Pro-Active Pastoral Care

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook.

By Anna Pinckney Straight

In my current call, we are asked to write an annual self-evaluation in preparation for our annual review.

I’ve written eight of these, and there is one thing every single one has had in common.  “I’d like to work on non-crisis pastoral care.”



When I moved here, wise colleagues cautioned me.  “In a larger church, you can’t go find the pastoral care needs, you need to devote your energy to the needs that come to you.”

It was good advice.   And true.

And yet, it is a truth I can’t accept, for it’s an incomplete equation.  It leaves out those who can’t find their way to the phone or to my door. It leaves out those who have questions they don’t know how to ask — questions that can’t be found directly, but are revealed in the course of a conversation, in the course of a faithful relationship — the kind of relationship brothers and sisters in Christ can cultivate.

I’ve tried six ways to Sunday to get at this issue.

  • I bought index cards and tried to keep track of each encounter with a church member, hoping to be able to identify those with whom I hadn’t met or seen in a while.
  • A lay-visitation course was developed.
  • Deacons call their neighborhoods, with special emphasis on the aging-in-place members.

All of these things have helped, but none of them, in my opinion, have addressed the deeper issues, the real issues.

I know that there are those who are being missed.  Who are hungry for deeper engagement in the life of faith.

In one of my favorite blog posts of all time, Gordon Atkinson shared these words about pastoral care (it’s no longer online, but you can find other of his writings here:

Now you understand. You’re not Jesus after all. You’re a man who is good with words and who feels things very deeply. You’re a dreamer and a silly person, like all the other silly people at church. You cannot love everyone, and you cannot be all things to all people.

Welcome to the human race, preacher. Now you are ready to begin.

You will love some people deeply. Others will receive lesser kinds of love. Some will get a handshake and a kind word. Their journeys are their own, and they may have to get what they need from someone else.

Love the ones you can. Touch the ones you can reach. Let the others go. If you run out of gas, sit down in the pew and point to God. That might be the greatest sermon you ever preach.

You cannot love anyone until you learn you cannot love everyone. You cannot be a real live preacher until you learn to be a real live person. 

I’ve begun to think that I’ve been asking the wrong questions.  Instead of trying six ways to Sunday to find ways to track and connect with all of the members of the congregation, should I be asking, instead, how have pro-active pastoral care needs shifted in the 21st century?

Have they shifted away from the pastor’s office and found a new home in the pews, in the communities that form among people who worship and pray together, week after week?

In the gatherings that happen among parents, waiting together while their children are in choir practice?

The evening supper tables at retirement communities?

Is living in your community becoming the new proactive pastoral care?

For clergy, is pastoral care leaving the office, leaving the parlor?  Is it now found catching up in the grocery store, while getting coffee, while out to supper?

Jesus went, Jesus waited, Jesus listened, Jesus prayed, Jesus wept.

What’s NEXT for the church in the world of pastoral care?


APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.