What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Pastoral Care

March 28, 2014 § 3 Comments

Human life is quite full of human suffering. One of the most important roles for the Quaker meeting is to minister to one another in our suffering. Thus pastoral care is for Friends a form of ministry. 

The faith and practice of pastoral care, the roles and responsibilities of both the individual and the meeting, are not different for pastoral care ministry than they are for vocal ministry or witness ministry, or any other form of ministry: 

As individuals, to always seek to be open to the promptings of the Spirit to serve, in the knowledge that any one of us at any time could be called to be there for someone in pain; that you do not have to have professional training to do this. 

As meetings, to teach the spiritual practice of Quaker ministry, including pastoral care as one of its forms, thus encouraging all members and attenders to be available to the Holy Spirit, and to each other as pastoral caregivers; and to create a fellowship in which Friends know each other well enough to recognize when someone needs our care.

Pastoral care as ministry

As with all other forms of ministry, the goal is to bring someone to G*d and to bring G*d into their life. To seek to awaken the sufferer to the Comforter within them and to give them whatever kinds of support seems appropriate.

The one sure vehicle for doing this is love. For whatever else “God” is, most of us can agree that G*d is love, that loving is as close as we can normally get to the divine. This love is taught in a Masters program that no outward schooling in counseling can replicate, though it can facilitate.

Just as this love is inwardly learned without outward instruction, so it is outwardly expressed without specific forms. That is, when we encounter someone in pain, the first thing we can do is to be still inwardly and listen for how we might be led. We can seek to act and to speak in the situation in answer to that of G*d within our Friend, and to heed that of G*d within ourselves, waiting as it were to be led into action and speech by the Holy Spirit, by the Mystery Reality that binds us together in love. We can settle into the feelings we have for our Friend, our care for them, our wish for their well-being, and in the fullness of that silence, find a way forward revealed. Thus simply sitting together for a time, in the silence, in the light, in that love, can often be the best first action.

We may, in fact, end up employing professional skills and tools in the situation, just as a Bible passage may find its way into our vocal ministry, or our knowledge of hydrofracking may inform our tactics in our earthcare ministry. But love is the first motion, and along with that, expectant listening, knowing that we can be inspired to right action if we attend to the light within us and within others.

But pastoral problems often are—well, usually are—complex and hard to deal with. They often feel bigger than our meager knowledge or skills or gifts. And they are so fraught with tension that it is hard to silence our fears and sense of helplessness, our reluctance to intrude or the tendency to seek a solution, so that it can be very hard to hear that little voice inside or feel that little nudge toward right action. And very often, there really isn’t much we can do, as an individual or as a meeting or pastoral care committee, to actually solve these difficult situations. 

We can try. We should try to do something, even if we are not clearly led, I think. The trying is its own act of love. But at the least, we can love and we can pray. We can just be there, and say that we are there. We can listen. And we can minister to the heart, even when we cannot minister to the situation. We all know what a difference it makes to know that the meeting cares, to get those flowers and cards and visits and covered dishes. These things any pastoral care committee can do, whether it has trained professionals or not.

We often do put people on our pastoral care committees who are mental health professionals or professional mediators, people whom we recognize have already realized their gifts and their calling in this area. But even when these Friends are bringing their professional training and skills to a pastoral need in the meeting, they also are bringing the gifts and the calling that led them to their profession, they are bringing the love and the healing of G*d, the giver of those gifts, the source of that calling.

Gifts of pastoral ministry

And what are the gifts of pastoral ministry? 

  • The gift of attention, of being consciously open to the signs of suffering in others;
  • of listening, of really being present to someone when they are speaking;
  • of empathy, making a habit of imagining what someone else is going through as though it were you;
  • of compassion, making a habit of turning from the awareness of some problem to the resolve to do what you can to help;
  • of discernment, a deep openness to G*d’s inspiration as to the source of someone’s suffering, or the solution to the situation, or to the possible role of the meeting;
  • of prayer, the practice of bringing others into our devotional life;
  • of presence, the willingness to simply be with someone on their own terms, without any expectation of outcome and without fretting too much about the awkwardness;
  • of healing, one of the rarer gifts, of channeling healing power, knowing what to do or what to say or how to help in the moment of counsel, beyond even the great gift of just being present.

These gifts are universal, a natural capacity we all possess, though we each possess them in different measure. Some people seem quite naturally to possess some of these gifts in greater measure, but I believe we can cultivate them within ourselves, we can raise them up or strengthen them, with a little practice.

On prayer

I want to emphasize the value of prayer. The gift of prayer is one of the most endangered in the liberal Society of Friends. But ironically, its very rarity among us enhances its power when we use it. And it has tremendous power to start with. Even “holding someone in the Light” has real power when through the practice we descend into our own depths and send forth our love.

I have seen the truth of this many, many times. In my own meeting just recently more than one Friend has testified to how important the meeting’s prayers were to them and how they could feel the meeting’s love at work within them. I have seen miracles.

I do believe that healing prayer stands a much better chance if practiced in conjunction with some deepening exercise. At least that’s been my experience. Something happens when you take the time to really center down before praying for someone, and when you stay in that deep place for a good time, allowing your lovingkindness to sink you ever deeper as you reach out across the ocean of light with G*d’s love. Oh, it feels sublime and it has great power.

On money

I believe that the Quaker meeting has a special role to play in ministering to the financial suffering of its members. This was the central mission of the church that Jesus built and it was a central mission of the Quaker meeting in the earliest times for Friends. But this post is long enough. This discussion will have to wait until my next post.

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