Pastoral care in the 21st century

“Pastoral carers open up space to allow people to consider the overlap between their everyday life and what they believe and experience about God.” – Lynne M. Baab,  (in “Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century”)

I wasn’t required to read any pastoral care overview textbooks in seminary (my pastoral care requirement was fulfilled by a course on family systems theory). Thus, I’m not an expert on pastoral care books — but I ran across a pastoral care volume that caught my attention and have hung on to: Lynne M. Baab’s book, “Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century.” In her early chapters, Baab observes that the traditional way of doing pastoral care was a therapeutic model performed by pastors. Without deconstructing this mid 20thcentury way of doing pastoral care, she highlights changes in our culture and society and how pastoral care has changed along with it.

One thing Baab notes is that pastoral care becomes richer and fuller when it is done by teams of people rather than being exclusively in the hands of the pastor. In light of new pressures and demands upon pastoral life, it makes sense that teams of people would take up the mantle of care. Because Baab’s book is accessible and easy to read, it makes an excellent resource for the training of care teams. At the conclusion of each chapter, she includes tips for using this material in training as well as thoughtful discussion questions.

The first seven chapters of Baab’s book cover changes in pastoral care patterns in the 21stcentury. She devotes an entire chapter to how “Christian pastoral care is missional.” In my context, this is a particularly helpful insight. Our church has been focused on God’s mission in the world and how we nudge people to live as disciples outside the walls of the church building. Care has been something we’ve seen as an inwardly focused ministry, attending to the needs of “our own people.”

Baab notes that people outside the church need care as much as people within the church. People outside the church are trying to find meaning in the pain in their lives as much as people within the church. And meaning-making is a part of pastoral care. This chapter renewed my energy for pastoral care as valuable in light of our church’s new vision.

The latter half of Baab’s book was my favorite, as she covered four skills that pastoral carers need to build: understanding and managing stress, listening, spiritual practices and ways to nurture resilience. Baab’s chapter on stress was an excellent overview of different definitions of stress as well as suggestions for coping with stress. Borrowing from the book “Sacred Stress” by Heather Wright and George R. Faller, Baab suggests that we reframe stress, not as something negative but as something to be befriended for what it can teach us. Stress isn’t an enemy, but an opportunity for growth. As someone who has felt tremendous guilt for the stress in my life, it was empowering to think of stress as a friend.

Baab concludes her book with the call for pastoral carers to build their resiliency by engaging in rhythms of rest and self-care. She suggests we name what we want our brain to develop, including beliefs that foster resiliency. I conclude with some of these beliefs:

  • “God is responsible for other people’s lives. I help people by caring, but I am not ultimately responsible.”
  • “I come alongside people in their pain, and I feel pain with them, but their pain belongs to God, not to me.”
  • “God will help me know what to do and what not to do.”

I heartily recommend this book, especially as a resource for training others to do positive pastoral care.

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.