Pastoral care (24): A guide for effective intervention

Detail is vital to pastoral care. And listening is an absolute priority. Ministers must learn to understand the people who come to them. Recognising their state of mind and exploring possible solutions is not magic. Listening does not mean remaining silent, but speaking from the heart.

It starts with a self-test: to make sure that I have understood what I just heard, I repeat in my own words what my conversation partner has just told me. This is the only way ministers can make sure that they are on the side of those who have confided in them—and that is where they are supposed to be. This is very important when the facts are complicated or the language unclear.

Do you understand me?

In a typical pastoral care conversation, a lot of information flows from A to B and back. It is not always understandable nor can it always be pieced together into a coherent whole. The people seeking help are often emotional, agitated, or have difficulty expressing their thoughts clearly. This is when questions help to clarify matters, that is questions whose purpose it is to obtain additional information from the person seeking counsel so that one can understand him or her better. It is important to ask these questions the moment the information deficit crops us. When the conversation has moved on to another focus, it is difficult to remember and re-establish the relevant context. This often proves to be a source of misunderstanding.

Which image of God do you have?

An existential crisis is not necessarily a crisis of faith! Ministers and counsellors tend to appeal to people’s faith when their life is turned upside down. The idea behind this is that the cause for their pain and misfortune is a lack of trust in God, an insufficient prayer life, and a reluctance to sacrifice. Thus the price for a lack of faith is an existential crisis, and divine punishment only logical. Such is the thinking.

Such ideas are absurd and drag pastoral care into the profane! Statements that arise from such thinking can only cause hurt and humiliation, exert pressure, and in effect aggravate an already existing crisis. Those who believe they have to judge and condemn should go to court. The gospel is different. The image of God in the New Testament is of a merciful and forgiving God, not a punishing God. It is beautiful to read how Jesus Christ teaches His disciples to wean them from bad habits. Already then, the Lord rejected any ideas that earthly limitations are a result of sin or that sickness is a just punishment from God. And He still rejects them. He healed the people; He did not humiliate them. When the Lord did rebuke, it was out of love. But He never rejected anyone.

How do you speak?

Well-intentioned but completely trivial statements such as: “We all have to go through this!”, “It’ll be alright!”, or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, are completely misplaced. Anyone who talks like this has no idea what damage they are causing. Ministers do not talk like this.

Similarly, formulations such as “I can well understand that!” and “I know how you feel!” should be used sparingly, unless the minister really knows how someone feels because he has been through it himself. Often, however, this is not the case. People in distress immediately sense whether such statements are credible or not. The mere need to comfort should not be the motivation for false statements.

Quite intuitively, ministers are initially seen as people one can trust and confide in—which is a good thing. Sometimes people infer from this that once they have confided in their Priest, he can also solve their problem. But is this really what spiritual care is all about? Even good counsellors and ministers cannot solve all the problems. In some cases, they can stimulate renewed reflection or even suggest a possible solution. However, it is up to the person seeking counsel to decide which path he or she wants to take. And it is appropriate to involve specialists to help solve the problems. Ministers are spiritual guides; they are not marriage counsellors, conflict managers, job counsellors, or lawyers! They convey comfort, they talk about the loving God, and accompany those who seek help on their way out of crisis.

So what can you do?

The hands of ministers are not tied because

  • they can pray intensively with those seeking counsel. Those who believe that earnest prayer does not have a positive effect, are mistaken. Praying together always helps—it helps the speaks the prayer and the one who hears it.
  • they give spiritual guidance from a faith that has proven itself and from the authority inherent in their ministry. Important is not the level of ministry, but the confidence that the congregation places into the minister. He must not risk losing!
  • they can work out solutions together with the members in a conversation. However, which alternatives seem to be the most effective or best for the members personally, they must decide themselves.
  • they can give those seeking help advice on how to find and use professional help. This should not be interpreted as a last resort, but is often the first and best approach to a good solution.

Effective pastoral care means listening, accompanying without judgement, praying together, strengthening the courage of faith, and pointing out possible solutions. No more and no less.

Photo: CurvaBezier -

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Peter Johanning
Congregational life