Photograph by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 via Unsplash

Pastoral care, perfectionism, and grace

July 10, 2024

My journey to the pastorate was not a straight line. For 20 years, my first calling was to the college classroom, primarily teaching biblical studies to students who were only in the courses because of a degree requirement. My professorial experience prepared me well for many of the job responsibilities of “pastor.” I can put together a Bible study quickly. Hard questions about Scripture and theology lead to helpful discussions. Even the administrative challenges between college and church are similar at times. One area, however, that I was not as equipped for was pastoral care.

In a recent “State of the Church” with my congregation, I was asked what was different about me as I complete my sixth year in full-time ministry. I hadn’t anticipated that question, and when my mind went blank, I pivoted to, “Maybe we should ask my wife what is different about me?” Almost immediately, she said, “Your pastoral care has improved.” For context, my wife is a board-certified chaplain with the Washington, D.C. Veterans Administration. She has numerous certifications, including expertise in suicide prevention and thanatology (she’s an expert on death and dying). Recently, she published a grief curriculum, complete with a facilitator’s guide, to help address issues related to general and traumatic grief. So, when she shared that my pastoral care improved, I believe her.

Well, I say I believe her, but it still doesn’t feel like it. Pastoral care doesn’t come as naturally to me as teaching or preaching does. I liken it to working left-handed. My right hand does what I ask without thinking. I can do things with my left hand as well, but I have to think about it. The concentration required to brush one’s teeth with the non-dominant hand seems excessive for what should be a simple task!

I know part of my struggle with pastoral care is a desire to be perfect. I don’t want to make a mistake in what is already a hard time for someone. My wife once put together a list of things not to say when comforting someone experiencing grief, and of course, I read several that I had said before. I wanted to help people, and I might have made things worse! I have heard from many church members who struggle when they are called upon to support someone after a difficult diagnosis or a death close to them. “What do I say?” “What don’t I say?” “What if I say the wrong thing?”

Part of my struggle with pastoral care is a desire to be perfect. After some time as a pastor and some work on myself, I am learning to trust that there is always grace.

To become a Board-Certified Chaplain, one must complete training in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). CPE is a process to become aware of biases and life issues that might complicate offering pastoral care. Chaplains learn to recognize when their own issues might be affecting the care they are supposed to be providing to someone else.CPE is important work of self-awareness and emotional honesty, but when I learned how they do it, I was mortified.

Essentially, in CPE training, they toss you in the swimming pool to teach you to swim. A chaplain visits a patient and then writes a “verbatim,” attempting to reproduce the exact conversation in the visit. Then the chaplain performs the verbatim in front of their supervisor and peer group. At which point, the supervisor and others in the group highlight the areas in which the chaplain came up short. “Why did you keep bringing up your dad?” “Why did you keep talking about this? They clearly didn’t want to talk about that!” “I don’t think you gave them what they were asking for.”

At the end of the process, a chaplain is more aware of themselves, and I am certain they are better able to be fully present with the people they minister to. But…yikes! I once asked my wife, “What if you say the wrong thing?” She responded, “You will. You always do. Nobody is ever perfect. So you get comfortable with not being perfect.” I don’t like making mistakes, and I like even less making mistakes that might affect someone else! When I asked her how you deal with the mistakes and the uncertainty, she simply responded, “You trust that there is always grace.”

After some time as a pastor and some work on myself, I am learning to trust that there is always grace. On my way to a pastoral care visit, I still fret about what I will say after my first question (my first question is usually, “What happened?”). I still try to anticipate how a conversation will go, what questions might come up, and what theological concepts might need addressing. But I am starting to see how all of that represents my own issues. I am starting to get better at trusting that there is grace.

I’d rather be perfect at everything I do, but since I am clearly failing at that, I suppose the grace of God will have to suffice.

Rev. Dr. Robert Wallace is senior pastor, McLean Baptist Church, McLean, Virginia.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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