baptism service, ‘Seeing now that this child is regenerate…’

At heart this is about leaving judgement to God. And it feels right on! My only hesitation — which I’m still not quite sure what to do with — arises with the application Paul seems to make of this principle. In 1 Cor 4, Paul warns against pronouncing judgement ‘before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart’ (v 5).

So far so Anglican… But within a chapter Paul is laying down some pretty severe church discipline, insisting (in no uncertain terms) that Christians must not remain in fellowship ‘with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber’ because ‘Is it not those inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you‘ (1 Cor 5.11-12).

Whoa! How does that square with Ryle’s charitable supposition?

becoming a church of irresistible influence (1)

Few would argue with the assertion that gospel-shaped Christian community is fundamentally about sharing. In this sense it’s like all community — at least if O’Donovan’s on the money when he suggests that meaningful sharing is the essence of community (Ways of Judgement, pp 250-251).

But this leaves the question: What makes Christian community distinct? What is it a sharing in?

The good (and thoroughly sound) evangelical reflex is to shout: ‘The gospel!’

Suspension Bridge in Pemberton, WA (Jan 09)

Suspension Bridge in Pemberton, WA (Jan 09)

Surprisingly that wasn’t Paul’s response. Or at least not the whole of it. Writing to the relatively new believers at Thessalonica he says: ‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves’ (1 Thess 2.8).

Can you imagine … if we really believed in such whole of life sharing, what our churches might look like?

I’ve just finished reading The Church of Irresistible Influence, and I’m pondering what would be different about the way we structure and organise the various programmes and activities that come under the local church umbrella if this whole of life sharing were bigger than just an ‘in house’ thing — as it surely was for Paul who (presumably) shared like this with the Thessalonians before as well as after their conversion?

What difference might it make to our churches — and the networks in which they’re embedded — if this was part of our DNA? And we became churches of irresistible influence — salt and light in the world?

to go or not to go?

cabinwindowAt the youth/university ministry stage of life, one of the toughest pastoral issues to tackle is travel.

It’s almost expected that at some point you’ll take a ‘gap year’ — or month — and travel overseas, probably to Europe and/or the UK (Natalie has often pointed out that it’s funny that the UK feels like the ‘ancestral homeland’ for so many Australians — no matter what our actual ethnicity). And there’s lots to embrace about this — travelling can be fantastic. And, apart from increasingly prominent environmental/peak oil concerns, with our unprecedented resources and opportunities the question is often, ‘Why not?’

Still, I’ve often struggled to know what to say to someone who bounds up to me and says, ‘I’m going overseas!’:

  • On the one hand, my problem is that I’ve seen, sometimes at painfully close proximity, how heading off on your big adventure can be spiritually disastrous. Really. I’m not kidding.
  • But on the other, I’ve discovered that there are few better ways to harden someone in their resolve to disappear overseas than hitting them with, ‘Oooh… Really? Travel can be really bad for your spiritual health. Maybe you should reconsider’, or words to that effect. People usually just want you to share in their excitement.

Justin’s recent series really nicely balances sharing the enthusiasm and raising the real concerns.

And if you’re already heading off overseas, it’s definitely worth checking out Craig and Walshy’s site. It’s got some great resources — and stories!

anxiety: the devil’s in the detail

This past weekend I preached on the conclusion of Peter’s first epistle (1 Peter 5.6 -14). It can feel a little grab bag-ish — as if there are a bunch of things Peter wants to say by way of encouragement that he just throws in there as he’s wrapping up.

But I actually think the things he says here do all fit together and make sense. When Peter urges us, ‘Humble yourselves … Cast all your anxieties on him …  Discipline yourselves … Keep alert … Resist the devil’, he’s taking us on a guided tour of how to stand fast in God’s grace (v. 12).

If this is the case, then the question of how to relate these various words of encouragement to each other crops up. In particular, how are we to relate resisting the devil to the call to humble ourselves and cast our anxieties on God? What’s the connection between our worries and anxieties and the fact that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion?

For Peter’s original readers, this question had a lot to do with the hostility and persecution they were suffering. Although it seems to consist largely of verbal — rather than physical — battering (cf. 2.12, 3.9-17 — with Christian slaves as a possible exception in 2.18-21), he does label their situation a ‘fiery ordeal’ (4.12). And that sounds pretty drastic.

So, by linking the pressure they were experiencing for sticking to their guns with the activity of their adversary the devil, Peter transposes their plight into a whole other key. Their day to day struggles are played out against a cosmic backdrop. The ordinary Christian life within a hostile (or perhaps just indifferent) world is the fulfilment of all the kind of talk we get in Old Testament books like Daniel about apocalyptic battles between good and evil. The devil is in the detail.


But what about us? Do you spend much time thinking about this cosmic and apocalyptic struggle going on behind the scenes of your day to day experiences of hostility, contempt, indifference, ostracism, bad-mouthing and whatever else causes you anxiety as you seek to stand firm in the grace of God in a world in which it makes very little sense? What difference would it make if you did?

ADDENDUM: Before you sound the alarm, I’m not recommending that we start blaming the devil for every little thing that goes wrong — as if the string of red lights that made you late to the job interview was part of some grand conspiracy! If the devil is in the details of everyday life, he’s to be resisted not obsessed over. Nor am I suggesting that those who persecute us are to be resisted as if they themselves are the devil. We’re to resist him, not those who persecute us for doing right (cf. 3.9-17).

Significantly, the connection between the devil and our anxieties runs the other way too. The way we’re to resist the devil under pressure is to cast our anxieties on God, humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand by turning to him in prayer. Spiritual warfare is not about knowing the right rituals or the right names. It’s about that basic act of Christian faith, crying out to God in expression of our dependence on him.

Remember Job? The devil opposed him, testing his faith. And Job, who never even had an inkling that there’s a cosmic conflict behind his troubles, resisted him simply by turning to God. He didn’t blame God. He humbled himself under God’s mighty hand. Even the boldest expression of pain and frustration to pass Job’s lips doesn’t fail to be an expression of faith. Pain, anxiety, doubt and even indignation laid before God is an expression of faith not unbelief. And it’s the key to resisting the devil!

Hauerwas and the broken

I’ve started doing some hospital visiting this year. And, although I’m still feeling my way in terms of meaningful conversation, I’m hoping that the irrepressible Stanley Hauerwas is on the money:

That the deaf, the mute, the blind, the poor, those rendered helpless in the face of suffering, recognize Jesus is not accidental. To be disabled does not make one a faithful follower of Christ, but it puts you in the vicinity of the kingdom. To be disabled is to be forced to have the time to recognize that Jesus is the inauguration of a new time constituted by prayer. To be disabled is to begin to understand what it means to be an infant vis-a-vis the kingdom brought in by Jesus (Matthew, p 116).

(I reckon Hauerwas is what Harold Bloom would call an ‘independently interesting’ author — someone who’s worth reading on whatever topic, even though he’s not always going to be a reliable guide to that topic!)

demonising and contemporary psychology

A psychologist friend of mine has pointed me in the direction something called narrative therapy. I’m fascinated by the vistas it opens up, and not just for psychological practice.


It’s spurred me to address one of the gaps in my theology (which John has laid his finger on over at Skunk Egg Brick Walnut) — spiritual warfare, demons, demon-possession, that sort of thing.

Crucial to this is the emphasis on ‘extenalising the problem’ in narrative therapy, which is (once again) about how you tell the story…

Continue reading