This post will focus on the third and last of our “sins” of the mainline: pastoral care as a membership privilege. Previous posts in this series focussed on the sins of “relevant” preaching and “accessible” liturgy.
Self-centered pastoral care
When I first conceived of this post, it was to be a scathing critique of the self-centredness of the mainline church’s approach to pastoral care. The enormity of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, has given me pause and caused me to recalibrate my message.
It’s not that my principles on this subject have changed, but most assuredly the context has.
Prior to the pandemic it could be fairly said of most of our congregants that they were amongst the “comfortable,” socioeconomically speaking. The majority of those in our pews are “haves” rather than “have-nots,” both in the local context and even more so in the wider global context.
The arrival of Covid-19, given the general demographics of the mainline with our congregations skewing heavily to the older end of the spectrum, has caused us all to recalibrate our notions of safety, and vulnerability, and risk.
For many of us the vast majority of our congregants are members of at-risk groups, due to age and underlying health conditions. Looked at through the lens of this particular pandemic, our pews are filled with some of the most vulnerable of our neighbours.
In addition, many seniors’ physical vulnerability to the virus is magnified by other factors common amongst the older population. Many seniors live alone and are dependent for a variety of daily living tasks on support provided by family members or professional carers. Such support has been seriously interrupted by pandemic control measures.
Others live in specialized seniors’ residences, but these too have been cut off from interaction with the outside community due to pandemic restrictions.
Pastoral care in this context assumes a very different character than in pre-pandemic times.
Comforting the comfortable
The general point I had intended to make when I first conceived of this post was that pastoral care in the mainline is too inwardly focussed. That it is often a matter of comforting the comfortable, providing additional spiritual and psychosocial resources to those who are already well-resourced.
I’ve ministered in contexts where pastoral care was seen as a service or program provided to members. Members of the congregation felt entitled to a certain allowance of pastoral care service, as part of their funding of the congregational budget. Efforts to provide pastoral care to those outside the congregation were frowned upon as a misallocation of members’ contributions.
Yet it was often those outside the congregation who were most in need of care and psychosocial support: whether that be new parents struggling to manage without extended family nearby, those living with mental health or addictions issues, or the truly very poor in our communities.
As I say, the pandemic has changed the context in which we are providing pastoral care, but the principle remains the same. Our pastoral care resources ought to be directed to those most in need, those most vulnerable in our communities.
An opportunity to stretch
It just so happens that we have a lot of vulnerable people right in front of us right now. As is so often proving to be the case with Covid-19, this pandemic is gifting with an opportunity to practice new skills, to stretch ourselves in new directions, beginning right where we are.
Can we imagine going beyond the traditional mold of pastoral care in the mainline—hospital visits, card-writing ministries, and monthly worship services in seniors’ homes? What might that look like?
How might the Covid-19 pandemic stretch us to provide new forms of pastoral care that we might then extend to the wider community?
Pandemic pastoral care
One initiative that I’ve seen congregations have considerable success with is a prayer shawl ministry. Knitting prayer shawls is an appropriate activity for pandemic times! The gift of a prayer shawl is a tangible sign of care that often goes beyond the impact of a card. It is something that provides physical comfort and a constant reminder that someone cared enough to put in a great deal of effort.
In my experience, prayer shawls are welcomed equally by those in our congregations, and those outside, including those of other beliefs and those with no particular religious belief. They are appreciated by new moms, seniors, and anyone of any age going through a difficult patch.
With Christmas soon upon us, and pandemic restrictions preventing many family gatherings, this would be a good time to commit to providing some direct support to a neighbour who is alone. Perhaps congregations could organize rosters of volunteers to do grocery shopping or errands to those whose normal supports have been interrupted.
One congregation I know has prepared Christmas goodie bags for the entire student body and staff team of a local elementary school. A similar idea might be to make up Christmas goodie stockings for those who will be alone on Christmas morning, and drop them off with a cheery greeting on Christmas Day.
Loving God and neighbour
There are of course many possibilities, and I encourage you to think of what you and your congregation might do. The point is to go beyond our normal, somewhat limited, internal focus, and to stretch ourselves in new directions, that we might be of service to the world God so loves.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton is an Anglican priest and former United Church of Canada minister, church leadership consultant, and author of Who’s Minding the Story? (Wipf & Stock, 2018).