What’s Missing? Pastoral Ministry Is Primary

My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has this helpful page about starting and growing a spiritual community.

That’s really great.

So then they provide this:

Processes of Growth

New and emerging congregations will grow through engaging in a variety of activities. Feeling excitement along with a little anxiety about this enterprise is both normal and necessary. Generating contagious excitement about the congregation among your core planning group and among new people is vital. A new congregation is, in some ways, like a new business and requires a lot of energy and time in order to come to life. Talk with your congregation’s coach, or someone who has started a new congregation, about the early stages of growth….

Here are some starting points for new and emerging congregations that have reached the stage of wishing to develop ministries . Also, provided along with resources, is contact information of UU program specialists to encourage discussions on implementing these programs. Make use of the specialists’ coaching, in areas the congregation wants to cultivate, in preparation for offering these ministries to members and the public.

The words that jump out at me are “activities. new excitement. growth. new business. coach.” The categories for programmatic and organization focus: you can see them for yourself. Organizational development. Faith formation and religious education. Membership (the link provided goes to a page devoted exclusively to welcome and hospitality). Social justice, environmental activism, ministry to youth and young adults.

Oh, and worship is down near the bottom of the list. Organizational development first, worship almost last. And I somehow don’t think this is a coy gospel reference about the last being first.

What’s missing entirely?

Pastoral care.

Ministry to the sick, the frightened, the abused, the suffering, the elderly, the struggling, the human.

SMH. Smack. mah. head.
I think to myself, wow. Who is it that is gathering these congregations, and for what reasons, really? Much of what’s there is great: God knows I got nothing against well-meaning people gathering to study religion, to examine their beliefs in the context of the larger community, to do good works, to figure out how to be better stewards of the Earth. Oh yea, and to worship. But gathering a church without putting “walking the path of love and care for and with each other” first and foremost on the to-do list is not gathering a church so much as establishing a franchise.

We can’t march out to save the world if we have not first confronted and encountered and accepted our own vulnerability and local, immediate interdependence (which is vastly different from the global interdependence that we love to talk about). And when I say confronted our vulnerability, I don’t mean “gotten in touch with the ways we’re victims,” which is a favorite interpretation — and a divisive and dangerous and disempowering one — of coming to spiritual grips with our own human frailty.

What I am talking about is engaging in practices that cultivate inner wholeness, humility, reverence and wisdom – practices that we do with and for each other, through worship and fellowship and pastoral ministry.  Pastoral ministry is what grows souls, as it is pastoral ministry that brings us out of the place of theoretical ideas about people and into face-to-face relationship with them. It is in these relationships that we learn about acceptance, forgiveness, our own shadow aspects, unresolved issues with families of origin, how we use personal power, and what qualities we shall be remembered for when we die.

By passing over this aspect of church life, church growth gurus make the erroneous assumption that either pastoral ministry is some sort of organic phenomenon that effortlessly flows out of people with fairly similar desires being together, or that pastoral ministry is some kind of old-school congregational practice that isn’t worth mentioning anymore.

Neither option makes any sense. I am trying to be patient and to imagine how it is that pastoral ministry gets no mention, or is at best bundled in with other categories of church growth (I can imagine someone saying, “Well of COURSE we know that pastoral ministry is important – we just assume that!” Well, don’t assume. Many congregations don’t do it well or don’t do it at all — and small group ministries are just one way to start to address pastoral need). I think the idea UUs have is that we will appeal to disparate folks with our “brand name,” bring them together for inspiring worship to point them toward lives of justice-making and service, and then provide lots of programmatic opportunities for them to do it together. And I think the presumption is that this approach is, in itself, healing, inspiring and identity-forming for those who gather in our congregations. Like, social justice IS pastoral care.

No. Pastoral ministry has to have its own programmatic emphasis and its own bullet point in the mission statement of every congregation. It is the loving heart out of which all other programs proceed. It is first and primary. “You shall love one another as I have loved you.”

Many people cannot find meaning in spiritual community that presumes their greatest need is for activism(or even leadership) because their own personal struggles are too pressing. It is not that they don’t care, it is that they do not have a genuine vocation to devote themselves to that cause and they are not integrated well enough into the community to be able to afford to say that, or even to acknowledge it to themselves. And so they leave.

Where is room in our congregations — where is the welcome, the program, the spiritual food – for the person who comes to a church to just sit and feel old or new pain, to grieve, to be fed a meal AND to stay for worship (not to be fed in the basement kitchen and never see the inside of the sanctuary), to pray, to wonder, to learn to trust the mystical experiences they are having?

What about the addict just trying to stay sober? What about the spouse reeling from the discovery of her partner’s dalliances with prostitutes? What about the corporate guy who has lost his sense of the meaning of life? What about the person just diagnosed with cancer who doesn’t want to talk about it in a small group ministry? What about the socially awkward, the person with cognitive disability, the extreme introvert who doesn’t want to join a covenant group? What about the bored-out-of-her-mind teacher who is starting to fray at the seams and doesn’t know why? What about the depressed father of three who won’t be coming to church for the next three years because he can’t get out of bed on the weekends?

All the current signs point to the fact that people are not looking for a congregation to help form them in a denominational identity.

They are not all even looking for “programming.”

Many of them are just looking for the Church. You know? The Church? The institution that recognizes the reality of the soul, that honors its deep needs, that was gathered in its original, loosey-goosey manner by its founder to be a moving community of healing, reconciliation, prayer, justice, and the driving out of demons?

The contemporary church keeps making the mistake of acting as though it believes the demons are all “out there.” Of course they aren’t. And I believe that the Church has very little to bring to the “out there” until we have learned to quiet ourselves and to abide in the human condition as we are without all the heroic pretense and hyper save-the-world anxiety. It starts in the local congregation, with acts of love and attention, listening, service, help and support. Pastoral ministry is the heart of the church.










12 Replies to “What’s Missing? Pastoral Ministry Is Primary”

  1. Could not agree more. I think we tend to reduce pastoral ministry to pastoral care. Pastoral ministry is the care of souls. Worship is the primary form pastoral ministry. Ask yourself what is problem that our worship is trying to solve? Too often, we offer one solution to one problem: if you are a socially isolated, or poorly motivated person who is looking for a community which will strengthen your resolve to work for a better, more just world, many of our worship services will be a great help to you.
    Most people do not spend much of their life in that place.

  2. A couple of years ago my mom, who is 86 years old and has been an active Unitarian for 60 years, fell and broke her hip. The church swung into action. The minister read a supportive statement from the pulpit and the stewardship committee sent her a letter explaining that since she had not sent her pledge in on time she was no longer a member of the church. It makes sense. An 86 year old with a broken hip is hardly a source of “contagious enthusiasm.”

    What is funny is that the same stewardship committee that is so diligent about excommunicating the sick often complains that we don’t seem to get that many bequests.
    (I have a good friend whose mom was a lifelong UCC. He tells me that when she died, the church actually cared. Weird huh?)

    Anyway, it was a “transformative” experience. My view of UUs was totally transformed.
    (BTW, my mom is fine now. She also has a fair pile of money. The chance that the church will ever see any of it is exactly zero.)

  3. Right on, PB. Am sending this to my UU parents, who I hope will share it with their congregation — though said congregation was good at pastoral care when my 90-something mother was ill and in hospital a year and a half ago. But since a new settled minister is coming in, I figure it’s a good time for this to be front and center.

    I’ll also share this with my Episcopal congregation, of course. We all need this message!

  4. Right on, again, PB!

    I grew up in church, and am about to embark on a vocation of ordained ministry (awaiting first call at the moment). Until I got to seminary I didn’t even KNOW that pastoral ministry EXISTED. I had never seen a family member cared for in tough times by church friends or our pastors. I am pretty sure my dad would actually like church if his pastor had even dropped by the house once after the death of my grandparents. I had wanted to do these things then but couldn’t, and it is part of what developed into a calling into ministry.

    The default in our society is definitely “don’t share your troubles,” but then if it is too much and you really need help, the other default is “find a therapist.” And therapy is great, but… sometimes the need is for pastoral ministry. From a congregation and/or a familiar clergy person.

    Good post, and thanks for the reminder of how important it is.

  5. Pastoral ministry is not just ministry to those in crisis. What are the spiritual tasks for people in their 80’s? What do we want them to be doing with their spirits at that life stage?
    If their relationship to the church is only around care for them when they are sick, or dying, or by them being active in church programs, or them being that feisty senior citizen activist, still on the picket line, the church is not connected to their spiritual lives. Knowing what they are working with spiritually, and being with them at that stage of life is pastoral ministry. Then when the crisis comes, its not just a responding to duty to be with them.

    Every stage of life has its spiritual tasks; pastoral ministry is helping people through those stages of life and faith — without falling into generalizations and missing the uniqueness of each person. Pastoral care is working people in their crises; pastoral ministry is the context of pastoral care.

  6. I wonder whether it was written by someone who has worked on building up a new congregation. Because I’d be surprised if you had a successful congregation start-up without providing (not sure if that’s the right word) pastoral ministry.

    I can see why it would be overlooked from a theoretical point of view,. When you’re thinking about investing time and energy into a church start-up you’re probably assuming that people you attract will be people like you – with time and energy to spare. Not people who right now need ministering to.

    Man, I’m a lay person who sucks at pastoral care. But one of the things that’s awesome about being part of a small congregation is that it’s slightly easier to do because we know each other individually. And, because there are less people to rely on, we’re less likely to make the mistake of assuming that someone else will do it.

  7. Wasn’t the Veatch fund at Shelter Rock established, in part, because of regular pastoral ministry to Carrie Veatch and her sister? Though Carrie Veatch couldn’t visit the congregation due to illness, through Gerald Weary’s steadfast pastoral ministry, she felt enough connection to leave a bequest that continues to nourish our movement to this day. Tending to people’s deepest needs is what ministry is all about in my book. If that happens, the rest flows.

    Thanks, PB.

  8. Amen.

    I’m a 30-year UU and I love the congregation to which I have belonged for some 23 of those years, but I’m not even sure we do this very well… Our minister is good for this (I have first-hand knowledge), but he’s just one person… Yet, until I read this post, I don’t know that I even thought about this in the terms you describe… And if I’m coming new into the congregation, I wonder how I’d even go about seeking it…

  9. Right on, Peacebang!
    This is why I am constantly baffled by the UU culture of closing up in the summertime… Do people’s needs stop and take a vacation? Is doing church so exhausting that it doesn’t nourish but is a source of depletion? No wonder others accuse us of being a culture club! We’ve been trying to maintain our Wed. night soup and service all year long with a simple but effective arc of worship that is nourishing and not exhausting. Similarly, our 1/2 hour Sunday morning Taize service has been well-attended, interestingly by newer people and seekers. Because we keep the worship simple, short and somewhat repetitive it is sustainable and people get to “go deep” and connect with others. Pastoral care has a variety of elements that we need to explore fully and not relegate to a small group!

  10. I completely agree. I think the two tasks of the church are spiritual deepening and serving the world. Spiritual deepening comes first and serving the world begins with the people who at church. When the spiritual deepening is happening, when church is safe to really go those places of God in the heart, service flows. Unlove is the cause of hurt and love is the cause of all healing. God is love. What business are we in, again?

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