Pastoral care: The Holy Spirit and the human spirit

The spiritual and personal side of pastoral care.

Neville A. Kirkwood, D.Min., is a retired Baptist minister living in Queensland, Australia

Pastoral care is ministry to people. It is a ministry that delivers the will and love of God in hours of need and opportunity. It encourages those who battle the trials of life and celebrates with those who rejoice in the blessings they receive. It is a cooperative ministry with those who are experiencing the exultations and injuries of life.

A young couple revels in joy over the birth of their first child. A parent is ecstatic over a son or daughter selected for a national sporting team or a university research award. Standing alongside those joyous parents is as much pastoral care as being with parents who have received news that their ten-year-old has been diagnosed with leukemia. The emotions present may differ widely yet the pastoral touch in each case is designed to put the high and the low in proper perspective.

The pastor's relationship with the person he or she is encountering is an integral part of counseling. A pastoral care professional enters into a spiritual, pastoral relationship with the one to whom he or she ministers. To enter into such a relationship requires the ability to earn the respect, confidence, and trust of the other person. This entry is much easier when the person is on an emotional high. On the other hand, when tragedy or other seriously negative experience requires pastoral care, often suspicion of the pastor is strong and has to be overcome.

In encounters with people in pain, pastors need to show that they identify with and are fully aware of the anxiety of the sufferers. There are times when those we are ministering to may not be fully alert to the ramifications of their situation.

The genuine care and sensitivity a pastor demonstrates at such times enables him or her to get alongside the hurting ones. The listening ear, the supportive presence, and the caring relationship of the pastor help to ease the suffering and begin the path to recovery.

A family rushes scared and overwhelmed into the hospital emergency room. Their loved one has been involved in a serious accident, has suffered brain damage, and is in the operating room. The news is shocking. The family feels a sense of total helplessness.

Each family member's emotional reaction is different from the others. The pastor or the chaplain, perhaps a total stranger to the family, arrives on the scene. Just as he or she begins to discern the devastation the family has experienced comes the shattering news: The injured family member has died in surgery.

The pastor is in the center of the situation, and needs to develop a sense of family relationship. This is the relationship that Jesus showed as the most needed way: "'Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me'" (Matt. 25:40, NKJV). Pastoral care is not just preaching the gospel; it is living the gospel.

A Spirit-dependent ministry

How is a pastor trained in pastoral care? No theological degree, no supervised training, no counseling diploma, no knowledge of psychology however important they may be can equip a pastor with the skills of a car ing ministry. The basic qualification lies elsewhere: in the Holy Spirit.

Years ago when client-centered counseling was in vogue, social workers often used certain phrases from Carl Rogers, such as, "I hear you saying" or "It seems to me you are ..." 

Once the mother of a seriously ill child pleaded with me not to let a certain social worker near her. This mother felt as if the social worker was psychoanalyzing her. Patients have made similar requests concerning their pastors.

Pastoral care, like all church ministries, must be directed by the Holy Spirit. Knowledge is important. Training is essential. But unless we pastors come under the scrutiny and warm influence of the Holy Spirit we will be of minimal help when we are most needed. Those who are technically and professionally self-assured, but do not have the presence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, will not be able to fully perceive and identify with the depth and extent of the underlying needs of the struggling person.

Discerning the need for pastoral care

While church members do call upon the pastor for counseling, my experience indicates that for the most part, the request for pastoral care often comes from those who have little or no church affiliation. How do we reach such people? It is impossible to help everyone. However, a trained, committed pastoral caregiver, living in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, will find strength to help as many as possible.

From the early days of my ministry, I began my day with a prayer that would include the request, "Lead me to the person with whom You would have me speak today." We need to keep our pastoral ear open and attentive. This will happen as we are in tune with the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Every day we can look for and even anticipate the arrival of opportunities whereby we can be of authentic help to all kinds of people in pain. If we realize a person or family is weighing upon our mind, it is good to contact that person or family immediately. Their church affiliation does not matter. What matters is that they are in need. When the inner voice of the Spirit is persistent, it's time to suspend all other matters. It is then we may contact the person in our thoughts by telephone or personal visit.

There have been many times when I have phoned under these circumstances and the person has said something like this: "It's strange. I had my hand on the phone to ring you, but I didn't want to bother you."

Timed to perfection 

For over two years, I was involved with a family in the children's hospital in my town. Their adolescent son experienced a massive brain tumor. The surgery was successful. After some months of recuperation he returned to school for the last semester of the year. In mid-January he came to the surgeon for a check-up. The doctor gave a good report, and asked him to come back in six months.

Three weeks later I was at a conference 3,000 miles away. At a breakfast Communion Service, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of urgency for this family. Not knowing their need I prayed for them.

As others made their way to break fast I sat in the chapel and wrote them a letter telling of my prayers for the family and assuring them, that whatever their state, the presence, strength, and comfort of the Lord would be with them, constantly sustaining them.

When I arrived home from the conference, I contacted the family to learn that Michael had died at 5:00 a.m. that conference morning. The time of my prayer coincided with the removal of the body from the house. The letter arrived as they were leaving the house for the funeral. The letter gave them the needed strength for the funeral service.

Ten years later, in the foyer in the hospital where I was then working, I happened to run into Michael's mother. She was amazed at this timing also. The previous week she had been leaving her church when my letter had dropped out of her Bible at her minister's feet. Now she was encountering me and noting how much the letter, now well worn, had meant to her as it assured her of her Lord's loving care in difficult times.

This experience assures us that the timing of the Holy Spirit is perfect when it comes to pastoral ministry. Ours is the responsibility to depend on the Spirit for guidance and direction, for timing and wisdom for each and every ministry in which we become involved. All our training, personality, and skills must be attuned to what the Spirit leads us to do.

The care person's prayer

Often, I have been confronted with a situation where utter devastation stares us in the face. In ministering in such situations, I could only turn to prayer for help. Even as I approach the hurting one, under my breath I have prayed, "Lord, help me. Give me, the words to say."

Being on trauma call, I have often been in the emergency room when the ambulance arrives. The relatives or friends may have come about the same time or soon after.

One day, the ambulance brought a 35-year-old man with a gunshot wound. As I sat with the heartbroken mother, she told me her story. She had three sons. Five years earlier, her 23-year-old son had died from natural causes. The next year, another son had been killed in a car accident. Now her eldest and last son lay in a critical condition in the emergency room.

When the doctor came in with the news that this son had now also died, I silently asked the question, "Where is God in all of this?" Then I prayed, "Lord, help me. What do I say? Give me the words."

In her time of indescribable grief, she needed no textbook support but rather a Spirit-imparted sensitivity and wisdom. After the silent prayer of my heart, appropriate words poured out of my mouth. They were words that I would not have normally used. Such experiences never cease to amaze me. The Holy Spirit has a way of using His committed human instruments in the right way and at the right time.

An elderly couple had been visiting their daughter. As they walked up the garden path to their car to return home, the wife experienced cardiac arrest. She died on the way to the hospital. When I met the husband he was heartbroken, numb, and in shock.

I inquired as to how long they had been married. Forty-nine years, I was told, and they were looking forward to their golden anniversary in six weeks' time. Again I was constrained to plead for the presence of the Spirit and for the ability to reach this man's sorrow and shatteredness. Classic counseling training might have suggested that such a man should have been encouraged to express the depths of his con fusion, anger, and sorrow. One counseling technique might have suggested that the person's sorrow should have been recognized by saying some thing like this: "You must feel disappointed that you will never reach your golden anniversary."

But out of my mouth came different words, "How did you come to meet?" I asked. This was a sidetrack almost unforgivable in the light of grief-counseling manuals or in the wisdom of the pastoral supervisor.

The man's face lit up as his mind traveled back more than 50 years. He told me they had casually met in the area in which they both worked in London, and their ensuing meetings had simply developed into deep love.

She had come from a family of society solicitors (attorneys). He had come from a lower socio-economic background. Since her young days, her family had planned that she would marry a wealthy lawyer cousin.

News of their romance had created a furor. The marriage had been forbidden. Marriage plans were insisted upon to block their wedding. But their love was so strong that they eloped, married, and journeyed to Australia. This had enabled their love to bloom in rich colors until the day I met this man the day of his wife's cardiac arrest.

By this time, all of us, including the relatives present, were in tears as there and then they heard him tell the story of their 50-year romance. In that awful setting there was a surpassing beauty in his story, and without realizing it he had told it with a kind of ethereal radiance. Healthy grief resolution was set on the right path, not by a self-assured chaplain, but by the simple question the Holy Spirit had given the chaplain to ask this grief stricken man.

Pastoral care is a divinely appointed ministry to people in need. It is not merely gratuitous for us to resoundingly confirm that the use of ministry skills and training can only be fruitfully carried out with the wisdom, knowledge, and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who calls us to do the surpassingly significant ministry of pastoral care.

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Neville A. Kirkwood, D.Min., is a retired Baptist minister living in Queensland, Australia

September 2002

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