Church leaders, and indeed congregations, often overlook the extent of pastoral care which goes on under the radar in congregations of virtually any size. In our observation, Christian congregations do look after one another: if they are believers, they just do it, because the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives encourages them to do so. Compassion comes naturally (or should we say, spiritually) to them. If it doesn’t, it’s another sign of congregational lukewarmness.
So, they are in regular touch, bilaterally and in little networks within the congregation as a whole. They telephone one another; they go out together; they take coffee or have a drink together; they share meals together in their homes or out; the middle-aged and the young are in touch on social media, but perhaps less those who are older.
For good reason, much of this threatens to come to a juddering halt under the present policy of social distancing and isolation. The fact is that we shall all have to get used to a period in which we have to use virtual means to keep in touch with loved ones who don’t live with us: we shall have to use the phone, or preferably video-phone (like Skype), and means like What’s App to keep in touch, just as those of us who have families living abroad have learned to have to do.
Of special concern must be those living alone, especially the elderly and those who are among the 1.5 million who are vulnerable because of medical conditions and have been asked to observe strict isolation in their own interests.
In order for congregations to give them pastoral care, some work will need to be done by those with a certain amount of technical knowledge to improve the technical expertise of some. Most have no difficulty in using phones (though deafness may require loud-speaker phones). But pastorally, it is so much better to give access to video communication—to see your counter-party is so much better for the sense of communication, even of comfort. If people have access to a computer or tablet, or even a smartphone, a little tutoring may be necessary (even involving a visit, which is permitted at least in the case of the vulnerable—if you’re showing no symptoms of infectious disease).
But what should those giving pastoral care try to do in their conversation with those who need pastoral support?
First of all, it’s a question of natural kindness—the kind of conversation which anyone would expect to have with a friend, a general chat. But it’s also worth being more focussed and intentional in the conversation than usual. Make sure that you cover
- The practical needs and difficulties that the person is experiencing, like food shopping or getting a daily paper (make a note as thought may need to be given to whether and how practical needs can be met by the congregation)
- The worries and anxieties that there may be.
Both these are likely to come out in normal conversation if you are looking out for them. As to worries and anxieties, you may be able to minister to them in conversation—though avoid lecturing people on what their problem is and what they ought to do about it.
And don’t chicken-out of offering to pray with the person. Ask them whether you can: it’s astonishingly rare even for non-Christians to refuse an offer of prayer but you shouldn’t thrust prayer on people. (it may seem strange to you to pray with someone by phone or Skype, but persist because it’s actually quite easy to get over the self-consciousness which one feels at first). Make sure that your prayer focuses on the person that you are giving care to and on their needs and concerns which have arisen in conversation. And do not overstay your welcome: be alert to whether the person is simply getting tired. Regrettably, none of this can be oiled by a cup of tea!
Remember that none of this rocket science: it does not require highly-trained experts; it can be done by ordinary you, as you may well see yourself. As someone has said on SW Spotlight as this was being written, speaking about community care: ‘It can be done by volunteers who show simply show love and care!’.
Pauline & Neil Summerton are genuinely caring and experienced leaders. For a number of years Pauline was a hospital Chaplain and her advice is backed by her action, with love.