Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.

 

Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (Part 1)

About ten years ago, Cynthia took on an important role for her mother, Edith: that of caregiver.  At that time, Cynthia started to care for Edith, (who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease), personally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  Edith was such a supportive mother for Cynthia; Cynthia is now doing the same for her.

As Cynthia’s and Edith’s roles reversed, Cynthia realized that being a caregiver was both a blessing and a burden.  Cynthia had moments of fulfillment and joy, as well moments of resentment and anger.  It was a pleasure to help Edith, but the more time Cynthia took to care for her, the more she felt strained, pressured, and mistreated.   No one seemed to help Cynthia, and the blessings of care turned into an endless obligation of dread.

Cynthia is not alone.  The National Alliance of Caregivers states that nearly 29% of the U.S. population (up 5% since 2005) consists of people who care for loved ones, the elderly, or special needs children.   Like Cynthia, many of these caregivers confront mixed feelings of satisfaction and of suffering.

In our society, we depend upon our families for support.   This is, for all practical purposes, the way the world turns.   Yet, we pay very little attention to just how much the task of caregiving requires in terms of time, money, personal energy, and stress.  We certainly fail to see how much strain this places on individuals who are struggling with economic pressures, precarious careers, and much-needed time to raise healthy families.  Nevertheless, despite the many burdens caregivers face, society passes this expectation on from one generation to the next.

Churches have traditionally praised the role of caregivers without pointing out shortfalls.   We hear from the pulpit that Jesus commands us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.  When God seemingly asks us to care for loved ones, we are deny ourselves yet again.

It is this very denial that creates the burdens that sometimes hinder the blessings afforded by healthy caregiving.  By “taking up their crosses,” Caregivers neglect the self-care needed to retreat, renew, rest, and exercise.   Often, caregivers simply don’t have the time to do the things that lead to a more balanced lifestyle.

Self-care takes a back-seat in the face of productivity and pressures: Caregivers work hard to please their loved ones.  To do any less creates feelings of guilt and of impending failure.  This, in turn, feeds a vicious cycle that spirals out of control: blessings, joy, exhaustion, guilt, resentment, anger.

A week passes–perhaps a month or a season–and the cycle begins again.  Caregivers end up broken, spent, and lonely.  Is there ever a chance for renewal, even if only for a few moments at a time?

According to therapists, spiritual leaders, and caregivers well-versed in this field, the answer is a resounding “yes!”   Many studies show that when caregivers invest even a few minutes a week in growing spiritually, attending church (one hour on Sunday will do!), and taking intentional steps to enact self-care, they gain the resources and energy needed to cope with the burdens associated with their particular journey.

Some churches are making a course correction:  As the number of caregivers increase, churches are starting ministries that cater to them and their loved ones.  These ministries create ways to help caregivers grow in their faith with loved ones, not in spite of them.

One way churches minister to caregivers is to explain that self-denial does not mean abandoning self-care and does not exclude receiving care from others.   Caregivers must work with God to allow a new cycle to begin: blessings, joy, exhaustion–pause!–retreat, revive, and renew.

As my church and I put in place a new ministry for caregivers in late September, I would like to take the next few weeks to share some biblical resources for caregivers in our community.    I hope that it will benefit the many caregivers who need some “good news” during these difficult days.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.