Contained within the pages of a single book of the Bible are two seemingly contradictory messages. In the first section of Isaiah (ch. 1-39), the prophet warns an overly confident Israel that God will not be mocked. Talking to a people who are taking their covenant relationship with God for granted, the prophet’s message is this: “Your game is over; judgment is around the corner” (see Isa. 1:13-17, The Message).
Beginning with chapter 40, the tone changes completely, almost as if the author is addressing a different audience. And he is, because things have changed for the people of Israel. As punishment for their insolence, God has allowed Israel to be taken into captivity in Babylon. Far away from their land, their holy city, and their beloved temple, the people of Israel feel utterly alone and desperate. They’re convinced that the Lord has abandoned them. But now the message from the prophet is different: “Things are going to change for the better. Even if you have a hard time believing it, the Lord has never forgotten about you, and he is coming to the rescue” (see Isa. 49, The Message).
Two seemingly opposite messages in the same book of the Bible. What are we to make of that? Either God has different messages for different people or God has a different message for the same people at different times in their lives.
I thought about this recently while reflecting on what an ideal pastoral care ministry in our church would look like. The temptation, especially when faced with limited resources, is to have a one-size-fits-all strategy, a single message that is usually a reflection of the pastor’s personal style, disposition, and focus.
If your pastor really likes books like Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest or Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus, he or she will be more likely to preach from the first part of Isaiah. He or she will be more likely to warn about complacency and pending judgement, more likely to keep the pressure on for people to do better, work harder, and to “be holy, even as I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).
If, on the other hand, your pastor prefers books like Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality or even Nadia Bolz-Weber in Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, then the emphasis will be on God’s acceptance of all sinners, God’s patience, God’s unending love and forgiveness. Such a pastor will be more likely to preach from the second part of Isaiah, more likely to reassure people in seemingly hopeless situations, more likely to talk about what it means that Jesus ate dinner with prostitutes and other “low-life” types.
So what does all this have to do with pastoral ministry?
Before answering the question of what pastoral care ministry in our congregation should look like, we’d do well to remind ourselves that not every member of the congregation is the same. Some of us see the glass half full, others see it as half empty. Some are naturally optimistic, others refer to themselves as more “realistic”; perhaps they are more personally aware of the darker side of humanity.
Some fit the description of God’s people in the first part of Isaiah, people who think that somehow their covenant status gives them a kind of leverage over God, almost as if they can tell God what he is supposed to do. Others identify more with the Israelites held captive in Babylon that we learn about in the second part of Isaiah—people who have been beaten down by a hard life and frustrated by disappointments and failures, people who feel worthless and hopeless in the face of insurmountable obstacles. I know of both kinds of people in my church, and people of every shade in between. Surely one-size pastoral care does not fit all.
In addition to those differences are the inevitable changes in outlook that come as people get older. Is it merely a stereotype to speak about the unquenchable hope, boundless energy, and a sense of invincibility we often find in younger people, compared with the hopelessness, resignation, and despondency that often come with having experienced some difficult challenges and disappointments as the years pass? Life is not always kind, and many older people long to hear words of reassurance to help them hold on to God. Since most church members fall across a broad age spectrum, surely one-size pastoral care does not fit all.
The place to start any conversation about pastoral care is to recognize that different people have different needs and then to be realistic about the pastoral care resources that are available. What is the pastoral emphasis from the pulpit? Are there people in the congregation with a unique ability to come alongside others in times of spiritual crisis? Are there people in the congregation who have proven skills of empathy, who can interpret seemingly negative comments and complaints, read between the lines, and sense a particular loneliness or pain or even depression? Are training resources such as Stephen Ministries available? Are ministry and small group leaders trained to recognize pastoral care needs? Are members of the congregation encouraged to let their needs be known to elders or designated “safe people” who can respond as needed? Are those people clearly visible for all to find?
Elders need to find out whether the pastoral staff are aware of their own limitations in pastoral style and focus and whether they are secure enough in their own pastoral identity to welcome and encourage lay pastoral ministry. In some cases, professional pastoral staff members are less than ideally suited to offer excellence in pastoral care.
Ultimately it is the responsibility of the elders to oversee the pastoral care of the congregation. Are the elders in your congregation accessible? Are they aware of how well pastoral care needs are met in your congregation? Do they care?
Some elders will tell you that no news is good news: “Nobody seems to be complaining, so everything must be going just fine.” But once a perception emerges that the elders are not overly eager to keep their finger on the spiritual pulse of the congregation, fewer people will come forward with their observations and needs.
It is not inappropriate for an elder to ask of as many people as time and energy allow: “How are you doing with God? How is God doing with you? How is your walk? What are you up against? What do you need? How can you best find what you need? And how can we, and this church, help you?”
With that attitude, that spirit, and that willingness to serve, I believe any church can achieve excellence in pastoral care for everyone. And God will smile!