Pastoral Care: A Special Kind of Listening
When I was a hospice chaplain, I enjoyed working with the social workers in our office.
They were capable and smart.
They knew what to do when a problem arose.
If a patient needed placement in a nursing home or a family member needed help understanding how Medicare or Medicaid worked, they had helpful information and knew how to navigate those systems.
I watched in admiration once as a social worker helped a conflicted family sort through their options and come to a satisfactory decision about the care of their loved one.
I was in an assisted living facility once as a hospice chaplain.
A resident asked me if I was a physical therapist.
I said, “No, I’m a chaplain.”
He paused then said, “That’s almost as good.”
I’m glad there are physical therapists; I have needed them myself from time to time. But sometimes, someone needs another kind of attention and care, which can be a type of ministry called pastoral care.
A chaplain will often provide helpful information and will sometimes give advice.
Still, for the most part, a chaplain focuses more on pastoral care, which entails effective, compassionate listening.
Listening is not passive or merely being silent while the other person talks.
Compassionate listening is welcoming and responsive to help the one speaking sort through their spiritual concerns.
From the outside, this may look easy: just sit there and don’t talk.
But good pastoral care involves active listening, which is letting the other person talk while you respond in ways that help the speaker find meaning in what they are saying.
It could be a response like, “I noticed you got emotional when you mentioned your childhood. Can you tell me more about that?”
When a minister provides pastoral care, they provide a safe space for someone to speak honestly, and they listen for the holy, the sacred.
Even when we speak of ordinary, everyday matters, if we speak from our hearts, we speak of spirituality because God loves our whole selves deeply and unconditionally.
So even if the conversation is about running errands or cooking a meal, in the company of someone good at pastoral care, that conversation evokes our spiritual selves.
God is present in the most mundane, routine parts of our lives, and a person skilled in pastoral care helps us talk about those things in a way that expresses our most honest selves.
A person trained in pastoral care is also aware that making an authentic, personal connection with another human being is often a spiritual connection.
If that connection runs emotionally deep between two people, the love of God that is in them—the love that God endows in us by creating us in God’s own image—blossoms like a flower fed by nourishing rain.
The minister tries to embody that gracious love of God by being welcoming and focusing attention on the other person.
That person then should sense the affirmation that comes with being accepted unconditionally.
The most difficult pastoral care challenge for me is resisting telling my own story.
I love talking about myself, especially if I have a funny, interesting story.
While other people are talking, stories that happened to me pop into my mind, but now I know to mentally tuck them away for another time while I listen.
I avoid saying, “That reminds me of the time when…” because that would shift attention off the other person to me.
When I am engaged in a pastoral care relationship, I want the other person to feel that this is their time more than mine.
Pastoral care can be challenging to understand and enact because a pastoral caregiver does not try to fix the other person’s problem.
By letting go of the need to be the hero who solves another person’s problems, the minister practicing pastoral care, keeps the attention on the other person.
Trying to fix things shifts the relationship to be about the pastoral caregiver as the main character in the conversation, rather than the other person.
Of course, pastoral care does include giving advice sometimes.
One person came to see me as a spiritual director because they wanted help finding a church to join.
At the end of our session, I suggested several churches that they might consider, but most of the session involved me listening to them describe their spiritual journey, values, and interests.
I wanted to help them find clarity on what was truly important to them in a church community.
The advice (suggestions) came after intense listening and conversation centered on their thoughts and spiritual priorities.
Pastoral care is a beautiful and valuable part of ministry.
People who speak with a minister, especially in meaningful conversation, should feel that their words and emotions are important.
Ministers trained in pastoral care can be a kind of welcoming presence, the kind of presence that’s transformative.
I sense God’s love in conversations I feel truly and deeply heard in.
Spiritual Director and Writer