the series earned a record eight Emmy awards in its debut season and averaged a stunning 14 nominations from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences every year the program was aired on network television.
In its early years, nearly every episode opened with a daily briefing by Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, the tough but lovable shift supervisor played by Michael Conrad. Shot with documentary-style realism, the sergeant cautioned, counseled, and cajoled his incoming platoon of fresh day shift officers about what they might encounter on the mean streets of the city that day. Following roll call, Esterhaus was famous for charging his officers with this simple mantra that became a signature of the series: “Let’s be careful out there.”
Sergeant Esterhaus’s cautious admonition also offers a timely reminder to pastors and their congregations. Expressions of care can be deeply profound and life-changing. All of us likely can recount examples of personal care we have received over the years, both formal and informal. Regardless of whether they have been at a time of personal crisis, in the classroom, on the battlefield, or within a family or marriage, these forms of care are sometimes offered at great personal cost. Sometimes, the significance of the care being offered is largely unrecognized at the time by the one offering it, even though its impact can be profound to the recipient. From Ground Zero to an elementary school classroom, to Auschwitz or the beaches of Normandy, to an oncology wing, or even to a simple conversation over a cup of coffee, all of these varied settings can offer inspiration that grows from the seed of a simple expression of care from one individual to another.
While it may come easier for some pastors than others, pastoral care is an essential skill for all clergy. Pastors minister to their congregations through counseling, visitation, prayer, challenge, encouragement, camaraderie, and in the cycle of birth, healing, and death. We are given opportunities to frame God’s prevenient grace for our parishioners in real time.
One of my mentors used to say, “Pastoral care pays the bills.” By this, he meant that ministers with good shepherding skills recognize the value of living among, getting to know, and serving alongside the people in our care. When our ministry ends at a particular church, our examples of pastoral care (or lack thereof) will likely be remembered much longer than what we said in our sermons. As we come to know people in our churches more personally, pastors are able to build mutual trust and may be given the unique opportunity to enter into the highs, lows, and hidden shadows of those in their care. In so doing, pastors may find opportunities to prayerfully guide, correct, and direct people in their congregations more deeply toward the love of Christ.
Fortunately, life in the pastorate offers rich opportunities for care. Whether it is rejoicing with young parents through the blessing of a newborn baby in her first hour of life, talking with a single father about a challenging situation with his son, being welcomed into the home of a couple who have never attended a church before in their lives, counseling a high school student about her options after graduation, visiting a young man in jail who desperately needs a change of direction, or helping a family express all they need to say to a dying family member while time still remains, pastors have a unique opportunity to be Christ’s hands and feet in many of life’s most meaning-filled moments.
So what can pastors learn from the briefing room at the Hill Street precinct? It seems to me that Sergeant Esterhaus’s admonition connects to today’s pastors in at least three ways.
As a college student many years ago, I used a handy mnemonic device to remember something called the “hortatory subjunctive” in New Testament Greek; perhaps, you used the same trick. The hortatory subjunctive is a grammatical mood that urges others to join in some action. In English it is typically translated, “let us . . .” and is found in multiple places in Scripture. For instance, the writer of the book of Hebrews challenges readers by admonishing, “Let us run the race that is set before us” (12.1). To help me remember this grammatical element, I called the hortatory subjunctive the “salad subjunctive” through this “salad/ lettuce/let us” memory link. In modern English, “let us” is typically too formal for most of us, so we often condense it with the contraction “let’s”—as in “Let’s go,” “Let’s make a deal,” “Let’s roll,” or “Let’s be careful out there.” Let’s face it: there is always an “us” to pastoral care. It is never done in isolation. By its very nature, pastoral care is relational: we are in this together.
Some ministers struggle with this relational nature of pastoral care. If we lack appropriate self-confidence, for instance, this can result in a closeted reluctance to risk meaningful interactions with others. If this is true for you, talk with someone about your concerns and take some steps with their encouragement to move forward in this area. By definition, pastoral care requires interaction and relationships. Pastors must get to know their key leaders. They are often called on to care for those who mourn. They comfort those who are ill. And they support those in need.
Beyond the direct connection to caring for the needs of parishioners, my experience shows that pastoral care also offers great opportunities for mentoring. Early in my ministry, I was privileged to have pastors who were willing to take me along with them as they visited parishioners in the hospital or at home. I can still recall many interactions with these pastors as we traveled together from place to place. Unfortunately, these pastoral essentials are seemingly becoming a lost art. If you are a pastor with a licensed minister in your church or a staff member who could benefit from stronger pastoral care training, I challenge you to use the hortatory subjunctive with them by saying, “Let’s get together and visit so-and-so at the hospital today,” or “I’ll make some calls, and let’s go out next Monday night to visit with some folks in our church.” Good pastoral care is marked by urging faithful action, both to parishioners and to others in ministry.
Practice your ministry in the plural. If there is no “us” in our pastoral care, then something is missing. More accurately, someone is missing—the very people we are called to serve through our care and mentoring.
In the English language, we often form adjectives by adding the suffix “-ful” to the end of a noun. Common words like “successful,” “graceful,” “beautiful,” “fearful,” and “hopeful” are all cases in point. Our English word “careful” means to be thoroughly concerned. Literally, it means to be “full of care.”
Pastoral care is often tied to the shepherding role of ministers. We are responsible for the protection, development, and healthy growth of those in our care. Part of our ordination rite grows out of Paul’s charge in 2 Timothy 4:5a, where young ministers are charged to “watch thou in all things” (KJV). What does this mean? While translations vary from admonitions to being soberminded (ESV) to “keeping your head” in all situations (TNIV), the verb points to being careful to exercise self-control and balance in all areas of one’s ministry. This call to be full of care and attentiveness applies both to our lives individually and to our ministries more broadly. As pastors, we are given a unique opportunity to express the fullness of God’s care in the lives of our parishioners. In other words, we are to be “care full” as pastors.
Good pastoral care most often calls for some solid theological reflection well in advance of the situation at hand. How fully have you explored the problem of evil, for instance? It’s an essential issue that often comes to the surface when working with people in grief and crisis situations. Knowing what not to say is as important as coming up with a neat and tidy answer in difficult moments. When tragedy strikes and life does not make sense, it’s okay for pastors to acknowledge this all-encompassing reality in the presence of their parishioners.
The sheer ministry of our presence may be all we have to offer. In fact, attempting to fill a crisis with vapid words can easily become toxic to their recipients. In these moments, the most Christlike answer we can offer is to follow Jesus’ own model of “full”: all-encompassing care for Mary and Martha following their brother’s death. What did Jesus do upon meeting these women on his way to Lazarus’s tomb? Jesus cared fully. We’re told in John 11:35 that Jesus wept.
Pastoral care is oriented outwardly. Pastors must get beyond their own abilities and hang-ups to be effective in their care for others. Jesus charges us to go out where people live and to inspire others to join us in doing likewise.
I often joke with my students that my evangelistic strategy at home is to borrow (and return!) my neighbor’s tools. My family lives on a cul-de-sac, so we are surrounded by some great families, all of whom are at various levels of faith development. My neighbors know what I do for a living. And while we don’t likely see eye-to-eye on any number of issues, I consider all of my neighbors as friends, and I believe they see me in a similar way.
Over the past eight years, I would owe my neighbors a lot of money if I paid them $10 every time I have knocked on their door to borrow a wheelbarrow, saw, air compressor, or some other tool. While I do lean a bit on the thrifty side, I have an even more pressing reason for this tendency to borrow from my neighbors: quite simply, it gives me opportunities to connect with them personally.
Today, more and more of us live in a world that is hyper-privatized. Our freeways are clogged with cars occupied by solitary drivers. We build homes without front porches in favor of backyard patios surrounded by high fences. It has become quite easy for us to drive into the garage and activate the garage door remotely so we can avoid any interaction with our neighbors. We’ve become quite good at insulating ourselves.
But people both inside and outside the bubble of the church are designed for relationships. We become less than the fullest expression of ourselves when we cut ourselves off from others and from God. Our mission is to care in ways that people recognize this important truth.
So my “tool-borrowing ministry” puts me in touch with Paul, Jeannie, Ben, or Danny. It has enabled me to build real friendships with Chuck, Cam, Sharon, and Olivia. And as a result of those friendships, we’ve been able to talk more deeply about life, and sometimes, even faith. Some of my neighbors have actually let me pray with them as we’ve stood in their garages. It’s been my privilege to care more fully for them and to help them see how God’s love is already reaching out in their direction. So I continue to borrow tools when I need them—and I’m careful to return them as a good neighbor should!
As pastors, it does not matter if we live in the urban core or a suburban neighborhood. Regardless of whether our interpersonal skills come naturally or they require some development, pastoral care is a skill and gift that can be nurtured and developed over time. In response to God’s call together, we’re charged to care fully, both “in here” and “out there.”
Jay Richard Akkerman is professor of pastoral theology and director of graduate theological online education at Northwest Nazarene University
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Halter, Hugh and Matt Smay. The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
Hansen, David. The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994).
Oden, Thomas C. Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).
Peterson, Eugene H. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
----. The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 2011).