Rethinking Pastoral Care Through the Lens of Whole Life Discipleship

At the corner of Liberty and Albercorn in historic Savannah, Georgia, stands a monument to the work of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy. Serving the city since 1845, the sisters pioneered the creation of schools, orphanages, and hospitals, most of which still thrive today. Over the years the sisters served students, orphans, slave children, and more. They battled yellow fever and nursed Civil War soldiers back to health. The newly minted unweathered monument describes this work and concludes, “They made historic contributions to this city in the fields of education, medicine, and pastoral care.”

One might not normally place the work of pastoral care among foundational elements of civilization like education and medicine. Yet, the sisters, and whomever placed the monument, knew and valued the role empathy and sympathy in the name of Jesus Christ play during hard times. From antebellum to post-modern times the sisters surely adapted their pastoral care approach in order to meet the needs presented them. We, too, like the sisters, find ourselves at an historic crossroad as we consider the intersection of pastoral care theology and the insights of whole life discipleship – which meet in the faith, work, and economics conversation.

The theology of pastoral care has long been shaped in practical theology departments of seminaries by theologians. Likewise, practitioners, such as pastors, deacons, Stephen Ministers, the Sisters of Mercy, and empathetic Christians have continued to develop further pastoral care methods. Applying the insights of the faith, work, and economics (FWE) movement to the theology and outworking of pastoral care in the local church involves reorienting the purpose of pastoral care, and multiplying the places such care is typically extended.

Job Crafting

Terry Timm, Made to Flourish City Leader and pastor of Christ Community Church of the South Hills, shared this statement with me: “Over the past couple of years I have been job crafting my work, and reframing it from pastoral care to vocational coaching – helping people discern and faithfully live into their calling in the places they live, learn, work, serve and play.”

Timm brings a business management approach to the theological conversation through the  activity of job crafting.  Job crafting is, “what employees do to redesign their own jobs in ways that can foster job satisfaction, as well as engagement, resilience, and thriving at work.” Job crafting involves three categorical movements: altering the type and number of tasks per day, increasing or rearranging co-worker interaction, and revisioning one’s cognitive perception of work. Job crafting can be as simple as rearranging work spaces for greater interaction or as complex as training housecleaning employees to see their work as part of a hospitality industry that brings economic flourishing to a particular region. Job crafters suggest these techniques bring more meaning and thriving at work.

Vocare

A unique contribution from the whole life discipleship conversation has been the placing of one’s job within the missio Dei, which itself is best understood through the contemporaneously unfolding Biblical narrative. In job crafting this is akin to reorienting one’s cognitive perception of a job in a larger context of relationships.

A further theological refinement is to think not of one’s job as the thing for which one receives remuneration, but to classify daily activities and responsibilities as part of a broader vocation (from the Latin, vocare),  that which one is called to do as part of God’s mission to the world. One often is remunerated for their vocational work through a job, but not always. The FWE conversation encourages one to consider their daily tasks, activities, and responsibilities in the larger light of God’s desire, intent, and laboring. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:9, “For we are co-laborers in God’s service.”

Pastor Timm job crafts by eliminating the language of pastoral care to describe the outward ministry of care and concern towards the sick, lonely, those in crisis, and more. Rather, he sees every interaction as a moment of vocational encounter. As one co-laboring with God in his pastoral role, Terry places this core activity of ministry, pastoral care, in the larger context of relationship (between himself and the other person) and their vocational calling.

While perhaps at first glance this is mere semantics, actually a vocational encounter is more than just sympathetically responding to or emphatically experiencing a crisis or the suffering experienced by another person. Rather, one is exploring the interruption in one’s call by God, or more aptly their co-laboring role in the missio Dei, in order to discern together whether this interruption is temporary or permanent and how life will unfold in such a way that someone continues in their sanctification journey of discipleship and service.

The Christian engaging a vocational encounter is asking these three questions:

  • What is this person’s vocare in the Kingdom of God?
  • In light of this event in this person’s life, how has their vocational call been interrupted?
  • How might God have me use tools of empathy and sympathy (incarnational presence, lament, confession, Scripture reading, prayer, etc) to encourage a return to one’s vocation or consider how one’s vocation might look differently going forward?

A revised and reinvigorated view of pastoral care as a vocational encounter reduces the dualistic hierarchy between ordained and laity, and it reinforces the holistic perspective on our purpose as co-laborers in the missio Dei.

Pastoral care implies care being provided by a pastor, an ordained professional with seminary training and ecclesiastical endorsement. Churches have long struggled with trying to empower small group ministries to own and execute pastoral care on behalf of the pastors, but the name itself is a hazard. In a person’s mind, small group care rarely substitutes for pastoral care. Viewing and speaking of vocational encounters allows room for all Christians to execute such care and nurture for another reducing dualistic hierarchies created by terms and titles.

Finally, a vocational encounter is a concept and term that broadens such encounters beyond times of crisis or suffering. Vocational encounters can encompass the celebration of retirements, celebration of new births, premarital counseling, and a new conversion. Each of these and more are certainly times to evaluate where one’s work in the missio Dei has been interrupted if not redirected to new vistas where the kingdom of God can break out.

Dr. Case Thorp leads The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal, and is the Senior Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

Image by @HELLOTAMARCUS at Nappy.co

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