It’s all about the people

Dr Frank Rees

The people are what it’s about. That’s not something that should need to be said, but it does need to be said. Leaders and pastors need to remind themselves that ‘the church’ is the people. The pastor is the pastor of people. I want to explore some implications of this basic reality.

First, I want to address the term ‘pastoral care’, which has in recent years become more widely used than simply within church groups. Schools and other communities often also have staff whose role is ‘pastoral care’, and often with no specific link to any religious perspective.

Let us consider the adjective ‘pastoral’. Sometimes a person is called ‘very pastoral’, or we make speak of someone being ‘pastoral’ in their manner. I think this use of the term means something like ‘caring’ or ’empathetic’—and these are much to be admired and valued attributes. They are certainly things I have aspired to be. But we should not be misled by this idea into thinking that all pastoral care is one on one—by which I mean the care of individuals, especially on a quasi-professional model of the pastor consulting with people, or people consulting with the pastor, and that care being a one-way process, from carer to recipient.

Sometimes these aspects may apply, but this should not be the primary image of pastoral care. This image developed some decades ago from the time when ‘pastoral counselling’ became very popular. Here, the basics of psychotherapy were adapted to the work and context of the local church pastor. Some specialised in counselling skills, in very helpful ways. But the idea that all pastors should, to some degree, engage in such counselling, as the primary form of ‘pastoral care’, proved very unhelpful in many ways, and generally inappropriate. This concept contributed to the ‘professionalisation’ of local church ministry, and to the trend for pastors to operate from an office, and the broad abandonment of pastoral visitation of people in their homes or other contexts. While much has been gained through these changes, in some ways, it is also true that much has been lost.

It is worth recognising that the care of individuals, as well as couples, families, and groups (even committees!) has always had a place in the ministry of the local church community. Historically there was a function known as ‘the cure of souls’.  This was not literally about the ‘soul’—as some inward part of a person, to which religion is specially addressed. That is a horrible distortion which we might hope to have lost, at last. No, the ‘souls’ here are really just people: their lives, in every aspect.

Traditionally, pastors and priests had a role in offering guidance—sometimes as one of the few persons in a community who could read— and nurture and encouragement, comfort in times of illness and grief; but also correction or moral discipline, when behaviour or relationships were perhaps in danger of going awry, or actually had broken down in some way. In all of this, the role of the pastor was to help people to live Christian lives, morally, thankfully, and in these ways to live prepared for their death (which in earlier centuries people knew might be at any time, with very short notice). Here, ‘pastoral care’ is about helping people to live well, in relationship with themselves, with others and with God: and all of this contributed to the overall life and care of the Church community.

Furthermore, and quite crucially, the healthy and vital life of the church community was (and still is) itself a major vehicle of such care. It never was the case that only one person in the congregation, the professional minister, was the sole source of care. So much has been lost if that is what we imagine or expect. People care for each other, and the community itself as a living organism cares for its members. It holds them together, it helps them to be strong when individually or separately they might not be. The community comforts and encourages and challenges. All that is part of the pastoral care inherent in the life of the local community.

Provided, that is, that the life of the community is itself healthy.

And that brings me to the second and perhaps most important aspect of pastoral care: The pastor is the pastor of the people, the collective, not just the individuals. Here we might appeal to the traditional concept of the pastor as ‘shepherd’, to say that the shepherd not only cares for individual sheep, but for the flock.

So as I am reflecting upon my role as ‘interim pastor’ of a specific community of people, it seems to me there are elements in this role that make up this work of caring for the flock, the community.

  1. Pastoral care is a form of leadership. These are not separate functions, but rather in this unique role qualify each other. It is vital to lead as a pastor, and to be a pastoral leader.  I think many of us could recount stories of leadership that did not have this character. It is focussed on something else, something more ‘corporate’ in its style and model, or something pragmatic and task-driven. All these aspects may be helpful, at times, and in some places. But if they are the primary focus, then we have lost sight of the fundamental reality with which I began: it is all about the people. If outcomes, goals and strategic objectives override the people, we have lost the plot. But if we can offer a lead, in ways that invite, encourage and engage with people, so that they have a voice, are empowered and active in the processes, then we are caring for them and the community through that leadership.
  2. Pastoral care of the community requires other things that have to be done—administrative and managerial tasks, as well as service and sometimes even menial tasks. My very first task, when I took up the role of Student Pastor at Tottenham Baptist Church, was to sweep the floor. But there are other vital tasks that the pastor does to care for the community. One of these is to teach, and another is to preach. These are not the same thing! Together, these aspects lead to offering or evoking a vision for and with the people. Envisioning is a task of imagination, and the current idea that the ‘Pastor’ person has and ‘casts’ the vision for the community may be helpful, but is very often a power claim, as if that person somehow has superior insight and spiritual wisdom. I would prefer a much humbler idea of working with the people, to understand them and their needs and hopes, and then to offer—that word is so important, it seems to me, in pastoral leadership—to offer an idea or image of what might not yet be, but could be.
  3. All of that requires, though, that we see the pastoral care of the community as a theological task. I positively cringe when I hear someone say, ‘I’m not a theologian, I’m only a pastor.’ I have always maintained that as a pastor one must be a theologian, as well as saying that as a theologian one must be a pastor. The role of the pastor of the community is to offer the God-perspective on the current situation, whatever it is. The pastor seeks the God-meaning in the events of the week, or year, in the world around us, in the local community, as well as in the church. This may be a matter of naming good things, or regrettable things. It may be about exploring possibilities, to be worked for and encouraged, in government or local affairs. Again, I would add that the pastor is not the only person with a God-perspective, but this theological task is an essential part of the pastoral role. Fundamentally, the pastor invites people to see God, where and how God is present with and among them.

I began by saying that it is essential to remember that it is all about the people. The work of the pastor is to engage with the life of the people. That is why, I think, it is crucial that a pastor should live among the local people, if at all possible. Sharing their local situation and knowing what it is like to be them, to live and shop and commute and recreate, as and where they do, is vital to the other tasks named above. Preaching that arises from sharing their lives will resonate with them.

All this adds up to saying that the work of the pastor, with the people, is about their lives and their common life, in and with God, and whatever God is opening up before them.

On this basis, I would suggest that the work of the local pastor involves three things, each identifiable through words beginning with ‘p’: presence, preaching and prayer.

There is simply no substitute for being there: presence with the people.

The idea of ‘preaching’ here is about far more than sermons: it refers to all those aspects of guidance, encouragement and envisioning, and all the means by which these take place. Preaching may not be the best word here, given how some people preach, but my purpose is to urge that preaching should have this character and purpose.

Finally, prayer, which again is far more than ‘saying prayers’: it is so much more the contemplation, reflective listening, being silent and patiently waiting for the insight that is needed, to lead well, to live well, to go with God into the future, individually or as a community.

It is all about the people, being a pastor for and with them.

Yet, it has to be said that there are aspects of the work and role of the pastor that many of the people will never know. Sometimes there can be a great loneliness in these things:

The pastor carries the burdens and pains of the people, including their complaints and unfair expectations, quarrels and moral failings, often in silence. Confidences are kept, within the pastoral heart and mind.

The pastor carries the hopes and possibilities of the people, individuals and community, which sometimes they cannot see or do not value.

The pastor knows the people, and knows God, and hopes to bring them to each other.

It is no small thing, to try to be a pastor. An ‘interim’ pastor hopes to fulfil many of these things, even in what we previously called ‘the in-between time’. Just perhaps all ministry and indeed all living has this character: to be with and care for the people, here and now.

Dr Frank Rees is the Chair of the Academic Board at the University of Divinity. 

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