“Sometimes I think I should do more pastoral care,” I said one day to a dear friend and mentor in the congregation I was serving at the time. We were having a conversation about the church, and I mentioned that thought because I had a full-time colleague who took point on visiting the homebound and the sick and convening things like grief support groups. I did not do nearly as much pastoral work. My church had created a job description that let me focus on preaching. I still regularly did hospital visits and participated in funerals, but I did not lead the pastoral aspect of our ministry.
After I brought up this concern, my friend’s response was swift and forceful: “You do an enormous amount of pastoral care every week from the pulpit, Scott!” He then went on to explain why he believed that. Though I don’t recall all of his specifics, I most assuredly was arrested by his firm observation about pastoral care from the pulpit.
For many of us preachers, the pastoral aspect of preaching may not have been emphasized in our homiletical training. As my colleague Danjuma Gibson observes, the academy has tended to keep preaching and pastoral care in separate silos.
Some of us were told that the main aim of preaching is to open up the biblical text verse by verse in an expository style. Others may have been trained to think of preaching as distilling out of any given text a nugget of doctrinal truth so that doctrinal purity is the sermon’s key aim. Still others of us may have been taught that sermons exist to nurture discipleship, so it’s important to conclude every sermon with a to-do list of ways to keep marriages strong or how to raise moral children or how to deepen one’s prayer life. Or maybe we were taught that each sermon should proclaim the gospel, but en route to accomplishing that we need to spend time each week hammering away at the sin and guilt we all have that make salvation necessary in the first place.
But ought we have been taught instead that a key aim of preaching is to provide pastoral care—soul care? Perhaps this is not the be-all and end-all of preaching, but could we come to see it as a vital part of any sermon? Whether or not they specifically call it pastoral care, Black preachers have long known this. When asked why sermons in Black churches tended to be so long, theologian James Cone is said to have replied that six days a week society told Black folks they were of no account, so on Sunday it just takes a while to talk people back into seeing who they really are: precious children of God.
More recently Otis Moss III, in his book Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, compared preaching to the musical form of the blues. The blues, Moss noted, reach into our souls and name the things that pain us so as to create a space for healing. Preaching can and should accomplish something similar.
In my introductory preaching class, using Paul Scott Wilson’s sermon-crafting category of “Trouble in the World,” I detail with students all the pains people carry with them into church each week. There are so many sources of trouble in our lives: sickness, economic distress, employment issues, family dysfunction, times of national or international crisis, war, injustice, racism, accidents. As Wilson says, some of our troubles disrupt things on the vertical axis of life and make us feel alienated from God. Other troubles disrupt the horizontal axis and make us feel alienated from one another. Some troubles manage to do both at once.
In preaching, pastors need to be honest about naming these things specifically. We want to preach in such a way that when we ask an important question about life, people lean in and think, “Yes, that is exactly the question that keeps me awake from 2:34 a.m. until 5:01 a.m. some nights.” When we detail the peculiar pains that come to families, people should be able to sit up straight in their seats, sensing that the preacher could as well be describing exactly what is going on in their household at that very moment.
What’s more, when preachers make clear that it is OK to lament these things to the face of God, then those listening feel they’ve been given permission to realize afresh that lament is a proper modality for people of faith. Asking hard questions, lobbing laments to God, and sorrowing deeply over losses are not signs of weak faith, but robust faith. These are not stances assumed by unbelievers, but by believers. These are not attitudes we need to hang up in the church lobby along with our overcoat, but ones that can accompany us straight into the sanctuary.
Of course, naming the hurts by essentially playing the blues in our preaching is only the beginning of pastoral care from the pulpit. Wilson’s “Trouble in the World” needs to be met in preaching with a robust “Grace in the World” that brings our hurts and woes and laments into conversation with the good news of the gospel.
To appeal again to the Black homiletical tradition, this is the move to “celebration.” What brings people to their feet at the end of a sermon is not just that the preacher delivers a stemwinder of a conclusion—what in classical rhetoric might be called the “resounding peroration” of a speech or sermon. Rather, what brings people to their feet is that earlier in the sermon their own wants and needs and regrets and pains were articulated. Thus, when the gospel of power comes swooping in to make promises and offer release and provide hope, then those become my promises, my release, my hope, my celebration of God’s goodness.
My recently retired homiletical colleague John Rottman used to say in class that people often come to church plenty burdened already. To make the point, he would walk in front of the class and say, “My wife may have cancer, my child is struggling in college, the company I work for is lagging and letting people go,” and with each mention of such a burden, John would stoop forward a little more until he was finally almost doubled over from the imaginary weight on his shoulders. The last thing people like this need on a Sunday, he observed, are sermons that pile on more obligations, more to-do lists to stay in good with God. When people walk into church half stooped over with worry as it is, we ought not hope they leave with their chins scraping on the floor from the additional burdens the sermon loaded onto their shoulders. We’d like them to be able to walk out of church a little more upright, a little lighter on their feet, a little (or a lot) more hopeful.
Or, to put it another way, we’d like to provide some much-needed pastoral care in our preaching.