Pastoral care (18): Personal responsibility and its many misconceptions

Human beings can choose what to do and what not to do. We are not free to decide, however, whether we sin by our decision and thus incur a debt before God. Personal responsibility also means being willing to bear the consequences of our actions.

Ministers are often confronted with existential questions: “What should I do? What is the right decision? How would you, as my Priest, decide? Sometimes the Priest answers too quickly and comes to regret it later. Sometimes his answer does not please the person asking? Sometimes the Priest goes too far, other times he wishes he would have said more. A real dilemma. This raises the question of personal responsibility and how to define it.

Deciding on day-to-day issues ourselves

Some people think that ministers should help them with their decisions. Why else would they have received their ministry? Yet ministers should not allow themselves to be pressured into making decisions for their brothers and sisters in matters of daily life. Jesus faced similar situations and was pressed for decisions. Here is an example: “Then one from the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But He said to him, ‘Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?’ And He said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12: 13–15).

In this case, it was a matter of inheritance. Jesus’ response is significant, because all that mattered to Him was divine salvation. Inheritance issues were entirely unimportant to Him. Pastoral care does not mean giving advice in everyday matters, helping with decisions, or even taking decisions on behalf of others. Meaning well, caring, and the expectations of the members must not be the basis for advice whose consequences are unpredictable.

Chief Apostle Jean-Luc Schneider made this clear in a divine service on 24 October 2021 in Heilbronn, Germany: “In matters concerning the organisation or the functioning of the Church, when it comes to opinions, traditions, and rules faith is not called for. ‘Here we need to use our common sense, our knowledge and our expertise, and—above all—love for our neighbour! We need faith in God, faith in the gospel, and in the teaching of Jesus Christ. We need faith when it comes to our relationship with God. For everything else we should not needlessly call on our faith.”

We are talking about salvation

Today we live in a time of great individual freedom, in which everyone is responsible for his or her life. This state of society also shapes pastoral care. Ministers encourage those seeking advice in their personal responsibility and make them aware of their responsibility before God and themselves.

On the other hand, ministers gladly counsel brothers and sisters when it comes to deepening their love for God, promoting their life of faith, and increasing their knowledge of God’s saving activity. In this they are aware of their mission, but themselves modestly remain in the background. This is about trust! This is the core of all pastoral care efforts, nothing more and nothing less. Brothers and sisters need to assume responsibility for their faith as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and yet they have the possibility to ask their ministers for help along the way. They will listen, empathise, and pray with and for them. “Especially in modern society, which is increasingly characterised by loneliness, isolation, and the marginalisation of many people, New Apostolic Christians receive care and support from their ministers in their daily lives” (CNAC 12.4.3).

This is a relationship of deep trust, not paternalism or uncertainty. Recommendations are allowed, especially when it comes to matters of faith. It is up to the brothers and sisters to decide to what extent they allow themselves to be guided. The individual’s responsibility is respected and encouraged.

In the next part we will look at the moral and legal implications of confidentiality in pastoral care.

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life