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Listening and Speaking: The Church's Vocation of Care

listening-1A Christian theology of care begins in creation. The invitation to exercise care over creation, and to hold it carefully and reverently, places the vocation of caring in human hands. Humanity has been entrusted with the vocation of caring. Martin Heidegger suggests that care is “the basic constitutive phenomenon of human existence, and the clue to its interpretation.”¹ Care, then, is what makes the human being human. This may be why the phrase “I don’t care” is so destructive. To not care about the other is to disregard the other’s very humanity. In fact, how we care matters. To care deeply about the other is to participate in God’s creative process.

The Church names its type of care, “pastoral.” This care includes all creation. Yet “pastoral,” when limited to an office of care (i.e., the pastor), diminishes care to a function of what the pastor does for and/or to parishioners. In this view, pastoral care is just the pastor’s job. A fuller vision of pastoral care invites everyone to participate in God’s life and to offer God’s care in the world. If care is the human vocation, by extension, pastoral care is the Church’s vocation. All God’s people participate in caring for all God’s creation.

IMAGES OF PASTORAL CARE

Pastoral theology offers a number of images and metaphors to get at what we mean by care.² A caregiver is like a shepherd watching and protecting sheep. A caregiver is like a mid-wife assisting in delivery, attending to people in travail and anguish of loss, as God does the miraculous work of birthing new life in a variety of forms. A caregiver is like a circus clown living on the boundary between the need for study and training and the necessity to be original and creative in the art of caring.³ Each image brings together an understanding of what care is and how care is to be delivered.

Another alternative means of conceiving dominant images or metaphors of pastoral care is through associations between authors and books. Consider Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor. Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. Each of these evokes a particular way of caring. The utilization of an image or metaphor names specific ways of being present to God and with others. Among all these, the shepherd seems a most familiar image of pastoral care.

GOOD SHEPHERD – A PRIMARY IMAGE

Jesus the Good Shepherd offers a way of trying on a way of caring. While shepherds are largely foreign to the USA/Canada context, this metaphor, employed by pastoral theologians, describes the gentle, loving, protective care offered to sheep. A shepherd cares. A shepherd guides. A shepherd protects. It’s a good handle for pastoral care. Care. Guide. Protect. A biblical image.

Everything in the Church’s vocation of care hinges on this image: Good Shepherd. Jesus—fully God, fully human—is the Good Shepherd. Incarnation. God present with us. Passion. Death. Resurrection. He has laid down his life for his sheep.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus knows his sheep. Jesus speaks. The sheep hear and know his voice. We all are sheep of his pasture. A familiar and comforting image.

A word of caution: when a metaphor comes from Scripture and is employed to describe Christ’s salvific work, it seems dangerous, even presumptuous, to wear it too formally. In Christmas pageants, children are wrapped up in bathrobes too big for them. These shepherds may trip and stumble to the nativity to meet the Baby. Parents and grandparents may smile and chuckle. The bathrobes don’t quite fit. That is true of this image for the Church’s caregivers. Employing the image of shepherd for pastoral care may be very helpful. Always remember that, as pastors and parishioners, we’re wearing a bathrobe—an image—too big for each of us. We will trip and stumble in our pastoral work.

Yet, pastoral caregivers offer representative care through listening and speaking. Pastoral caregivers are to know the sheep in their pastures. Pastoral caregivers listen to life stories through particular voices of parishioners. Pastoral caregivers speak words of forgiveness, healing, and hope in the hearing of their congregations. Words matters. The Word matters. Logos matter.

LISTENING AND SPEAKING ⁴

Listening is more than just noticing noise. Speaking is more than merely forming words. Listening and speaking take place in the crucible of the Church’s shared life. Each practice demands attentiveness and responsibility. To listen well, one must practice the art of listening. To speak clearly, one must discern what words can be heard. Pastoral caregivers always remain learners even amid their pastoral acts of listening and speaking. A familiar narrative illustrates the ongoing formative project.

LISTENING. In 1 Samuel 3:1-10, a voice interrupts Samuel as he sleeps. “Samuel! Samuel!” the voice calls. Samuel awakes and walks down the hall to Eli’s room. Samuel’s presence draws Eli from his slumber. Eli rebuffs Samuel, “I did not call; lie down again.” Samuel returns to his bed. He closes his eyes. Again, Samuel hears his name and runs to Eli. After the third call and response, Eli speaks these words to Samuel: “Go, lie down; if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Like Samuel, each member of Christ’s Body (the Church) is tutored to discern the voice speaking. Participating in God’s life through the vehicle of the Church makes the Good Shepherd’s voice more familiar so as to distinguish this voice from other voices. Pastors and teachers model listening. Spiritual guides and mentors teach discernment. Everyone studies to become a hearing specialist.

SPEAKING. Samuel took Eli’s advice. When the Lord spoke to Samuel, the young boy responded as instructed, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” That act of hearing filled Samuel with a troubling word (knowing) about Eli and his family. The following morning, Eli summoned Samuel. “What was it that he said to you?” Trembling and afraid, Samuel speaks what he heard. As soon as the words left Samuel’s mouth, a new reality began to unfold.⁵

SPEAK, FOR YOUR SERVANT IS LISTENING.

Spoken words do something. “Performative utterance” is the sociological term to describe the relationship between words and reality. Speech theorists suggest that some words create realities. Words name new realities. The marriage vow does not simply talk about or represent marriage: the bride and groom’s mutual statements of “I do” and the minister’s pronouncement actually name and create a new reality. That which didn’t exist before now exists. The Church teaches the people of God how to speak. Everyone attends the Church’s speech academy. Pastors and parishioners are taught words. Spoken words carry power to either destroy or edify. Words bring judgment. Words offer freedom.

These practices—listening and speaking—take many forms (for example, prayer, proclamation, confession, sacraments, discernment, Christian conferencing, and so on) and require consistent use. The Church must be a hearing and speech academy. Returning to the primary image of Good Shepherd recalls the importance of knowing the Good Shepherd’s voice. Pastoral caregivers must know the Good Shepherd’s voice personally and then offer care as a hearing and speech assistant to those entrusted to their care.

PASTORAL CARE IN CONTEXT – LISTENING AND SPEAKING

John Patton argues that pastoral care is shaped by the intersection of message, person, and context.6 For Patton, the message pertains to the specific content of pastoral care (beliefs about God, sin, forgiveness, redemption, and so on). The focus on person names unique features of those involved in giving and receiving care (family of origin, social location, and so on). Finally, the question of context identifies specifically the caring community authorized to offer the Church’s care. Patton argues that this context includes both clergy and laity—trained and untrained.

listening-2This framework recovers and authorizes the priesthood of believers as pastoral caregivers and extends the Church’s vocation of care beyond the office of the pastor. It begs important questions. What ought such a model of pastoral care look like in the Church of the Nazarene? To answer the question, one must bring together biblical and theological commitments, expressed in the life and teachings of Jesus and theories of person and change. Such a process orients one to a particular and peculiar way of being in the world. In the end, it might be discovered that pastoral care is not a distraction from the Church’s mission but has always been an authentic participation in the missio dei.

CONSIDER 3 GUIDING CONCEPTS FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION:

PASTORAL CARE EMBODIES A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF HUMANITY.

Being created in the imago dei must mean something for the people of God. Welcoming the other through the practice of Christian hospitality opens relational space for an increasing intimacy of listening and speaking. Pastoral caregivers listen and name that which may be blocking another from entering and participating more fully into God’s life. Such care invites the caregiver to listen intently to the tradition’s biblical and theological affirmations and to choose one’s words wisely.

PASTORAL CARE EXPRESSES THE CREDIBILITY OF THE CHURCH’S MESSAGE.

A sacred life—a life participating in the divine life—embodies God’s way of being in the world. How one listens and attends to the other mirrors the tradition’s beliefs about healing and wholeness. How the pastoral caregiver responds to the other offers evidence about the gospel of Jesus the Christ. Such care demands serious reflection on the tradition’s message in the context of the 21st century.

PASTORAL CARE PARTICIPATES IN GOD’S MISSION IN THE WORLD.

The Church’s vocation of care includes the totality of God’s creation. Pastoral caregivers listen as creation groans. Pastoral care must never be located solely within the “walls of the churched.” Rather, pastoral care, authorized by the Church, participates in the missio dei. Pastoral care speaks prophetically in the face of injustice, oppression, and destruction. Such care inspires participation in God’s mission of healing of creation.

In pastoral care, the people of God, both clergy and laity, listen and speak. Through participation in the Logos, the Church IS. Subsequent to the Church’s being, the Church gives the people of God language to speak. These words, when spoken, change reality. A clergy person says, “I pronounce you husband and wife,” and that which didn’t exist before becomes a new reality. A layperson says, “I forgive you” to another who has betrayed their trust, and a new reality comes to fruition. A clergy person says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and a new Christian believer comes into visibility. Words spoken name and change reality. It seems the Church’s vocation of care tutors a people in listening attentively to God’s voice and speaking God’s words cautiously, courageously, and responsibly in and for the sake of all God’s creation.

Listening and speaking. A sacred and dangerous invitation. Listen contemplatively and carefully. Speak cautiously and courageously. Be fully present to God, one another, and the cosmos. Listen to the Logos. Speak words of peace, healing, and hope. Be faithful. Always remember the bathrobe is too big.

Jeffrey T. Barker is senior pastor of Bethel Church of the Nazarene and associate professor of practical theology at Eastern Nazarene College

1. John Macquarrie, “Will and Existence,” in The Concept of Willing, ed. James N. Lapsley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967), 78.

2. For a survey of images of pastoral care, see, Dykstra, Craig C. Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2005).

3. See Heije Fabere, “The Minister in the Hospital,” in Pastoral Care in the Modern Hospitable, translated by Hugo de Waal (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971).

4. Listening and speaking seems to exclude action. This is not the intention of the author. In the pastoral care situation, a caregiver must refrain from the temptation to fix the other or to act on behalf of the other if this might enable continued destruction. Yet, the caregiver must act to protect others from further abuse (at the hands of others as well as self-inflicted harm). These nuances highlight the need to listen carefully. Furthermore, spoken words, especially by those cloaked with authority and power, activate doing.

5. 1 Samuel 3:11-21.

6. John Patton, Pastoral Care in Context: An Introduction to Pastoral Care (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1993).

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