February 11, 2019
Every Member is a Minister
When I first arrived at one of my parishes, St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland, I found in the center drawer of the desk in the rector’s office a bunch of 3 x 5 index cards, scrawled with handwritten notes. “Visited Mildred X,” read one note, detailing the date and time of visit, location, and how she was feeling. “Took Holy Communion to Cedar Lane,” went another, summarizing the scripture lessons and number of persons present at that afternoon service of worship. The interim priest, a clergyperson evidently gifted with pastoral care, had nourished a rather extensive pastoral care network, and he had developed a fine system of reporting, back and forth, such that he was in the loop but wasn’t the sole caregiver. It was an old-fashioned approach, and the filing system left somethings to be desired (they were just cards shoved in a desk drawer, after all), but it was a beautiful testament to a lovely way of doing church together.
Fast forward a decade, and I’m the one sitting at that same desk. The congregation has grown, the church has in many ways changed, and most of the names on those cards have gone on to greater life. St. George’s and I have done a lot of important and strategic work – we’ve expanded our worship and set up a good website; social media and email newsletters are our current means of communication, unheard of when those 3 x 5 pastoral care reports were filed; and we’ve developed and honed rather sophisticated internal systems to guide and organize our common life. But there’s really nothing that replaces, or could replace, that ‘old-fashioned’ system of people visiting people, the church sending women and men out to love and serve others, especially those shut-in or unable to attend Sunday worship. No, there’s just no replacement for people being with people, and some internal means of empowering and facilitating a pastoral care team that is larger than the individual clergy.
“Every member is a minister,” I recently wrote in a bulletin announcement about an upcoming LEM training. That’s certainly true according to the Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer. Page 855 of the BCP reads: “The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” Following that, the description of each particular order of ministry includes the phrase: “…to represent Christ and his Church.” That’s “represent,” as in: act or speak for someone, on someone’s behalf. That’s also “re – present,” as in: show again, be Christ once more. The lay person, bishop, priest, or deacon represents and re - presents Christ and Christ’s Church. Every member is a minister.
When it comes to pastoral care, Ascension, Lexington Park and St. George’s, Valley Lee – the two congregations I serve as rector – are once again making normative that basic and, yes, ‘old-fashioned’ set of expectations. When I was only serving one congregation (St. George’s), I had a hard enough time making all the hospital visits and checking in with all the shut-ins and extending a pastoral touch to those who needed the church’s care. Now that I’m serving two congregations, it’s even harder, although the reality is that that situation is so evident to most everyone in both communities that our context is currently ripe with possibilities and we’re experiencing a wave of interest to join a Pastoral Care Team.
But putting together a team and organizing effective internal means of keeping track of who’s who and what’s going on, while necessary, isn’t totally sufficient. What’s lacking, I’m finding, are two things. First, we need to pay attention to the spiritual depth of the caregiver her/himself, and that’s not the same as setting up a tracking system. And, second, we need to norm and form in our congregations this new (old) reality – that everyone needs someone to walk with them, but no one person’s sole ‘someone’ is the clergy.
To the first point, that of spiritual depth, we’re planting in our context a Community of Hope. That is, we’re using the really excellent resources of The Community of Hope International. “In 1994, Rev. Helen Appelberg, Assistant Director of Pastoral Care at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, was appointed to create a training course for people to become lay chaplains,” their website reads. “With support from staff chaplains and advice from Esther de Waal, an authority on Benedictine spirituality, a twelve-week curriculum was established. Rooted in the ageless principles of The Rule of Benedict and sustained by clinical pastoral practices, the Community of Hope was born.” The mission of Community of Hope is powerful yet simple: “creating communities, steeped in Benedictine Spirituality, to serve others through compassionate listening.” The 14 ‘modules’ made available through an incredibly low-cost subscription cover everything from the spiritual to the practical. I highly recommend the resource that is The Community of Hope.
The second thing we’re working on is forming in our congregations a new (old) normal around practices of pastoral care. Going public with creating a local ‘Community of Hope’ is helping us convene those who are already doing the work (but could benefit from the support of a team and the depth of new training) as well as those who might feel called to do the work (but have never been asked or invited). Another very important byproduct is that launching a Community of Hope communicates to the whole parish this new (old) approach to pastoral care. It’s kind of like the summer camp buddy system, I’ve realized: everyone has a buddy, everyone has someone to walk with them, and we, the church, take special care to make sure that those on the fringes of our life and those who cannot be with us week after week have someone. The front lines of the church’s pastoral care are our largest order of ministry: lay persons. The other orders of ministry are very much part of this system, and they are invited to share the particular gifts they bring – teaching, supporting, and empowering, and, when able and needed, blessing and extending the Rites of the church.
What is old is new again or, in the words of the Good Friday / Ordination collect: “…let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” In this hyper-digital, connected-but-disconnected day and age, the church that finds a way to connect people to people so that everyone has someone to walk with them and represent / re – present Christ will not only be counter-cultural but blessed by God.