Pastoral care of suffering people and their family is always a difficult privilege. It’s difficult because every situation is different. What do you say? On two occasions, when I’ve spoken to friends about their loss, and having had a similar experience, I’ve said, “I know how you feel.” Both times my friends have shot back, “No you don’t.” I’ve learnt not to say that any more. The occasion of a pastoral visit is not about me and what I’ve experienced. It’s about the person who is grieving. How do they make sense of what has happened? My friends, and the people I minister to, want someone to be there, accept that their pain is their pain, and allow them to sort through how God is in this. They don’t want solutions. You can’t solve death. They want to know that despite the pain there is hope.
Pastoral care is a privilege because at the point of greatest need people invite you into their lives. Time after time, being called to the bed of a dying person, to enter a room crowed with generations of family, a family whose lives together go back over 80 years and more; and they want me there. With all the history; the loving family times over generations, the happy times, the rejoicing, the sadnesses, the disappointments, the celebrations, all of which I have not been a part of, and yet now, at one of the most significant events in the life of this family, they want me there. What a privilege.
I always feel privileged on these occasions as a family invites me in and shares with me all of those events that have made up their family story and have been precious to them. And yet it’s at this point when the matriarch or patriarch of this family is dying that they invite me, a stranger, in to share with them and to offer some encouragement to make sense of their pain. What a privilege to talk to them about Jesus.
Sometimes on these occasions the family has left me to talk alone with the dying person. Sometimes they stay and listen intently to the words of eternal life. Sometimes I’ve asked the family to give us a little bit of time as their relative clearly is afraid of the prospect of death and wants to talk about some very real personal issues. Each situation is different. Each is difficult and each is a privilege.
How do you prepare for this? Life. Have you had pain in your life? Have you worked your way through this? While there is any number of training courses in pastoral care, I think experiencing life and coming to terms with the pain it brings you – and by that I mean coming to a deeper relationship with Jesus through what you have experienced – is the best preparation you can have. I still think (the right) training in pastoral care is essential but it won’t do you a great deal of good without you relating it to your own life experiences. You don’t necessarily tell the people you’re ministering to about your life’s experiences. Remember, it’s not about you. Their experience is unique. So you don’t say silly things like, “I know how you feel.” But you do bring your experience, and you know there is a way through. You know that your relationship with Jesus doesn’t make the pain go away, but makes sense of it. And your experience helps you to sit with the person in pain because, knowing there is a way through, their pain doesn’t overwhelm you.
I have been very dissatisfied with the level of pastoral care training being offered in various places. So I am really pleased that we have developed a whole new training package in Chaplaincy with Moore College. I am excited about this because it integrates theology and practice in a way that I have not seen in any other course. We are now training chaplaincy volunteers in hospitals, aged care, and mental health (with prisons to come) in how to bring the comfort and encouragement of Jesus to people in hard places. Come and join us in this difficult privilege.
(read more on chplaincy in April Southern Cross, available soon in Anglican churches)