November 26, 2015—One critical glance at the daily newspaper and we quickly realize that our global societies are in very deep trouble and that suffering knows no boundaries. The stories are astounding and unnerving: a church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina; a café bombing in Paris, France; a terrorist attack on sleeping university students in Kenya, Africa; a drive by shooting in Chicago, Illinois; or an ambush of a gay couple in the suburbs of Philadelphia. One senseless tragedy after another that impacts each of us to some degree.
Indeed, these tragedies, rooted as they are in relational and systemic dynamics, usually result in deep affliction and suffering to the minds, bodies, and souls of both individuals and communities. Who among us has not been shaken and/or disturbed by such relentless inhumanity to humanity? I suspect that societies everywhere, as a result of these and like tragedies, are chock-full of unmet care and counseling needs. Yet, all is not lost. For faith teaches us that God is concerned about the whole creation.
In my view, this context of pronounced suffering presents an unprecedented opportunity for the ministry of pastoral care in at least one powerful way. It provides the chance to broaden the focus of pastoral care from a traditional emphasis on individual care, primarily in congregational settings, to now include in its work the broader systemic concerns of a suffering society. Thus, the fresh priority for pastoral care will be grounded in the intentional care of both souls and societies.
This shift, in practical terms, means that pastoral care will recognize that it is no longer adequate or appropriate to provide for individual pastoral care needs and concerns and leave the social systems and structures that often and deeply contribute to individual distresses unattended, unchallenged, and unchanged. While some may question the potential impact of pastoral care as a social priority, given that many people in global societies are cooling to dogmatic theologies and rigid religious ideologies as perhaps evidenced by declining church attendance and a shift towards “spirituality”, yet there remains a deep and persistent hunger among us for empathic care.
As Howard Thurman reminds us, “[t]he need to be cared for is fundamental to human life and to psychic and spiritual health and well-being.” You see, unattended suffering unnerves us unlike anything else, because suffering often calls into question our sense of identity and worth as human beings—an affliction all its own. As I see it, pastoral care is the antidote to this anguish and suffering. For, at its best, pastoral care bears witness to the strength and healing power of the love of God to sooth our deepest emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds in our individual and collective lives.
In sum, our pastoral care praxis must extend beyond our limited ecclesial commitments and boldly move into the vast arena of human suffering, which is the world at large. The needs are urgent and the time is right for pastoral care to become a social priority. Powerfully, such a move represents what is means to be imaginative and resilient in God’s changing world!
Michael Lee Cook, ThD, LMFT, is a licensed pastoral psychotherapist in private practice at Micah Counseling Services in Peachtree City, Georgia. He is also faculty for Columbia Theological Seminary’s Leadership In Ministry program. Further, he is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor candidate providing clinical supervision to aspiring mental health professionals. Cook is an ordained Baptist minister that speaks regularly at professional conferences in the area of family life and theology. He is the author of Black Fatherhood, Adoption, and Theology: A Contextual Analysis and Response (Peter Lang Publishing, 2015).