A friend, recently installed as a deacon at our church, reflected with me how many times my name, as associate pastor of spiritual formation, appears in the deacon handbook. The handbook offers steps deacons may take to address congregational needs. If deacons exhaust those steps and still struggle to meet a need or feel inadequate or unable to meet that need, the last instruction is to “Call Pastor Rachel.”
The instruction makes good sense. After all, I went to seminary and took a class on pastoral care. I visit people when they are in crisis. I pray a lot. Surely, I will know better than the average congregant about how to manage a difficult family situation, a death or a surgery. Without ill intention, the instruction bolsters the assumption that I, as a “reverend,” know more than my congregants do about how to care for others and that I’m better at it.
The truth is, in my first five years of ministry, I have encountered numerable crises and complex situations that I felt clueless and powerless to address. But, by the grace of God, motivated both by love for this congregation and fear of messing up, I have offered care in the midst of helplessness.
Caring for others is an art more than a science. Whether we do social work, counseling or pastoral ministry (to name a few “people” professions), we can acquire all kinds of training and knowledge and still not know the right thing to do when faced with the frustratingly complex brokenness of humanity. Experience and practice are the best instructors of care; they teach us that each human is uniquely created, so the crises we encounter will be different.
We learn over time what words help and what words harm, when it’s good to speak and when it’s better to stay silent. It’s an art not to solve people’s problems for them but coach them into living an empowered, whole life. This is why we ought to honor pastors who have stayed the course for 30-40 years. If they are caring, wise shepherds, that wisdom has no doubt been refined through practicing the art of care over many years.
Training is vital; we must have good tools in our tool belt, especially for those disconcerting moments of conscious incompetence. But, I wish I could help my deacons see that their feelings of inadequacy don’t disqualify them from this work to which they are called. I’ve learned over time, when facing a situation I don’t know how to address, to take a deep breath, pray for courage and humility, and follow God’s lead. It’s hard and tiring and stressful. But, there is power in our willingness to show up, to make a phone call, to send a card and to pray, even when we don’t know what to say or do.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.