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.


Pooch pastors and kitten clergy

grievingThe question of whether pets go to heaven will forever be a theological debate, but one thing is certain: Pets can sometimes make great pastors.  Very few pet owners will doubt that our four-legged friends can provide divine presence, heartfelt encouragement, and unconditional compassion when needed most.

The Bible’s approach to animals varies from book to book.  In the Garden of Eden, animals were companions to be named and beloved (Gen. 1:18-20).  The book of Proverbs points to animals as creatures to be studied and admired (Prov. 6:6), whereas the book of Job points to animals as symbols of chaos (Job 41:1-2).

Some animals were God’s agents for change (Jonah found that out the hard way), while others became symbols of peace in the New Heaven and New Earth (Isaiah 11:6-8).

The New Testament tended to use animals (specifically dogs) in a pejorative light.  Dogs were considered dirty nuisances, and Jews often called unwelcome gentiles “dogs.”   These were no mere pets, and having an animal around meant having to share resources that most first-century peasants lacked.

Ours is definitely a culture that treats and views animals differently.  It’s hard to find a household that doesn’t boast at least one dog or cat, and we southerners have made it culturally couth to have a great hunting dog around.  Women of posh stature carry little toy poodles in purses made just for their fury friends, and a dog will always be (wo)Man’s Best Friend.

Granted, it’s a stretch to talk about having a pooch for a pastor or a cat for clergy.  After all, a pastor is a leader and a shepherd.  A pastor leads the sheep and is not to be confused with the sheep; but, pastors have as their primary role the gift to edify and encourage by simply being present.   I know many a pet that have played that role.

Whenever I get sick, my family abandons me.  They fear catching what I have, so they shove me in the bedroom, lock the door, and feed me by pushing a tray of bread and water through a little hole in the wall.

Not so my cat.  She has a sixth sense that tells her I am not well, and she’s always right there by my side when I’m down for the count.  Unlike my wife and children, the cat never fails to be there in my most vulnerable hour.

Talk to any dog or cat lover and she will tell you that her pet has an uncanny ability to sense what she, its owner, is feeling.  Some animals are even said to grieve when their masters grieve.  It may be nothing more than the animal picking up on our body language or a certain scent, but it can be a source of comfort nevertheless.

A recent article by Solange de Santis explored how therapy dogs helped victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.  Lutherans dogs, especially, were gaining a reputation for providing pet therapy ministry throughout the nation following similar tragedies, and they were quite popular to Newtown residents.

In a Decatur senior-adult living facility in which I am chaplain, residents have a monthly meeting for pet therapy.  We also host an annual “Blessing of the Pets” service in the Spring  in which we say a short litany and pray over our little loved ones.

As my family, like so many others, can attest, pets can be pests sometimes; but, more often than not, they can be pastors too.  At this rate, our pets will go from wearing diamond-studded pink or black-leather spiked collars to white and black pristine clergy collars in no time.

Bully Pulpit does not communicate the compassion of Christ’s contemporary voice

Some preachers put the “bully” in bully pulpit.  All of us can tell at least one story of a preacher who said something that went over the line simply because he thought he could say almost anything from the pulpit.  In fact, the pulpit plays such a central role in most Protestant churches, that many preachers end up abusing their office simply because they fill pulpit, thus usurping the sanctity of the pulpit altogether.

My wife tells one horrific story about her old pastor who compared sin with a “dirty” feminine product.  She was entering middle school at the time and suffered from the awkwardness that accompanies girls her age.  Her family stopped going to that church, and it took her years to sit in a Baptist church without getting uncomfortable.

One of our parishioners at Trinity tells of a funeral she attended for a stillborn baby.  The preacher, hired just for the occasion, declared that “that baby” died because the first-time parents did not attend a church.

Although these two stories are certainly not the norm, abuse from the pulpit happens more than many Christians care to think.

I am not without excuse.  I too too have shared some ignorant things from the pulpit a time or two.  Yet, we pastors must take great care to balance the challenge of the Gospel with what the early twentieth-century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, called ‘pastoral care on a community scale.’  Just because we pastors are called to be truth-tellers doesn’t mean we have the right to be jerks.

There have been several trends in churches that have undermined the sanctity of the pulpit.  One trend is to elevate the authority of the pastor to that of congregational theocrat.  The pastor is the only one who can declare what is right and wrong in the church and to set the precedent for what doctrines are God-approved.  If a person questions the pastor, then he or she is not in agreement with God.

A second trend is to remove the pulpit altogether.  I am not referring to those churches that have replaced a heavy wooden pulpit with something like a podium.  I’m referring to churches that have watered down their witness so much that there is very little mystery or spiritual engagement in the sermon.

By moving the pulpit to the side, the pastor risks doing everything for God and the congregation by providing all of the answers even to life’s most difficult questions.  The congregation only needs to take notes, follow the proper equations, and everything will fall into place.

Upholding the sanctity of the pulpit assumes, however, that those who commandeer it understand it as a vehicle for God’s Word.  It is also a reminder that no one person can speak for God.  The preacher may change from time to time, but the pulpit–and the Spirit that resides in the pulpit–should remain the same.

Furthermore, the pulpit points to the mystery and rich textures that pervade the Word of God.   Yes, the preacher delivers a Word from God, but it’s God’s job to plant that word deep into the heart of churchgoers and cultivate a harvest that produces the “fruit of the Spirit.”  The preacher can’t do it all; he’s not superman when it comes to how people hear the Gospel.

The pulpit also brings people into God’s presence.  It is a tool for pastoral care, expressing how God is moving in the midst of grief, hardship, conflict, and uncertainty within the community.  The preacher knows the audience to whom she speaks because she is a fellow sojourner with them.  The sermon allows God to deliver a Word of healing and hope to the entire Body of Christ.

As the season of Lent is upon us in three weeks, let us all come back to the heart of worship, starting with the person filling the pulpit.  May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts, and the sermons that result, be pleasing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.