Pastoral Care



Ron Sturgis, Ph.D

What is pastoral care? Pastoral care is a term that can broadly apply to a ministry of compassion, encouragement, and transformation to a person or persons in need of support from a spiritual care-giver. While the breadth of pastoral care is such that strict definitions are insufficient, the following captures the intentions of the person providing pastoral care:

  • To demonstrate unconditional love, acceptance, and encouragement.
  • To be authentically present, to actively listen, and to journey alongside another.
  • To bring hope, share burdens, and to reflect a spiritual presence of concern.

How does pastoral care differ from other forms of care giving? Pastoral care giving brings a spiritual and/or religious dimension to the process. For example, even though some forces have tried to eliminate the existence of Chaplain Corps from the military, Chaplains continue to exist in order to provide the free exercise of religion (a constitutional right) and the uniqueness of spiritual pastoral care to military service members. The movie Saving Private Ryan has a scene where a Catholic Priest is administering last rites to a dying soldier amidst machine gun fire and the explosion of ordinance on the beaches of Normandy. A hospice chaplain provided pastoral care to me and my family as my father was dying from cancer and after his death. In times of life and death and human crises, people often want the care of someone who represents the sacred, who can help them get in touch with the eternal, and who can help them make sense of their suffering. Also, clergy often have levels of confidentiality (Privileged Communication) that are stronger than those of other care givers. Some Catholic priests strictly adhere to the seal of the confessional, which means that what the priest hears in counseling or during confession is totally confidential no matter what. During my career as a Chaplain, I was frequently asked by service members if the counseling session was confidential.

How is pastoral care rendered? Through a ministry of presence (Example: In the bunker with Marines in Kuwait when scud missiles were fired during the second Gulf war). Walking the spaces of ships and Coast Guard Cutters (example of sailors stopping the chaplain for counseling, prayer, support, God’s forgiveness, etc.). Pastoral care is rendered through appropriate prayer (Using the evening prayer aboard ship to celebrate good news or show concern about deaths or other issues that presented themselves during daily life or Red Cross messages). If so led and it seems appropriate, I may ask if the person or group wants me to pray with them. If prayer is desired, I ask their religious tradition and offer the appropriate prayer. Pastoral care is often given through non-judgmental active listening that reflects unconditional love and acceptance. Pastoral prayer is rendered by administering the sacraments (Baptizing an in my office who was getting ready to retire and found out that he had leukemia; baptizing Marines who were preparing to go to war; bringing the Eucharist to Coast Guard personnel aboard five different Coast Guard Cutters off the coast of Haiti; Bringing the Eucharist to people who were sick and dying in the hospital—A priest did that for my brother). Pastoral care is rendered by providing what a hurting person needs. If the care giver does not know what a person needs, it is ok to ask: What do you need from me right now? How can I support you in the midst of this? How can I best be helpful to you during this difficult time?

How does the notion of “Context” apply to pastoral care? See downloaded document.

Who is best suited to provide pastoral care? A trained clergy-person or another from a church community who is gifted with compassion, discernment, wisdom, and spiritual understanding and is compelled to help hurting people. From a personality profile perspective such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), feelers would probably be more adept at pastoral care than would what I call high Ts or thinkers. The notion of having a spiritual gift for such a caring service as this probably applies here.

When and where are pastoral care needed? During dying and death . When there is grief and loss. In the wake of suicide. When there is marital strife. After divorce. After natural and human caused disasters (Amtrak Derailment in Mobile Bay). During illness. In times of crisis. In times of war. Pastoral care is needed whenever and wherever there is human suffering. I have been approached for pastoral care when sitting in Starbucks in my uniform with the cross on my collar. By the way, the reason that many clergy where the collar is so that people will recognize that they are clergy and will approach for pastoral care if needed.

Examples of difficult pastoral care situations: Duty Chaplain responds to a plane crash and while in the hospital providing pastoral care to the traumatized pilot is asked by a nurse to baptize a little baby girl that was still born. Anointing the body of a Marine who committed suicide and providing pastoral care to the father for years following. Doing Six CACO calls to the families of Marines who had died in a plane crash in Afghanistan. A part of the pastoral care was comforting the Commanding Officer and helping to prepare him for meeting with the families.