In Praise of Pastoral Care

William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in a conversation piece on the Dangers of Pastoral Care do not simply offer some warnings about the limits of pastoral care, they appear to call the whole enterprise into question.

The dangers are worth raising. Most pastors are not trained counselors, if there is a mental health crises they need to know the signs and be able to refer, refer and refer to mental health professionals. Pastors cannot carry the emotional load of a few members that prevents the work of the church as a whole from happening.

Every pastor I work with are aware of those issues. But that wouldn’t make for a punchy piece. Hauerwas writes” Pastoral care is supposed to be the work of the whole church..” That’s worth exploring. But that gets buried under the snark and dismissive statements.

“I feel sorry for pastors who attempt to care for people who think dying is optional, an injustice inflicted upon them by bad luck.”- Stanley Hauerwas

While both worry about the lack of theological training of pastors, it might be worth theologically reflecting on the question of our mortality. Every person holds within themselves a unique universe of experience. The stories they have, the memories, the relationships, the events and textures of their lives are there’s by being the unique individual they are. It can never be duplicated or had in the same way by another. That should fill us in awe of one another.

We can’t deny our mortality, that it is our common lot. But it should re-enforce the loss that death brings Not simply for themselves and those that love them, but also as a genuine loss in the life of God and the world. There is a value that memory can keep, that personal mementos and writings can retain but the fullness of their life and their being in the world, while permanently a part of the story of the world in its unfolding, no longer actively contributes to that world in their uniqueness.

With over 600,000 dead from the pandemic, Hauerwas and Willimon seem to be casual about life and death, about the infinite significance of every life. As a society we’ve become casual with death as we see vaccine resistance and folks dismissing Covid because it primarily affected the elderly, as if their lives were not full of value. Apparently you reach a certain age and you get an expiration date on your value.

If we wanted to be counter cultural, and both Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, who came of age in the 60s, are all about that, the church’s affirmation of life, the unique value of every life would be defended and tenderly cared for.

That certainly is bigger than any one pastor. It would be a collective effort of the church and in the end, the society as a whole. But there is no eschatological vision of the church that somehow leaves individuals and their lives and significance to be tossed aside. If theology will not provide a lesson on the value of life, I’ll go to Google.

Both as an academic discipline and as a practice, pastoral care has become obsessed with the personal wounds of people in advanced industrial societies who have discovered that their lives lack meaning.  “What did you expect?” I want to ask these people. “Quit taking yourselves so seriously. Enjoy having your narcissism defeated by being drawn into the church’s eschatological mission to witness to Christ’s cross and resurrection.”- Stanley Hauerwas

I get to teach a class on meaning at Montana State University Billings. Oddly enough this line both captures and fails to capture the question of meaning. In that I recommend William Ernest Hocking’s book, the Meaning of Immortality in Human Experience.

In there he describes two poles that govern meaning in our lives. There is the universal cause, the ultimate end by which we organize our lives and give direction to them. Then there is the particularities, our passions, the textures of our lives. The laughs, the mountain trips, the music, everything that makes a life. That is what the Google ad captures. The whole of a life and the tender care it should elicit.

If we only serve a universal cause, we miss the world and our relationships and the stuff of life If we live only in the particular and have no end that will outstrip our timeline, then we lack direction and meaning.

Hauerwas and Willimon seem to be stuck in the universal, in this case Christ, and dismiss the particular. Undoubtedly they don’t do this in their own lives but they appear to have no serious theological account of the good stuff of life. But the fact that they raise the meaning of Christ, the universal in this case, means they are not divorced from the question of meaning, which is important.

If the church has nothing to say on this subject, people will find that meaning. The rise of Qanon and the replacement of politics for meaning making reminds us that the demand for meaning is not always benign. But you can’t address it by dismissing it. Better forms and more social forms of meaning need to arise that lift up other regard and the collective knowledge we have gained as a society.

. So we move on to assuaging personal needs the Bible doesn’t give a rip about—meaning making, a purpose-driven life, balance, freedom from anxiety, or a sense of personal well-being. Fulfillment of desire becomes elevated to the level of need, and need gets jacked up to the status of a right.- Will Willamon

He places Biblical needs with the concrete material needs we have. That is right. But in correcting that we miss how interested the Bible is in our material needs he overcompensates by suggesting that every other need is of no consequence.

If the Biblical tradition has nothing to say about every other area of our lives, again we’ll find other sources, some of which have extracted a terrible cost to our society. But I see no evidence that there are not Biblical and Christian resources for relating to the whole of a person, material and personal well being.

John 6: 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings 

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1 reply »

  1. In defense of pastoral care, the over-arching message of the Bible is that life exists only within the witness of Unconditional Love. Without that security, we are tossed like foam on the waves of circumstance. Thus when separated from that security, the lamb in Revelation “appears to have been slain.” In Eden, Unconditional Love breathes itself into Adam, who thereby becomes “a living being.” And this is the “food for eternal life,” the “spring of the water of life” offered in Revelation 21. Everything in the Bible is concerned with the investment made by Unconditional Love in empowering us to permeate all of reality with its presence. This is Humanity’s sacred purpose, and psychology cannot guide us to it without reference to religion.

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