The Pastoral Care Misnomer

As this 21st century races onward, our vocabulary is lurching forward, trying to remain relevant and descriptive. Words come and go. Dictionaries are edited every year, retiring some words while including new words. As culture shifts, so does language.

The evolution of language is alive in the church world as well. Remember when we called the formational function of church Christian Education? Late last century and thus far this century, churches have shifted to the language of Christian Formation, Spiritual Formation or Disciple Development. Being the meaning-making creatures we are, we human beings continue to create more accurate descriptors to explain our experience.

Strangely though, right in the middle of this high change environment, one phrase lingers in some congregations. We hear it from churches of many denominations and sizes…..Pastoral Care. When disciples in congregations use this term, most of the time they are describing something different than what the phrase communicates. Pastoral care, translated loosely, means care for disciples in their time of need provided by the pastor.

So how about a language change? Let’s apply to the “grand language regulator of the universe” for permission to talk differently…more accurately. Pastoral care is a phrase leftover from previous days when congregations were small parishes organized in villages and rural areas. The care of the pastor/priest then meant more about tending to the soul than tending to hospital visits. Now we live differently, to state the obvious. Besides, here’s what the use of the Pastoral Care phrase currently communicates, especially to those newer to our faith story:

• Pastors are the chief care-givers in our congregation
• Pastors must provide the care for the care to count…if the pastor did not come to the bedside then care did not happen, regardless of how many other disciples visited
• Pastors have more of God than other disciples, necessitating pastors do the caring
• Those of us who are not pastors are more or less irrelevant when it comes to caring for others in our congregation
• Those of us who are not pastors might as well apply our energies elsewhere since pastors do the caring here
• Pastors should spend much of their time caring for sick people or people in crisis, not developing disciples or other mission-advancement activities

Well then, what phrase might we use for the caring ministry of our congregation? We’ve seen several waves of change in wording. Some congregations moved from Pastoral Care to Member Care. This is a strong move as it opens the door for many disciples in our congregations to do the caring. The obvious limitation is that we want to care for all God’s people in our congregation, not only the official members. The evolution continues for some, moving to the phrase Disciple Care. The advantages here are many:

• We influence people in our congregations to recognize their identities as disciples of Jesus
• We are using faith-based language (disciple) rather than organizational language (member) to describe ourselves
• We aspire to care for all God’s people in this congregation, not only official members
• Caring for each other is the priority here, not who provides the care (pastor)
• We open the door for many people to give and receive the caring
• We hand pastors more flexibility in defining their roles regarding the caring ministry of our congregations
• We recognize and bless the gifted ministry of many lay persons in our congregation who are involved in caring ministry (See Priesthood of Believers)

So, let’s update our language, recognizing the significant Disciple Care and Disciple Development ministries of our congregations. May we become congregations where Disciple Care happens, including pastors in fitting, but not exclusive ways.

Mark Tidsworth
Pinnacle Leadership Associates