Does anybody care?

The response to perplexity

Drexel Rankin, DMin, is an author and retired Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, residing in Louisville, Kentucky, United States.

Take the time to look deeply into the faces of those who attend a typical worship service. It can be a most enlightening—and often disquieting—experience. Helen looks distressed this morning, wondering about the possibility of her husband’s job transfer and displaying insecurity in anticipating yet another long-distance move.

Joann appears tired and devastated. Her father died a week ago after a long illness, and now she is struggling with questions about what to do about her mother.

Chuck seems to scowl most of the time. We in the church talk about love, yet he does not look as though anyone loves him.

Missing are the faces of Michelle and Pat, the nice young couple who came so regularly for a while. A number of people have said that they missed them, but most likely, no one has made contact to tell them that.

So many similar faces filter in and out of the sanctuary. Yet there are those in the congregation who want to help, to care, in some manner. Their dilemma is not one of “Should I do something?” but one of “How do I do it?” After all, the staff listing in the worship bulletin has the line that reads “Ministers: Each member of the congregation.”

Frontline people

The assumption is that if you are a Christian, you are a minister. It is hard to imagine what a nonministering Christian looks like—how a nonministering Christian functions. Christianity is not a passive religion, concerned solely with meditation and prayer, noble and essential as those two aspects of the Christian life may be.

Instead, the disciplines of meditation and prayer become the foundation for ministering. When the followers of Jesus Christ become frontline people, the Christian faith manifests itself where people work, study, hurt, suffer, and search for answers to life.

Frontline history

The idea of laypersons serving in a ministry is nothing new to Christianity. Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin addressed the problem of the misunderstood doctrine of the “call” to ministry. Both were convinced that the laity needed to understand the concept of ministry for the church to be true to its mission.

Rejecting the pattern of priesthood that characterized the church of that era, they spoke of Paul’s teaching that each Christian receives gifts from the Holy Spirit to be faithful to a particular call. Luther taught that every Christian is a priest ordained to ministry through baptism. The impact on the church was, to say the least, revolutionary.

But many years before the Reformers, Jesus had said: “ ‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ ” (John 13:15, NRSV). Patterned after Jesus’ washing His disciples’ feet, early Christians were called to be servants and minister in humility to others in the name of their Lord.

Current frontline thoughts

Somehow, that concept became lost for many years. It is now being rediscovered. The struggle to understand and develop a concept of laypersons doing ministry is again taking hold. Slowly, clergy members seem to be realizing that laypersons are a valuable asset, indeed a necessity, to parish ministry. Laypersons can be challenged with opportunities to reach out and spread the love and good news of Jesus Christ to others.

It is those frontline people who take Jesus’ words seriously. The Master said that when His followers fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner, received a stranger, or cared for the sick, they were ministering in His name. A variety of contemporary problems cause increasing uneasiness in the minds and the souls of people. Christians come into contact daily with situations that cause pain both for themselves and others. Jesus said that we are to reach out in love to people in those life situations. We hear most often about sickness and death. But other problems also plague individuals.

Consider, for instance, the brainstorming that took place in a recent workshop. The discussion centered on life situations in which people need caring and support from others. That list of areas included the hospitalized, lonely, shut-ins, single parents, the grieving, the elderly, people in transition (divorce, new job, children leaving home, retirement), those in marital conflict, singles, people in crisis situations (abuse, surgery, hunger), those struggling with faith, dealing with aging parents, adolescence (delinquency, drugs, cults)—all simply needing to know that someone cares.

One who acts as a lay pastoral carer (a layperson who is skilled in caring for some of those situations), with the guidance of the pastor and supervised training, could offer support in specific situations that the carer is interested in or gifted in handling. Such supervised training of lay ministers could be conducted by ministerial staff or by lay ministry training programs.

Awareness and action

Obviously, the awareness of need is the first step in evangelizing through the Christian presence. Yet, in the biblical sense, we find profound meaning in the word aware—namely, awareness and subsequent action are two inseparable entities. One can result in the other.

But it seems that many assume that a wide gulf exists between the two. How often has it been said: “Knowing is one thing, but doing is another.”

Those who wrote the Bible would not understand such statements because of the unity that existed in their minds between knowing and doing. The Old Testament uses one word for both.

The Bible employs the word know in much the same manner as we do—to learn or to understand. It uses the same word, however, to indicate experience or doing. “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Gen. 4:1, NRSV). “Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist” (1 John 2:4, NRSV).

Love for God is, of course, the first and the greatest of the commandments. If we understand the context of “knowing,” it is essential that love for God must be acted out as service to others.

Both clergy and laity need to realize that they share the Christian ministry in common. After all, the vast majority of our congregations spend most of their time in the world where the good news must be issued and played out. Only small minorities of Christians live out their Christian vocation and earn their living within an institutional church.

Empowered laity

The kingdom of God is re-created every minute of every day through the hearts, hands, minds, and energy of Christ’s followers. We have already noted some of the ministries available to Christ’s people in daily life. Understanding this, the pastor must facilitate the ministries of others, for if we say that the ordained exist to equip the body of Christ for its ministry in the world but then channel the energies of the people into only organizational maintenance, the church has lost sight of its fundamental purpose.

In Galatians, Paul writes: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, NKJV). Even substantial burdens can be handled without great difficulty when they are shared. For the Christian, carrying one another’s burdens is not a chore. It is a privilege and joy.

The people of God—all of the people of God—must be propelled outward from being just the ecclesia to being the diaspora in ministry to the world. An empowered laity demands that those who are part of the pastoral office fill its requirements by preparing others for ministry at their many locations throughout the week.

A supervised lay ministry supports the ordained pastor by expanding and extending the caring capacity of the local congregation. Lay ministers provide ongoing care for more people than the pastor could alone.

Amanda Meade, the senior pastor of First Christian Church of Louisville, Kentucky, understands this. She comments: “It is important to teach and remind a congregation that ministers and staff, if we are lucky, are just chapters in the long story of a church. It is the members themselves who maintain the heart of the ministry there. They are the church. Every single person in a church is called to do the ‘work’ of the church and be blessed in the process. The pastor must intentionally and regularly celebrate those serving the church and preach and teach about the joys of generosity and sharing our talents and time [in ministering to others].”1

Times of crisis

There is good reason to believe that laypersons can function quite effectively in a pastoral caring situation if they have the assurance that what they are doing is proper. Thus, they can become pastoral carers within situations that arise in their workplace or with the neighbor next door. When some emergency or crisis arises, the ministerial office needs to be aware. Thus, the need for supervised training and reporting.

In those times of crisis, the situation calls for a supportive group of people who understand the nature of grief, bereavement, loss, change, or whatever is affecting life at the moment. Then those people need to feel prepared to move in and meet needs.

At times, a certain ministry to some member of the congregation has been necessary, and the pastor has felt inadequate to meet the need. A case in point is that of a woman in the congregation facing the possibility of a mastectomy. Try as I might, there was no way that I, as a male, could possibly relate to or understand all the feelings that go through a woman’s mind at such a time.

One of the women of the congregation previously had participated in lay ministry training and had even gone through that same experience. She was asked if she might offer ministry support to the woman struggling with the possibility of such an operation. Although the surgery never took place, the laywoman responded in a stable, supporting capacity to help her friend through that traumatic time.

On several occasions during that period, she had called on me as the pastor for guidance as to how she should function in that situation. As the “professional,” my part was to serve in a supervisory capacity to facilitate the pastoral care that was taking place between two members of the congregation.

Laity functions

Pastoral care should be integrated back, in such a manner, into the life of the congregation. The people of God must have ownership of what is done in the area of pastoral care.

Don Wismar, former professor of psychology and religion at Christian Theological Seminary in Indiana, wrote: “We believe that the main function of pastoral care and counseling does not take place in pastoral counseling centers but must be carried out in the life of the congregation by the pastor and the members of the local congregation.”2

In the local congregation, we identify many functions of the laity: serving in Christian education, providing warm meals to a sick member, singing in the choir, leading in worship, and chairing and being on various committees. Yet, in crisis situations, they seldom participate and assume responsibility because they have neither training nor supervision. Furthermore, they are usually not encouraged to do so.

The task

As the lifestyle of people in the twenty-first century becomes more and more intense, we find that problems arise at an increasingly alarming rate. At times, no one is available to help those who need care, and no one is trained to be responsible for the situation.

That task of training falls, often, to the pastor of the congregation. The “equipping of the saints” provides the opportunity to share ministry with those who are able and capable of reaching others with the healing power of Christ.

  1. Amanda Meade, senior pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), personal email to author.
  2. Don R. Wismar, “Pastoral Care: Everybody’s Business,” CTS Link, February 1982, 2.

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Drexel Rankin, DMin, is an author and retired Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, residing in Louisville, Kentucky, United States.

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