Many of our churches have effective ways of offering pastoral care to their congregation and wider community. This is usually a task shared by a minister, elders and pastoral care teams. Churches are often creative in the ways they offer pastoral care, and the current situation will require us all to think of new ways of reaching out to others. Some people are moving to online means, letter writing and telephone calls. In this short guide we will outline some good practice guidance for elders and pastoral care teams offering telephone pastoral care.
The first consideration is the wellbeing of those offering pastoral care. Sadly, pastoral care usually falls to a small number of people on the eldership or pastoral care teams. It is important to recognise that we are in a time which is causing significant strain for many, including those offering pastoral care. This can be heightened by the feeling they must call a lot of people. The bottom line is that we need to care for ourselves. This involves looking to our physical, psychological and spiritual needs. We would recommend that all those offering care have an opportunity to regularly speak with others in the church. This may be a minister. But, you may want to contact your Synod to ask for someone with whom you can share the load.
Understanding pastoral care
There are several definitions of pastoral care. For the purpose of this guidance, pastoral care is defined as offering loving support to others. Clearly this is not a sophisticated definition, but it sufficiently covers the offering of elders and pastoral care teams in this context. It is important to keep in mind that when we telephone someone in our congregation or community who needs support, we are not seeking to meet all their needs. The most we can offer is a listening ear, some gentle words of support and where appropriate prayer and spiritual guidance. Most people offering pastoral care run into trouble when they offer too much, or they take another person’s problems on themselves or think they need to solve such problems. Remember, unless a person is specially trained, they should not be offering counselling or any other such form of support by telephone.
There are some basic things we can do to make telephone pastoral care manageable:
Make sure the person wants to speak. There can be lots of reasons why they may not want to – it is not a good time; there is someone else in the room; they are feeling vulnerable. Consider starting the telephone conversation by saying something like – ‘Hello, this is Adam from City URC, I am one of the pastoral care team/an elder. We are calling everyone on the members list to check how they are, is this a good time to speak, or shall I call back later?’ Remember that it can be difficult to work out who someone is by their voice, so say your name and where you are from.
Set a time limit for the call. You may want to have a watch in front of you – 20 minutes is a good amount of time, but you may want to offer more or less depending on the circumstance. This might feel strange, as we often don’t time limit our phone calls. But, this is to protect you and the person. Speaking for too long to too many people can be overwhelming.
If you are not good at small talk, ask the person how they are and just listen. This is important as listening can be harder than it seems, especially over the phone. Make sure that you let the person know you are listening. Think about making affirming noises, or appropriately repeating back to the person what you hear them saying. Do this in your own words so you don’t sound like a parrot!
The telephone call may come to an end naturally, or you may need to bring it to an end. Having a time limit is really good for this, five minutes before the time you have chosen you may want to say something like ‘It is really good to speak to you, but I am going to need to go in about 5 minutes’. If this is done sensitively, most people will respond well.
Many people are comfortable offering prayer. You could say ‘Would you like me to pray for you; if so, I can do so now or after we have finished the call?’ Reassure the person that it is fine if they do not want prayer. If they do, then keep your prayers short and to the point. You might like to ask them if there is anything specific, they want prayer for. If you are not comfortable praying with others, then ask the person if they would like you to pray for them later when you are alone. The other option is to have some short prayers you have prepared before hand and read them. There are lots of resources out there with appropriate prayers. Remember there is no need to reinvent the wheel!
Most conversations should be straight forward. However, there may be times when someone becomes emotional. There is no need to panic if this happens. Allow the person to be emotional and reassure them gently. Please remember that you are not offering to solve problems, so you might need to point them to other people who can support. There is a list of services at the end of this guide. If you have concerns about a person then contact the Synod Safeguarding Co-ordinator immediately. You can find the details of this person on the Synod website or by calling your Synod Office.
You might like to consider texting to keep in touch. For many a text could offer the encouragement needed.
Share the load – many churches are sharing pastoral lists so no one person becomes over-burdened.
Phone numbers to offer people who need extra support
Age UK Advice Line: 0800 678 1602, Lines are open 8am-7pm, 365 days a year
Samaritans free helpline: 116 123, open 24 hours
Cruse Bereavement Care Freephone National Helpline: 0808 808 1677, Monday-Friday 9.30-5pm (excluding bank holidays), with extended hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, when we’re open until 8pm
Childline Helpline: 0800 1111, open 24 hours
NHS Direct: 111, open 24 hours
Person’s GP or in extreme circumstance 999
The current situation is causing much concern for people in our congregations and communities. So, reaching out in sustainable and healthy ways is key to our witness as Christian people. Remember that we should extend the same kindness and compassion to ourselves as well as others, so keep your wellbeing in mind. The Synod is sending emails to offer several types of support for elders and pastoral care teams, so keep an eye out for these and the list of organisations above. If you have concerns about someone make sure you contact the safeguarding co-ordinator or Synod.
This guidance has been prepared by Rev Dr Adam Scott.
Adam is a URC minister and a chartered psychologist. He is Tutor in Ministerial Formation at Northern College and Advisor for Clinical Pastoral Care in the North Western Synod.
Download here (Word document).