oih7RVeAre you making congregational plans for 2018? Today’s question comes from a pastor who wonders about a particular kind of planning for congregational life:

Dear Matriarchs:

Do any of you have a standard pastoral care plan or practice you use for grieving families or others going through a situation with ongoing pastoral needs? We have a plan for ministering to homebound folks. I hope to develop a plan for long-term care with folks with chronic illness, addiction in the family, family member in prison, etc. I’m concerned that long term care for people going through tough times can get lost in the many other details and demands of parish life. Thank you for your suggestions as we develop a comprehensive care plan.

Kelley Wehmeyer Shin:
I wish we had the ministry resources for long term pastoral care for our congregation but we realistically only have ministry resources (ie: people hours and energy) for homebound and care facility members because the majority of our congregation is in their 70s and 80s. We have nine ordained Deacons who visit members who are homebound or in care facility and we have individuals within the congregation who reach out to members when they are sick or absent. 

As Pastor, I visit our members who are unable to come to church, take communion to them with an elder or deacon, and lead monthly worship at one of the assisted living homes where several church members live. I have provided pastoral care to members in hospitals, hospice, homes, prisons and mental health facilities. 

In January, I am starting a Grief Group for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. We will be using a book entitled “Grieving With Your Whole Heart” (Skylight Paths).

I feel like a plan for pastoral care for those with addiction, in prison, and chronic illness requires trained pastoral care such as Stephen’s Ministry or other trained pastoral care, and would need the hours to devote to such an important ministry.

Sharon Temple:
I have attempted to re-language pastoral care == care by the pastor — to congregational care — the congregation’s care of each other. The care plan, then, is best owned by the congregation, developed and carried out together with the pastor. The congregational locus of responsibility varies: deacon board, small groups, other ongoing team or ministry. The need for care by the pastor can be worked out from that.
I also strongly advise that, when making pastoral calls in non-institutional settings — or where there is not an on-site (non-family) caregiver — the pastor be accompanied by someone in the congregation or someone from the pastoral staff. 

Jennifer Burns Lewis:
When congregations have members who have a heart for or experience with Long-teen needs, they’ve been tremendous sources of advice and creative thoughts about what kind of congregational care is needed and appreciated. Having deacons listen and respond with a plan has worked well, particularly when a team (of even two) provides an ongoing plan to stay connected…

Martha Spong:
As a person diagnosed with a chronic illness myself, I note that there is very little energy in churches for supporting people with long term needs. We know how to rally casseroles or gift cards – even prayer! – for shorter term needs. Attention to folk whose illnesses, whether mental or physical, will never go away must somehow come from the grass roots of a congregation rather than from the “top down,” where “top” means pastors, elders, deacons, or Stephens or lay ministers/visitors. I wonder if the movement toward small groups might be a model? The catch is whether church folk feel willing to join in a group based on a category that calls them out as being in need? On the one hand I don’t like being identified as my illness; on the other hand, keeping it quiet, if not secret, prevents building connections with those who understand and who might also benefit from my support.

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath:
Since I’m not in a parish setting right now, I don’t have a plan in action. I do try to be mindful of firsts though. The first Christmas since… Or the first anniversary since… In those moments, just saying that we remember can be very meaningful for those who grieve.

Dee Eisenhauer:
I appreciate this pastor’s compassionate impulse to want to take care of those who may be overlooked. I don’t have a plan in my smallish congregation, and that may be a failing on our part. On the other hand, tending to the health of the community as a whole does tend to lead to people looking after each other in ways that are surprising and delightful. I have found that there are caretaking things going on “behind the scenes” that could not have been planned but could only emerge from loving relationships. I would also caution against a mindset that suggests you can take care of all the people’s needs all the time; you will be haunted by your own and the church’s inadequacy no matter how hard you try and how thoroughly you plan. That is not to say “Don’t make a plan;” it is to say we need to recognize our limitations as ministers and churches or we will burn out and go crazy.

Thank you, Matriarchs! You have given us a lot to think about.

Your turn, dear reader! Does your congregation have a plan for persons with long-term needs? How do you keep it going? Where does the responsibility lie? Share your good practices here in the comments!

Is you congregation doing something new and challenging? Could you use some extra ideas on how to get that going? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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3 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: On-going Care in our Congregations

  1. What a wonderful question! Having served as both pastor to small congregations and hospice chaplain I have found that long-term needs are too often met with a rush of concern that dwindles as compassion fatigue sets in. I think the idea of a plan is wonderful, and am now thinking about what that might look like in our small church. Not much of an answer here, but thank you – and I will be watching this thread for the wisdom of others.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Specific to grief support, my last congregation had a set of booklets (from Stephens Ministry, I believe) that were designed to be sent out at intervals: 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, and 11 months after the death. I had four standard letters, one to go with each booklet. When the secretary gave me those letters to sign, I was able to take a moment to pray for that family particularly. I would often add a note to the letter or occasionally make a phone call or schedule a visit. People generally responded very well to being remembered throughout the first year of their loss; they also said that the booklets were helpful resources to be read and shared with other family members.

    I wonder if something like that could be adapted for other kinds of pastoral needs. The thing that made the grief ministry work was a set of calendar reminders that the secretary would add to the calendar whenever there was a death, so we were less likely to forget. The trick, I think, is to create the right balance between standardized and personalized.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This conversation is one I’m deeply committed to as a pastor and long-term cancer survivor. My colleague and I, Rev. James DeBoer, developed a program called, Congregational Care and Cancer, when we were in seminary. It is publicly available as a resource through this UCC site http://www.ucc.org/justice/health/congregational-care-and-cancer/ and can be adapted for many living the journey of chronic and/or life-threatening illness. Among the resources we cite is a great manual for congregations called, The Unbroken Circle (2009, Duke Institute). It also has assessment tools for looking at how we as church can strengthen the ways we accompany folks managing the “long-haul” with challenges. I’ve offered many workshops on this topic of the Rollercoaster of Illness, which I’m happy to share as well. Just email me.

    Liked by 2 people

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