May 2021
The Power of Small Churches

One Body, Many Caring Hearts

Pastoral care is provided when a faithfulperson is truly present in a listening, compassionate, non-controlling manner to an individual or group for the purpose of consciously or unconsciously representing God to them and seeking to respond to their spiritual needs. Community of Hope International

We have a priest, why do we need lay pastoral caregivers?

Pastoral care is an important responsibility, and the ordained usually receive training in providing it. Many clergy have spiritual gifts that propel them to excel in pastoral care, but it may not be the strongest gift for others. No matter what their gifts and skills, all ordained ministers have experiences where a parishioner’s needs weren’t met or fell completely through the cracks. In smaller churches especially, where there is but one priest, sometimes there just isn’t enough pastor to go around.

The growth and faithfulness of the church today “calls for a renewed empowering of the Holy Spirit, guided by spiritually sensitive leaders, grounded in Biblical theology and solid education. We must train lay people to communicate the truth of the Gospel...with power and understanding.”[1] Thanks be to God, this is actually the most ancient and authentic way for the church to minister. But over the centuries the idea that “everyone is a minister by virtue of their baptism” became the guarded domain of the professional pastor.

Properly trained lay pastoral caregivers bring with them the resources, wisdom and authenticity of the Christian life.

St. Francis by the Lake meets Community of Hope

St. Francis by the Lake is an Episcopal Church in Canyon Lake, Texas, with an average Sunday attendance of about 100 and one priest. Primarily of “retirement plus” age, we are very hospitable and relational. Seven years ago, the rector and a core team recognized there were more pastoral care concerns than one person could attend to with timeliness and regularity. They also recognized that many parishioners had caring hearts and the spiritual gifts of mercy, service, encouragement, generosity, prayer, wisdom and faith. What they needed was formation.

That need was answered when St. Francis was introduced to Community of Hope International (COHI), a nonprofit founded in 1994 in Houston, Texas, to train lay people to serve as pastoral caregivers. There are about 100 centers across the U.S. and one in Malawi, Africa. The foundation of COHI is St. Benedict’s belief that all are called to love God and love each other in community. Its mission is “creating communities steeped in Benedictine spirituality to serve others through compassionate listening.” COHI uses three paths to create and sustain communities: training, service and growing the spiritually of its participants within a nurturing community.

COHI training consists of 14 modules, ideally completed over 14 weeks. It encompasses active listening, thoughtful talk, empathy, trust, confidentiality, boundaries, debriefing/accountability, understanding systems, grief and loss, senior care and caregiver care. What differentiates COHI from other resources is the undergirding focus on Benedictine spirituality which focuses on pastoral identity, prayer, silence and the discovery of spiritual gifts and vocations.

Living in community is hard. Caregiving is draining. Without continuing nurture, there is burn-out. COHI provides ongoing support for lay caregivers at the local level through monthly “Circle of Care” gatherings, quarterly regional gatherings and an annual conference for all COHI members.

St. Francis took the steps to become a COHI center late in 2014, and it has become one of the strongest ministries of the parish. In six years, St. Francis has offered three classes and trained thirty caregivers. We presently have 19 active caregivers who use their spiritual gifts in meeting the emotional and spiritual needs of our parish and community. The parish care list is constantly in motion, but at this writing, we have 48 care receivers on our list for critical and ongoing contact ranging from once a week to once a month.

St. Francis has a broad definition of pastoral care and ministry. Pastoral care is about relationships, seeing and serving Christ in others. Pastoral care is God’s love in action. Any interaction where one is present and attentive to other’s needs is a pastoral moment.

Listening with the ear of our hearts

Lay caregivers strive “to listen and attend with the ear of our hearts”[2] to the calling of the Holy Spirit, surrendering ourselves and responding in obedience. This sometimes stretches us to grow beyond our comfort zone. Praying and trusting in the Holy Spirit to equip us for situations is often rewarded with the privilege of being present with another who feels safe enough to trust us with their deepest fears, suffering, pain and burdens.

The lay caregivers at St. Francis by the Lake participate in ministries like bringing eucharist to the homebound, visiting sick and lonely persons in various settings (before COVID-19), being present with those who are mourning and praying with and for others. Since COVID-19, in-person visits are restricted, but nevertheless, we are present with others as we make telephone calls, write notes, make and deliver prayer shawls, do drive-by porch visits, deliver meals and groceries and provide transportation for medical appointments. St. Francis is blessed to have caregivers who are active in food pantries, resource centers, homelessness ministries, veterans’ support, animal support, world missions and more.

These intimate encounters between the lay care givers and care receivers create friendships and strengthen our parish community. They grow our prayer lives and equip us to be bold in sharing our Christian gifts, faith and experience.

The ongoing strength and backbone of the St. Francis Community of Hope is the monthly Circle of Care gatherings where we worship, share, debrief, learn and pray. The emotional and spiritual nourishment received at these gatherings prepares us for ministry.

Good and frequent communication between the COHI leadership and the ordained leadership is imperative. It gives everyone the assurance and peace of mind that parishioners are receiving sensitive, appropriate and regular attention by well-trained lay pastoral caregivers. It also provides the necessary oversight and deeper assistance when needed.

That’s how we’ve harnessed the power of many hearts to care for Christ’s Body. That’s how we’ve become a community that ministers.

Tricia Jones is an active member of St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church in Canyon Lake, Texas. She is passionate about Community of Hope (COH), a lay pastoral care ministry that began at the parish six years ago. Through COH, Tricia serves her parish as a lay pastoral caregiver, co-facilitator and co-trainer. She serves as a regional representative to the Board of COH International for COH centers in the Texas hill country and gulf coast.

To learn more about Community of Hope International, visit their website.


1 Selig, “Finding Your Spiritual Motivations,” p. 34 (COHI Manual, Module 6, p. 3)
2 The Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue

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This article is part of the May 2021 Vestry Papers issue on The Power of Small Churches