Abide with Me: A Theology and Practice of Pastoral Care

What does pastoral care really look like in practice? Such mutual caring and love is best described for me when Jesus says to his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn 15:4).

By The Reverend Gwynn Crichton

My call to ordained life is first and foremost grounded in my passion for pastoral care. I discovered my love for this ministry when I became a Lay Eucharistic Visitor at Westminster-Canterbury Blue Ridge for my church in Charlottesville, taking Sunday communion to homebound parishioners for many years. After my first year of seminary, I had a profound experience serving as a hospital chaplain at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, an inner-city Level One Trauma Center servicing a largely under-resourced and high need population in Washington D.C. And I will be forever grateful to the brave and generous women at the Alexandria Detention Center for teaching me about pastoral care while I coordinated the Virginia Theological Seminary’s women’s jail ministry for two years. These diverse experiences have profoundly shaped my perspective on the theology and practice of pastoral care.

What is pastoral care exactly? For many of us, the term “pastoral care” conjures the iconic biblical image of a shepherd caring and tending for his flock of sheep. However, my conviction is that pastoral care is more along the lines of the sheep caring for each other. Jesus is “the true shepherd” (Jn 10:11) who gives us, the sheep, a new commandment to love one another just as he loves us (Jn 13:34). As the flock, we are called to emulate and reflect the love of our one, true shepherd in Christ. Through the grace bestowed upon us in our baptism, we are empowered “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.” This powerful vow compels all of us to witness and minister to the incarnate divinity present in every human being without exception. Per Matthew 25, we are especially called to seek and serve Christ in “the least of these” including the hungry, the estranged, the naked, the sick, and the captives that society has neglected, oppressed, or marginalized (Matthew 25:31-46).

What does pastoral care really look like in practice? Such mutual caring and love is best described for me when Jesus says to his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn 15:4). I love the verb “to abide” which, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined “to continue in a place or to sojourn.” When we abide with others and sojourn with them through life’s ups and downs, we are present with people, meeting them where they are. In this, we walk side by side with another through the borderlands of trauma, injustice, illness, heartbreak, loss and death that life inevitably brings. At its most fundamental, then, pastoral care is a ministry of presence. In showing up and being present for one another (either virtually or in-person!), we simply have two jobs: (1) to listen deeply and attentively, and (2) to show deep compassion, meaning to “suffer alongside.”

However, such abiding comes with risk and great responsibility. Caregivers must be vigilant about emotional boundaries so as not to unconsciously project or transfer unresolved issues, past losses and hurts onto another person going through a similar situation. Otherwise, a caregiver may try to fix, give unwelcome advice, or rescue the care-receiver to avoid his or her own feelings of pain, doing far more harm than good. It is incumbent upon us all (especially clergy) to remember that only Jesus saves, not us. To avoid such pitfalls, caregivers must make self-care and dedicated time for reflection a priority. Such best practices include daily prayer and meditation, meeting with a therapist, spiritual director or support group to process encounters, and exercising our bodies routinely. Only if we care well for ourselves can we truly be present for another in an authentic way.

This leads to my final thought which is that healthy pastoral care is a true partnership of equals between caregiver and care-receiver. As a hospital chaplain, I learned early on that I, too, was a patient being healed through my encounter with the actual patient lying in the hospital bed. In the jail, I found I was liberated from my anxieties while in the presence of incarcerated women who demonstrated such bold courage in captivity. This is what I find so transformative about pastoral care: We simultaneously are Christ and encounter Christ in the giving and receiving of pastoral care. By abiding with one another in healthy and life-affirming ways, both care-receiver and caregiver become partners in making meaning of our respective stories of struggle and pain in ways that are liberating to both. In this space, a powerful opportunity arises for both care-giver and receiver to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives such that we are free to respond more faithfully to God’s call in baptism. Thus, through mutual care, we are empowered to love and serve others and build up God’s reign of love, mercy and justice for all people and creation.

I have been moved by the ways in which the people at St. Paul’s abide with each other in my short time here, and I look forward to continuing to build on this foundation of congregational care as together we continue to envision growing our pastoral care ministries toward God’s dream of Beloved Community.

Peace and blessings,