The Complexity of Pastoral Care


Pastoral care is exceedingly complex. In seminary, our professors taught us to labor to become discriminating preachers–that is, men who preach to different categories of hearers in the congregation. In any assembly it is fairly certain that there will be present hard-hearted hearers, spiritually mature believers, believers with wounded consciences, etc. Additionally, there are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, singles, etc. This means that the applications of Scripture must be pinpointed to specific people living in specific situations. The same is true in pastoral ministry. Pastors need to become discriminating pastors. We must abandon any idea of “mechanistic pastoral ministry.” Far too many adopt a “slot machine’ approach to ministry–just put the coin in and pull the handle. Rather, pastoral ministry takes a keen knowledge of the personalities, life-situations and struggles of congregants. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, he charged the whole congregation to  “warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thess. 5:14). Here are five categories to keep in mind when laboring to become a discriminating pastor:

1. Different personalities. Introverts and extroverts respond differently to direct pastoral interaction. This is important to keep in mind when seeking to pastor members of a congregation. If you know that someone is more introverted, you know that they are more apt to keep discontentments in. Extroverts tend to let it all out. In some ways, pastoring extroverts can be easier for a pastor who is an extrovert because you can more often directly address issues that you know are issues. This is not always the case, as different spiritual conditions and levels of maturity are contributing facts. Still, it is good for a pastor to consider the personality type of the congregant(s) he is seeking to pastor. For a bit of a developed treatment of this aspect of ministry, see this post.

2. Different spiritual conditions. This is arguably the most significant factor to discriminating pastoral ministry. If you have a spiritually weak believer, you will have to seek to approach him or her with a great deal more prayer, patience, wisdom and skill than you may need with a more spiritually strong believer. Spiritually strong believers tend to receive rebuke, correction or instruction more quickly and with less diplomacy than is true of spiritually weak believers. Spiritually weak believers tend to get their pride wounded–rather than crushed–far more quickly than spiritually strong believers.

Jack Miller’s orphan/son paradigm is helpful in sorting through the spiritual condition of the men or women you are seeking to pastor. If someone has forgotten their sonship, they will live like orphans. In the physical world, orphans tend to labor to take everything into their own hands. Since they have not had a father, they do not tend to take directions well. Sons, by way of contrast, have grown up under the leadership, loving discipline and instruction of a father. Sons tend to take instruction and correction better than orphans. Orphans move from place to place when things don’t work out for them. Sons tend to stay in the home or to come back to the home when they leave for a time. In the spiritual realm, this dynamic creates unique pastoral needs. The pastor needs to be sensitive to whether a particular congregant is living like an orphan or a son spiritually. It helps to preach these categories to the congregation as a whole. When you do, you will be surprised how many who are living like orphans will acknowledge that aspect of their lives. At the end of the day, we all live like spiritual orphans at times and as adopted sons at times. Our adoption in Christ must constantly be proclaimed to correct this spiritual complexity.

3. Different backgrounds. Following on the heals of the orphans/sons distinction is the reality that every one of our congregants have different backgrounds that affect the way in which they respond to pastoral ministry. For instance, in any given congregation you will have people coming from broken marriages, abusive homes, abusive church backgrounds, exceedingly rebellious lifestyles, wounded relationships, etc. A discriminating pastor will take all of these things into account as he seeks to pastor God’s people. He will be tender to those who have been abused. He will seek to be patient with those who have had years and years of great rebellion.

Add to this, the complexity of pastoring those who have fallen into a grievous or scandalous sin on numerous occasions. This certainly affects how ministers approach an individual. A session or board of elders must take into account the background of an individual(s) before they act in a way commensurate with the need of the individual and congregation. This has massive implications for the process of church discipline. a pastoral heavy-handedness may be appropriate with an individual who repeatedly falls into disciplinable sin, whereas, firm-but-loving pastoral care may be in order for those who have only fallen once and are grieved by their sin. It takes enormous wisdom here.

4. Different motivations. Different people respond better to different motivations. Some congregants respond better to warnings, a firm-but-loving exhortation and gentle rebuke; others respond better to promises, encouragement and indirect admonition. All of this is bound up in personality type, spiritual condition and background. A combination of those factors tends to shape the way in which particular congregants respond to scriptural and pastoral motivation for growth and change. Truth be told, we all need warnings and promises. This is not to suggest that God is not constantly using all of the warnings and the promises of Scripture to bring about conformity to Christ in His people; but, it is to suggest that each congregant responds differently to different motivators. To borrow a coarse, reductionistic and often overused illustration, some respond better to carrots and some to sticks.

5. Different levels of maturity. This is perhaps the most significant factor in pastoring the flock. We are all called to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, to grow in wisdom and knowledge and to grow in love. While we are all to be pursuing the same goal, we know that everyone is at a different place in their lives in regard to spiritual maturity. The discriminating pastor will take account of the fact that not everyone is at the same level of maturity. This will affect the way in which a pastor approaches a congregant. If he knows that a particular congregant is less mature, he will proceed with greater caution, patience and gentleness. He will take note of those who are “time-bombs” among the congregants. He might also be firmer in his interactions with a less mature congregant, depending on the particular situation. He will need a great deal of spiritual maturity himself in order to pastor men and women at different maturity levels.

As we step back and consider a few of the categories that make pastoral ministry exceedingly complex, we understand better why the Apostle Paul cried out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” We understand better why Solomon cried out to God to give him wisdom and an “understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours” (1 Kings 3:7-9)? We understand why Jesus strongly rebuked the proud and self-righteous, gently corrected his self-seeking disciples by setting a little child in their midst and acknowledged that He did not come to cast off weak and spiritually wounded believers (Isaiah 42:3; Matt. 12:20). Jesus is the Pastor/Shepherd par excellence who always dealt with men and women in a discriminating way. After all, Jesus purchased His church with His own blood. He has given His people shepherds who will seek to wisely and faithfully shepherd them to glory. May God grant His ministers the grace and wisdom to learn to do the same today.

4 Responses

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  2. This is so well-written and timely for all pastors today. We face, in my limited experience, unprecedented complexities with sinful natures emboldened inside and outside of the church congregations. As we take our ministries with great care we recognize the range of personalities that we have to care for and lovingly minister to without faltering and becoming distressed. The level of frustration is well documented for pastors walking away when considering the complexities. Yet having been called we stand.

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