Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed
Many pastors go into ministry because they love people. They consider your willingness to trust them with your stories a privilege. They want to hold your hand when you have gotten bad news. They celebrate alongside you at milestone moments. Pastoral care is not just part of ministers’ job descriptions. It is an essential aspect of who God has created, called and equipped them to be.
One of the hardest parts of the past two-plus years of pandemic is that the ways pastors typically deliver that care has been constrained. I have had more clergy coaching conversations than I can count, strategizing how to approach or make more time for pastoral care or at least lamenting that pastoral care is getting short shrift. Here’s why that’s the case:
The many tugs on pastors’ time. There are more layers to the work of ministers these days, thanks to the ongoing pandemic. Covid task forces and the actions that come out of them are just one example. Clergy sometimes must choose a focus on tending to the health of the many over individual spiritual care. Another pull on pastors’ attention is navigating multiple platforms to deliver worship both to church members and to those who have discovered your church online during Covid-19. (If your church has pre-recorded worship at any point, just ask your minister how much time it took to prepare for, lead, edit, render and upload worship.)
Varying risk tolerances. Every parishioner’s – and every pastor’s – comfort level with close interaction is different for many reasons, including vaccination/booster status, underlying health conditions, and the need to stay healthy to lead or care for others. Pastors have to balance their desire to be with you with caution on your behalf or their own.
Changing facility guidelines. Hospital and nursing home visitation policies can vary widely and change often with Covid-19 numbers and health officials’ recommendations, even in the same geographic area. It takes effort to keep up with what kind of access, if any, each nursing home or hospital allows.
Decreased connectedness. Even with some people returning to in-person worship, there’s not as much informal conversation before and after services, a primary way ministers often hear about pastoral care needs. Also, with decreased one-on-one engagement, clergy don’t always know if conflict is brewing. That can make it daunting to cold-call parishioners who haven’t shown up in a while.
Pastors’ personal caregiving responsibilities. It is a hard time to be a clergy parent. Schools and daycares are closing for weeks at a time because of Covid-induced teacher shortages. Some pastors have parents for whom they are hands-on caregivers, and there’s a scarcity of available help in elder care too.
Waxing and waning of Covid numbers. Clergy can have the best-laid pastoral care plans, only to be foiled by Covid surges. “I’ll get to that person next week.” Or, “I’ll visit them when the numbers go down.” Then the pandemic says otherwise.
Pastor fatigue and situational depression. Many ministers are struggling. It is taking all they have to do what they’re already doing. The thought of more – even if it’s a task they usually love – is beyond what they can consider.
The broad scope of pastoral care. Many people think of pastoral care just as making visits to those who are hurting or isolated. Pastoral care is incarnating hope; is helping people connect with the story in scripture; it is is giving those needing the care the tools to make meaning out of their situations. Really, then, all ministry is pastoral care – preaching, teaching, leading meetings, having coffee with church members—you name it. Pastors are trying to figure out how to get to all of it.
Church members, despite all of the challenges above, your ministers want to walk alongside you! The very best thing you can do to help your pastors out and to get the care you need is to be proactive. Here’s how you can do that:
Communicate. Let your pastor know – or have a loved one communicate – your situation, including your preferred means of being cared for and the current rules at your facility (if applicable). If you depend on the grapevine to get the word to your pastor, there will likely be lag time, if your message gets to your minister at all. (This is a practice to continue when we can all gather again in person. There is no telepathy class in seminary!)
Step into a congregational care role. If you have the bandwidth, you can embody the love of Christ to others. If you’re not comfortable being in the same physical space with someone in need, call, text, or send a card. Most pastors are thrilled when others pick up the mantle of caregiving, and your fellow church members will appreciate knowing someone thought of them who wasn’t paid to do so.
Give your pastor grace. It might take your minister a bit longer to get in touch with you than you hoped. Know that you are on your pastor’s heart and mind, even if he or she is not actively reaching out to you. If it’s been a matter of weeks, though, reach out again. Clergy brains are fried right now.
Won’t it be great when we can all be together in the same space again? We’ll know better what is going on with one another, and we’ll be able to be involved in each other’s lives in more familiar ways. In the meantime, we have the chance to recognize one another’s humanity, help each other out, and exercise creativity in how to reach out with expressions of care.
The virus and all the destruction it has wrought are not of God; but our increased attentiveness to the realities and needs of those around us just might be.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.