Pastoral care/pastoral discipline: thinking about the history and purpose of “visiting”

One approach to pastoral discipline

“Pastoral care” is a term I struggle with in a church context. For a long time I found I could make little sense of it. It often seemed to mean simply “taking care of people so that they feel better and can can cope with their lives” and to be indistinguishable from being nice to them and acting as a good friend. While this was clearly not a bad thing I couldn’t see how it was a distinctive responsibility of a minister of Word and Sacrament.

things helped me to see that this definition was inadequate and to rethink my attitude:

  • remembering that “pastor” derive etymologically from shepherd;
  • hearing discussion of the historical nature and purpose of the elder’s visit in the Church of Scotland;
  • the study of the discipline of homiletics;
  • thinking more carefully about churches as communities of discipleship.

The minister is responsible for leading and guiding the congregation, is the shepherd of the Christian flock.

The visit does not originate in a concern for the happiness of the person visited. Historically the pattern of the visit from the elder originates (if the Kirk anyway) in the practice of assessing the fitness of the members of the congregation to receive the Lord’s Supper; it has a disciplinary not a therapeutic origin.

Preaching can only achieve its proper form in a well-known context. It is vital that the preacher knows those  to whom he or she speaks.

The Church has to be a community in which people learn how to follow Christ, how to be disciples. Conversion of not a once and for all event and membership of the body of Christ cannot be passive but makes demands. These demands are made in, of and by the body, by the Church. Discipleship is a community activity.

The old way, in which the district elder visited to make enquiry and to issue tokens allowing communion to be taken is not one I would advocate a return to. It is good, though, to remember that the visit has another origin than that of the giving of alms or the making of a social call. All our interactions within the Church should be within our knowledge of the presence of Christ and of our duties towards him as our head.

The pastoral care of those one serves as a minister is not oriented primarily towards their happiness and functioning as natural human beings and members of society. This aspect is a real and important one but only as it serves the building up of the Church as the witness to God’s promise and its members as disciples.

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