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Correcting a Structural Heresy

Ministers aren’t supposed to be the only ones providing pastoral care.

“When I’m sick, especially on my death bed, I want my minister, not the elder, to visit and pray with me,” said my mother many years ago.

Forty years later I visited Bernice and Ted, who had been friends with my parents. This now-retired couple lost their first baby in the sixth month of pregnancy, and their second child lived only three minutes. Bernice told me with delight and moist eyes (while her husband looked on with far-away pain and a glowing smile) how my mother had visited her. What a comfort and strength my mom had been, she who herself wanted only the minister in her time of need.

Christian Reformed believers want and expect their ministers to visit them in times of trouble and distress. Sure, we’ll welcome visits from an elder or a friend, but it seems only the minister’s visit really counts. And we CRC ministers have been faithful in meeting this expectation; we have created, maintained, and thrived on pastoral care.

But I believe we may have created, maintained, and even thrived on what I venture to call a “structural heresy.”

Yes, I’m talking about a false practice with serious negative results—namely the robbing of the laity. Our practice of being in the forefront may inadvertently cheat all believers of their responsibility and the blessing of caring for each other. They too ought to thrill in knowing that when a person like my mother visited Bernice and Ted, she was being a God-sent angel in their darkest night.

When they read this article and gave me permission to use their names, Bernice and Ted added this note, “Your mother’s example made us visit a newly arrived couple with the same experience as us.

. . . Some thirty years later . . . they still show appreciation, while our hearts are warmed and blessed again.”

Jesus’ new command is to love each other; Paul exhorts us to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, NRSV).

Pastoral care is the calling, privilege, and duty of all believers. We ministers are called to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12, NRSV).

Not Always So

It was not always so—that the clergy were leaders of care giving in the Christian community. The early church in the book of Acts, in fact, set up the office of deacon so the disciples would not “neglect the word of God” while making sure that everyone’s physical needs were met (Acts 6:2). But with the rise of ordained and educated ministry, the clergy moved into the forefront of care.

The Reformation reclaimed the “priesthood of all believers,” including the calling to care. Elders took their rightful place as overseers and care givers, and the Reformed churches established the practice of “family visiting.” Elders in this tradition often testify of the blessing they receive from providing such home care. Yet again, such ministry remains confined to a select few, not to the entire community of believers.

Worldwide, since World War II, laypersons have stepped forward. Sometimes they filled the breach left when clergy answered the call to minister in the armed services. About 10 percent of CRC ministers served “our boys” during WW II, discovering a ministry to many other men and women.

In Latin America both the Pentecostal and Roman Catholic churches today thrive with much more lay, than clergy, leadership. With the rise of the charismatic movement, the decreasing number of persons ordained, and the general realization that the ministry of care belongs to all the people of God, new approaches to caring have developed.

Some of these approaches are well established and recognized; many churches use them with great benefit. Let me suggest two effective ones:

  1. Can the Pastor Do It Alone? by Melvin J. Steinbron (Regal, 1987) prepares lay people for pastoral care. This excellent book gives reasons (biblical and practical) for lay ministry and suggests structures and helpful ideas and concepts for lay ministry.

    Stephen Ministries “is one good example of a thorough and well-organized system of putting into practice the basic concepts of the above book.

  2. It encompasses the organization, administration, training and supervision of lay people in pastoral care.” Contact info: Stephen Ministries, 2045 Innerbelt Business Center Dr., St. Louis, MO 63114; 314-428-2600;

I recommend both the book and the program. However, I’d like to commend a third approach to lay pastoral ministry that may offer an even better way. But first let me tell you how I got to where I am today, and then why I advocate this “even better way.”

A Better Way

For three decades I was a hospital “teaching chaplain.” I helped theological students, ordained ministers, Catholic sisters, and laypersons learn to visit the sick. The last six years of my ministry (I’m now retired) I’ve majored in being a pastor to lay visitors, who in turn do most of the care giving in the congregation.

I believe and have experienced that the Holy Spirit has already equipped many believers with the gift of caring, supplemented by life experiences that make them great care givers without any up-front education. My mother could care deeply because she had “been there.” The Holy Spirit, life experience, and a gentle attitude made her the perfect person to minister to Bernice and Ted in their loss.

Every church community includes a host of believers with hurts and happiness, with belief and doubts, with hopes and fears. The Holy Spirit has gifted many with the ability to listen and not to talk, to accept and not correct, to hear and not (yet) tell their own story, to discern and pray. Some have the gift of faith, from which they can rightly encourage doubters to confidence, the despairing to hope again in God. Others have the gift of silent suffering and yet staying present. I say no previous training needed because God has already equipped them.

But to make use of these gifts, two things need to happen. First, we clergy need to surrender our seemingly exclusive claim to be the pastoral care givers. If we keep this role to ourselves, we hoard the blessings promised by Jesus and experienced by the 70 whom Jesus sent out to minister and who returned on a great spiritual high (Luke 10:1-23).

The other challenge is for churches to support, nurture, encourage, and pray for those who conduct this ministry, and to assure that they are equipped to carry on. We do so in our church with a program of “constant companying.” In groups of four to eight, we gather to listen to reports of visits made, ministry done, phone calls made. We listen deeply to each other and then tell each other what we did well. We speak only of What Went Well. We offer no critiques or suggestions. I believe this kind of support, nurture, and encouragement works best.

Even though I’ve taught pastoral care for years, I’m now convinced that teaching is for naught in equipping laity for ministry. All the learning is in building up each other in “well doing,” which the Holy Spirit already has drilled into most people by gifts and life experience.

Not only do I suggest that we stick with “Well done, good and faithful visitor,” I think we also ought to stay away from the “hard” cases, dramatic and traumatic problems and issues that might be best handled by the minister or professional Christian counselor. In general we stick with Common, Ordinary Ministry, because most of life is ordinary. Put “What Went Well” and “Common, Ordinary Ministry” together and you’ve got, an acronym for the present age.

I believe that the ordinary care of ordinary parishioners in their ordinary times is well done by the laity, while the clergy do the critical care. (Meanwhile the clergy do some ordinary care as well, and the laity support people in crises while the clergy do the in-depth ministry.)

While my mother may have held to a “structural heresy,” she proved that we can all live a life of saintly service.

You Can Do It

Though the Holy Spirit equips believers to provide pastoral care, none of us is beyond improvement. And many of us could use some concrete ideas for getting started.

The Banner recommends the following resources:

  • The Compassionate Congregation: A Handbook for People Who Care (Faith Alive/Reformed Church Press, 2006). This newly revised and expanded guide by Karen Mulder and Ginger Jurries offers stories, advice, and resources from people who have faced crises in their lives. It covers a wide range of situations, including abortion, abuse, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, death, depression, and more. And it includes four session outlines for small groups who want to become better caregivers.
  • The Miracle of Kindness (2005). Rev. Jim Kok, director of Care Ministry at the Crystal Cathedral, founded the annual Conference on Care and Kindness. Here he offers four strategic “tools” that can turn the average pleasant person into an effective helper of others, showing how we can “[change] the world one act at a time.”
  • 90% of Helping Is Just Showing Up (Faith Alive, 1996). How do we show we care? How do Christians communicate Christ’s care to others? How can we become more caring people? Rev. Jim Kok helps us move beyond feelings to action.

Each of these books is available from Faith Alive Christian Resources:, 1-800-333-8300.

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