Ask anyone what they think pastoral care is, and you’ll probably get a host of inter-related answers. Pastoral is counseling, or serving as a hospital chaplain, or meeting the needs of people in the community. Sometimes pastoral care involves visiting and ministering to those who cannot physically attend regular worship services. An answer that rarely shows up on this list, however, is preaching.
That, I believe, is a huge mistake. Preaching is perhaps the most consistent activity of the pastor, and the role in which most parishioners will know him or her best. It is the point of first contact for nearly everyone in the local church body, and one of the more public functions of the pastor. Because of this, preaching must purposely be viewed as an integral part of pastoral care.
But the reasons above are ancillary and somewhat utilitarian reasons. The real reason that preaching must be seen as pastoral care is because we preach to the hurting: individuals within our congregations are hurt, and our congregations themselves can hurt.
In the first place, our congregations are made up of hurting people. True, often those who need special pastoral care are unable to make it to a Sunday service, but there are still plenty of people in the congregation who need some care: the young parent struggling to support the kids, the hard worker who just got fired for no apparent reason, the family dealing with a terminal illness.
As we preach, we need to be sensitive to the pain all around us and learn to address that pain in our preaching. We should be careful to avoid the kind of language these hurting people have been hearing all week (rejection, dejection, despair, etc.) and instead remind them that the gospel of Jesus Christ provides hope for them in the here and now. When the time comes, we can engage in one-on-one activity that puts hands and feet to that hope, but we need to be able to speak it, too.
And we don’t just need to be able to preach hope to individuals; entire congregations can be hurting, too. I remember a time during my freshman year of college when several prominent members of my congregation lost long struggles to terminal illnesses. As a result, the entire congregation was hurting, and no pastor, however skilled he or she might be as a counselor, could ever be with that many individuals.
So my pastor decided to address the issue in a Sunday sermon. Everyone was involved, and the collective grief of the congregation was dealt with. No pat answers were given, and cheesy sentiment was avoided, but pastoral care was given. In addressing the entire congregation the events were given a sense of closure, and our collective pain was dealt with. Obviously, we all had to deal with the loss in our private ways, but that sermon was the beginning of our pastoral care.
I admit that preaching as pastoral care is a hard lesson for young preachers to learn. We want so badly to be deeply prophetic that we can often forget about the deep hurts in the middle of our congregations. But they are there, and they need to be addressed. They need to be addressed in the privacy of a counseling session, yes, but they can also be addressed from the pulpit. We need to regain the practice of preaching as pastoral care. Our congregations will be healthier and our preaching will be more attentive.