Why Every Pastor Should Be a Pastoral Care Giver

February 16, 2016

The standard advice to pastors these days is that they should under no circumstances do pastoral care. That’s been de rigueur in leadership circles since the late ’80s when John Maxwell began telling church growth conferees, “I don’t do hospital calls.”

The theory is that anybody can do pastoral care, so the pastor’s time is better spent energizing the leaders within the congregation. The sooner the pastor hands off hospital calling to small group leaders, the sooner the church will break attendance barriers.

Pastor visiting the hospital

Pastoral ministry doesn’t scale, which is why it’s taboo among pastors who style themselves as (or already are) leaders of a large organization. There’s no way for one person to do all the pastoral care for a congregation of 20,000 people. It’s a black hole that sucks time and energy without adding to attendance, so successful pastors avoid it.

I couldn’t care less.

Ministry of Word and sacrament is the primary task of a pastor. Here’s why every single one of them should be a pastoral care giver.

1. Jesus was.

Jesus started a movement far greater and more demanding than any megachurch, yet somehow found time to heal the sick and feed the hungry. Though he spent lots of time developing core leaders, he also did pastoral work, and lots of it.

Nobody thinks of Jesus primarily as an organizational genius. He’s was and is known as a teacher and healer. Why then do so many pastors aspire to be great leaders?

2. It connects you with real life.

Life doesn’t happen in a team meeting. It happens in living rooms, funeral homes, emergency rooms, and quinceañeras. The pastor who doesn’t mingle with people outside the worship center will quickly lose touch with the needs, hopes, and hidden pain of the people who show up there.

3. People matter more than organizations.

Not sure what to add to that.

4. Pastoral care is deeply satisfying.

I never met a pastor who felt better after a board meeting. I never met one who felt worse after a bereavement call. Touching people with grace and hope at their point of deepest need is incredibly meaningful work and never a waste of time.

5. It’s what pastors do.

The role of the pastor has shifted away from shepherding God’s flock to mobilizing God’s troops. That’s fine. The world needs bishops, which is what many pastors aspire to be—leaders of leaders. Lots of people want to attend big-box churches just like lots of people want to shop at Walmart, and somebody has to lead those churches. That’s all good.

Let’s not pretend, however, that most, or even many, pastors are able to function at that level. Training every pastor to be Rick Warren’s replacement is a waste of time. Most of us aren’t cut out for that kind of leadership and don’t aspire to it.

We went to seminary hoping to become, well, pastors. So let’s be that. As Karl Vaters keeps reminding us, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being the pastor of a small church.

6. Pastoral care is leadership.

If you doubt that, ask yourself why the leader of the world’s largest Christian body so frequently visits prisons, hospitals, and homeless shelters. Pope Francis doesn’t visit a soup kitchen every day, but when he walked out of the US Capitol entered a homeless shelter, that symbolic action added inexorable weight to his already heavy words.

When you care for souls, you show people what matters.

7. You can do for one what you cannot do for all.

If you can’t do all the pastoral care for your congregation, you can do one or two hospital calls, conduct a funeral here or there, or occasionally counsel a couple toward marriage. By doing that, you keep yourself grounded in the real concerns of ministry and set an example for others.

That’s not just me talking. “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone” is Andy Stanley’s line, and he’s done fairly well at leading a large church.

The word pastor means shepherd. Lately we seem to have thought it means leader, executive producer, or CEO. Jesus was never called the Great Communicator. That was Ronald Reagan. We model the Good Shepherd, the Great Physician, the Suffering Servant.

Perhaps it’s time for the shepherds of God’s people to recover that role.

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.