How do we strengthen our local ministry efforts? By weaving together missional ministry, pastoral care, and spiritual practices.
I’m sure most of us wouldn’t immediately think of a gym as a form of local ministry or as an example of pastoral care. But in South Seattle, Rainier Health and Fitness grew out of a ministry commitment by Emerald City Bible Fellowship (ECBF). Fifteen years ago, ECBF’s leaders and members decided to pay attention to the needs in their neighborhood and to pray about how they could meet some of those needs.
One of their first observations was that in their low-income neighborhood, the Rainier Valley, life expectancy was lower than Seattle’s average. Chronic disease was higher. Two men in the congregation who had been professional athletes noticed something else. The neighborhood offered no place to exercise. In response, the congregation founded a gym, which met in a garage at first, then a portable building, and now on the first floor of a new apartment building that provides low-income housing.
The gym is staffed by congregation members who make a commitment to pray for everyone who comes in. Because of the volunteer staffing, a sliding fee scale can be offered to members, so some of the low-income people who live in the building are able to participate. In the past few years, many Muslim refugees have moved into the neighborhood. Since many Muslim women do not exercise with men, the gym offers women-only exercise groups that meet in a classroom that can be closed off from the rest of the gym.
Integrating Patterns of Ministry
The gym offers a vivid illustration of the overlap between Christian mission, pastoral care, and spiritual practices. The ministry was born from prayer about local needs. Leaders and volunteer staff members are offering a service to their community, meeting specific needs, intentionally nurturing relationships, and praying for the people who cross their path.
This overlap between mission, pastoral care, and spiritual practices has not been affirmed very often in the past few decades. Pastoral care, in the second half of the twentieth century, often meant a minister in a church office providing pastoral counseling to a parishioner, or someone on a church staff visiting an ill or bereaved church member. Mission meant something that happened overseas, mostly invisible to people in the home church. Spiritual practices, such as Bible study and prayer, were seldom viewed as fuel for mission or pastoral care.
As our cities and towns became more secular, Christians increasingly began to understand that mission can and must take place in our neighborhoods, as well as overseas. We often use the word “missional” to describe the kind of ministry that involves being sent into our local communities, as Jesus was sent into the world (John 17:18).
We often don’t realize that local mission—also called “missional ministry”—usually involves quite a bit of pastoral care, something Christians used to think took place only within their congregations.
Understanding the connections between local mission, pastoral care, and spiritual practices enables Christians to draw on centuries of wisdom and learn about skills they might otherwise ignore. Exploring the overlaps between areas of ministry often viewed as separate can help us avoid being surprised by unexpected challenges.
Consider the list of verbs often used in definitions of pastoral care: healing, sustaining, guiding, reconciling, nurturing, liberating, and empowering. These tasks are essential when we try to serve our local communities in a missional spirit, and they remain essential for care within congregations. In order to engage in these forms of ministry, we must engage in spiritual practices that sustain our ministry.
The word “pastoral” comes from a Latin word meaning “pertaining to shepherds or herdsmen.” The tasks of pastoral care are rooted in our understanding of God, our Shepherd, and Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10). Consider the work of the shepherd as described in Ezekiel 34: binding up the wounded, seeking out the lost, strengthening the weak, and feeding and leading the sheep.
These are pastoral care tasks, both inside and outside congregations, and they are also the tasks of missional ministry.
Pastoral Care Is Necessary for Local Outreach
The kind of caring that Christians have long described as pastoral care now plays a significant part in local outreach ministry. I have observed this kind of care being extended to local communities by many congregations. Calling it “pastoral care” and viewing it as an integral part of a missional approach to ministry helps mission-minded people appreciate the wisdom and skills in the pastoral care tradition.
The gym mentioned above is a great illustration of the connections between mission and pastoral care. Another example comes from a Christianity Today article by Tony Kriz, who describes more than two hundred partnerships that have been formed between churches and schools in Portland, Oregon. One of the partnerships was formed between a large suburban church and an inner-city high school. The relationship includes food, clothing, mentoring, sports, and beautification programs. Food, clothing, and mentoring are closely related to the shepherd verbs in Ezekiel 34.
Both the Portland church-school partnership and the Seattle gym are such good examples because they nurture relationships and provide structures that enable healing, sustaining, guiding, reconciling, nurturing, liberating, and empowering.
Today, pastoral care still goes on in congregations, as it should, but we are learning to engage in the tasks of pastoral care outside the walls of our churches, as well.
This understanding of pastoral care as a part of local missional ministry is significant for two reasons.
First, we need to equip people in our congregations to engage in the kind of pastoral care that will be necessary in meeting local needs. Pastoral care skills are essential. These skills include effective listening, understanding the forms of stress people live with, and helping others without becoming enmeshed with them. These skills are necessary inside and outside our congregations.
Second, this overlap between missional ministry and pastoral care illuminates the kinds of spiritual practices that are necessary for both. To do pastoral care effectively, Christians must know appropriate ways of praying for and with others, and they must depend on discernment from God for wisdom in how to provide care. These spiritual practices can inform local mission.
Prayer and Seeking Guidance from God
More often these days, pastoral care within congregations is done by teams of people instead of only ordained ministers. Resources are often scarce and must be allocated with God’s guidance. The kinds of spiritual practices associated with local mission, such as team prayer and careful communal discernment about how to deploy resources, will be helpful for these pastoral-caregiver teams.
In order for both local mission and pastoral care to be effective, Christians need to embrace spiritual practices that enable discernment and empowerment from God, such as communal worship, Sabbath keeping, and various forms of Bible study and prayer, perhaps along with other practices like journaling, fasting, and spiritual direction.
Pastoral caregivers inside and outside congregations must seek God’s guidance and priorities through spiritual practices that make space for us to hear God’s voice. People who want to care for others must have the kind of prayer life that helps us listen for God’s guidance and receive power and love from God for the ministry God calls us to.
Spiritual practices are essential for nurturing the kind of resilience necessary in local mission and pastoral care ministries. Without hearing God’s guidance for where to serve, needs are overwhelming. Without Sabbath breaks, serving can be compulsive. Without the conviction that all ministry belongs to God—a perspective that is nurtured through many different spiritual practices including Bible study, communal worship, and Sabbath keeping—we can take on so much responsibility that we feel overly burdened and even crushed.
Here in Cascadia, secularization is more common than in the rest of the United States. This means that the people in need in our local communities often will not be connected with a church that might provide pastoral care to them. As God calls us to look around and perceive needs, we must pray for God’s guidance about how to respond. Like Emerald City Bible Fellowship, we have the opportunity to create ministries that weave together missional ministry, pastoral care, and spiritual practices—three significant historic Christian cords.