Pastoral care (12): Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t…

From “I don't need a visit” to “Come over more often”—traditional family visits from ministers are still valued. What is required, however, are more creative ways to get together, as well as a return to more conventional values.

The traditional format has been common practice for many years, and it looks something like this: the minister asks the members—perhaps a family or a sister/brother—whether he can make a visit on a specified date and time. On the date in question, two ministers stand at the door and are asked to come inside. In days gone by, this was known as a family visit, but today it is more commonly known as a pastoral care visit. This pattern is still valid, but the conditions of its external framework are shifting.

Some prefer a pastoral visit to go—in other words, not a static visit in the living room, but perhaps a conversation over the phone or by WhatsApp, or even at church after a divine service. Others only think of such visits as pastoral care when needed: if there is no specific situation of need, no discussion is required. To put it kindly, the traditional pastoral care visit is not entirely without contradictions. Although this model is still in practice, the demand for creativity has increased. And the question of trust must also be asked anew.

The pastoral care visit—on the way out?

Certainly not! On the contrary! If anything, ministers’ visits are in need of a new appreciation. It would be good to come up with new approaches for this form of individual pastoral care, but without ignoring the well-motivated wishes of our brothers and sisters in faith. After all, the reality of the situation is often quite different.

People would often rather do their own thing. Faith is a private matter. There are plenty of evening appointments already, and scraping together some extra time to talk about faith is not exactly a top priority for everyone. For many, a short conversation would suffice. After all, pastoral care visits in one’s own home require a certain amount of effort.

These arguments are merely a few excerpts from a colourful kaleidoscope of reasons why traditional pastoral care visits are not always successful.

The pastoral care visit to refuel

On the other hand, there is the view of the Church that pastoral care is of great importance in church practice. Church without pastoral care is like skin without care. Of course, pastoral care also occurs through preaching, through the effect of the sacraments, and through acts of blessing, but—particularly on an individual level—it occurs through personal conversations. Here the emphasis is on the individual: the individual pastoral care conversation is an essential characteristic of the Church.

Those who think this way tend to associate pastoral care visits from their ministers with desirable outcomes: new knowledge, new clarity in questions of faith, the peace and relief that results from addressing feelings of guilt, and much more. This makes the pastoral care visit a valuable step on the path of faith. Beyond that such personal exchanges about matters of faith are good for one’s own perception of the world. Where else do people ever talk about God and the world, about the Bible and the lessons everyone can learn from it? After all, discussion groups and Bible evenings do not exist in all congregations.

A matter of trust

Of course, not all the framework conditions fit together smoothly everywhere and at all times. It would be unrealistic to think that way. Ministers and members do not necessarily have to agree on their respective outlooks on life, nor do they automatically have to trust each other from the start. Mutual trust is something that needs to be earned!

Appreciation for ministers as Church dignitaries does not simply fall from the sky. The chemistry is not always right. This is nothing new. Such challenges have always been part of the equation, but the problem seems to be worsening. What is required is a willingness to focus on what connects and what is common. The otherness of our neighbour should actually be enriching and not disturbing. If our neighbour is always a stranger, we will only emphasise our differences.

The result is a seemingly unbridgeable gap between one another or even a rejection of one’s discussion counterpart. Trend researchers and psychologists warn of an increasing inability for people to relate with others in modern society. Trust, on the other hand, requires a consistent element of goodwill. When this is present, the relationships between the members and ministers of the congregation will remain resilient. Then the pastoral care visit will take on a friendly, attractive sparkle. Then such visits will not merely be seen as an obligatory duty to check off on some outdated checklist. Then pastoral care conversations can be a real gain for all parties.

In the next part of our series on pastoral care, we will once again explore the pastoral care visit and inquire into the opportunities and possibilities it offers to all involved—provided that it runs according to certain rules of the game.

Photo: markoaliaksandr -

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life