What does quality pastoral care look like? How many pastors, priests, and deacons receive training that adequately equips them to aid healing rather than add new wounds to the emotional and spiritual lives of people in their care?
As a priest’s wife and an observer by nature, I could offer a little perspective. But as someone who has experienced dire need of spiritual care with a story of healing to tell, I hope to offer some concrete encouragement for pastors, priests, and deacons in the trenches.
Sometimes life feels like an onslaught. I believe that many families who have a call to ministry in some way have experienced seasons like this one.
In 2012, my parents went through a divorce that I had seen coming for a decade. It was spiritually confusing and painful for everyone in our family. In the fall of 2013, my husband entered seminary at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama to become a pastor. Spring 2014, our first baby. Fall 2014, a house fire displaced us. Summer 2015, our firstborn’s diagnosis with Type One Diabetes, and a positive pregnancy test within the same week. Spring 2016, a new baby and new realization of spiritual and emotional trauma experienced as a young adult for which I needed healing.
Wave after wave of trials threw me beneath the surface and left me gasping for spiritual, emotional, and physical breath. There were days that anxiety and depression loomed and felt so heavy. Long nights of roller coaster blood sugar levels and babies waking threatened my state of mind and my emotions. I was in desperate need of God, and in desperate need of quality pastoral care, but I had no energy to reach out for help. How could we do ministry as a couple if life continued to look like this?
Enter Karen. Not your typical, modern-day “Karen” (Google it if you need to!), but a deacon sent from the Lord at just the right time to help me heal and understand the peace that Jesus brings.
Karen was a deacon at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Birmingham. She didn’t want folks to know, but she served without pay at her own request, her life’s work spent to point people to the healing that Jesus brings.
The first element of quality pastoral care that she demonstrated consisted simply of knowing people’s stories. She was curious about their pasts, their current lives, and how the Lord was speaking and working.
In the middle of our chaos, Karen stepped in and asked questions: “What do you need most right now? How can I pray for you? Can I bring Holy Communion and a meal this week?”
When I asked her hard questions, she demonstrated the courage occasionally to say, “I don’t know. Let’s ask the Lord, and listen for an answer from him. We will talk about it again next time we meet.”
Karen’s speech and prayers flowed together as though the Lord was sitting right there with us. Babies on the floor playing with blocks, communion ware, and a prayer book and Bible on the table. Laughter intertwined with tears and tissues.
Karen also taught me about self-care as a young mom. She attended pilates class and encouraged me to exercise, too. She ate well, and took care of her appearance, encouraging me to do the same just by setting an example. Even more importantly, she did not take herself too seriously. She joked about mistakes she’d made or silly things we had said, yet everyone in the church, including our rector, held her as an example of godly wisdom and pastoral care.
Once our relationship grew, she trusted me with parts of her own redemption story—in life, in marriage, in motherhood, and her walk with the Lord. It felt like an honor to be trusted with details of the way that the Lord had molded her and shaped her, just like he was shaping me. She was human, even though sometimes I was tempted to guess she could have been an angel in disguise!
As our friendship continued to blossom, Karen was intentional about pointing out my spiritual gifts. She used specific instances that she had observed around other parishioners to back up her observations. This was someone who walked with the Lord letting me know that I, too, could serve him well. My depression and anxiety lifted as our relationship grew.
By the end of my husband’s seminary experience, he had become a deacon with Karen in our local church. She ministered to him in ways that were personal and profound as well, ways that made me feel like the Lord had His hand on us as we entered the ministry, even after the trauma that characterized our seminary years. We learned to experience God’s peace.
Upon John’s ordination to the priesthood, Karen celebrated with us. She celebrated so deeply because she knew our redemption story. She had walked with us through the trenches, brought Jesus in the form of Holy Communion into our home as young stressed parents with sick kids, and now we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We were entering the part of life where we get to minister to others, because we had seen the Lord’s redeeming work in our own lives.
God is so good to give us people like Karen in pastoral care. Through watching her and a handful of other ministers in my life, I have noticed that the following qualities are consistent with quality pastoral care.
- Know their people’s stories
- Demonstrate genuine curiosity about the lives and relationships of people in their care
- Are willing to say, “I don’t know. Let’s ask the Lord and listen for his answer together.”
- Pray with the belief that Jesus hears and is present
- Follow up and care for basic needs like food and bills, if needed
- Are open about their own stories of redemption, and look for ways that the Lord is redeeming others’ life stories
- Ask those in their care about how the Lord is speaking to them in their daily walk with him
- Bring Holy Communion to those who cannot attend Eucharist whenever possible
Karen offered her time and care sacrificially. She taught me that Holy Communion, Jesus’ real presence, brings healing. She taught me that healing happens in baby steps, and not in an instant as often as we want it to. She taught me that a listening ear, and a curious conversation followed by prayer in faith often precedes a joyful conversation about how the Lord chooses to work.
The Lord blessed me with healing from anxiety and depression because of quality spiritual care from this beloved deacon. He gave me the gift of understanding His peace. I will always be thankful for her example and pastoral care.
At the end of the service in Birmingham, AL, Karen often offered the dismissal. I can still hear her voice joyfully recite: “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God! Alleluia!”
Because of the healing I experienced in her care, I could do just that. I could go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Alleluia!
Thank you, God, for people like Karen!