Pastoral Care And Prayer – A Vital Intersection

Too often we see the parts of ministry rather than the whole. There’s a big difference between the assembly line putting the whole car together and the spare parts shop where you can buy single items. You can drive the car but a wheel bearing on its own won’t get you far.

The spare parts approach to ministry:

The practice of ministry is a bit like this. We can spend too much time in the spare parts shop of programs, ministries and strategies and not enough time figuring out how it all fits together in the service of Jesus and His church. For this reason there is often a remarkable fragmentation in the way we go about being the people of God….

  • Congregations may be energetically committed to evangelism. But they may understand little or nothing about hospitality. When newcomers arrive at a worship service, there is no welcome so they do not bother returning. The church bought the evangelism package but left hospitality behind on the shelf not realising that one won’t work without the other.
  • A church may opt for the vision and strategy setting option. In so doing they totally overlook the need for time and patience, both of which can be found right in front of your eyes if you look carefully. The result is that the visionaries can’t figure out why change is taking so long. They get frustrated and feel like trading off those who seem to be slow to catch on.
  • A congregation may sing on Sunday morning about the love in their hearts for God. Top marks! But what if all manner of tensions in the fellowship are flourishing healthily just under the surface? Well done for selecting the special deal on love (it’s very expensive, this one – Somebody died for the patent) but no score for overlooking tolerance and grace which the Manufacturer added at no extra cost.

When prayer shapes pastoral care:

So it is with pastoral care and prayer….

  • Most pastors would happily accept responsibility for the exercise of both but without actually understanding the intimate connections between them. Now this is not to miss the prayerful attention which pastors give to their people, especially those passing through times of great personal difficulty and suffering. The priestly function of bringing people to their God in prayer is a privilege of the highest order. The practice of prayer is shaped by the needs of people.
  • But the real challenge is a little more subtle. How often do we allow the reverse to occur? How often is our pastoral care shaped by our prayer life? A pastor may be diligent in visiting, in follow up, in making phone calls all done according to processes which have been refined over many years in some cases. All this is to be commended. But what about creating the space in our prayer life for us to listen to the Lord’s contact list rather than simply staying with our own?

When the needs are not known:

The problem is this. A diligent pastor will be quick off the mark when the needs of people are known and identified….

  • But what about the needs which are not known? What about the person who seems to be the absolute model of stability, who seems to have it all together but who, in reality, is fighting some alarming battle on the inside which threatens even sanity and life itself? When the deepest traumas of the human heart are carefully guarded, how will the pastor respond when there is no clue about such a circumstance? How often has the speech been delivered when a terrible outcome has occurred in someone’s life, “I wish I had known so I could have done something for them”?
  • The truth is, of course, that we are not God and will not know the inner secrets of those lives for which we are responsible. But it is equally true that the Lord is able to give us direction about how we should be spending our time, whom we should be contacting and when we should be calling up on the phone or arriving on their front door. This is an essential part of the mystery of being the servants of God.

Jack the bushman – a personal story, a painful memory….

Jack was one of the last of a dying breed. A genuine bushman, he had lived alone for thirty years in the hills to the north east of Melbourne. His speech was slow and slurred since he had no reason to be a conversationalist. His was a simple life of subsistence agriculture on a plot of land he had secured as a mining lease years before. He had no access to power or water. He went to bed when the sun set and got up when it returned. He stored water in a tank set up beside a small hut built mostly out of bush materials. His dog, Lady, was his best friend. Lady kept the kangaroos away from his vegetable patch at night.

Almost by accident an enduring friendship developed with Jack. Visits to his simple clearing hidden away in the bush became regular. Small talk, casual humour and the pondering of life’s deeper issues were all explored. These were special days when the city boy who knew little of the bush found common ground with the hermit of the hills who had an abiding disdain for crowds and the suburbs generally.

But the day came when the visits could not be as regular and changing circumstances inevitably curtailed this unique comradeship. Much later his name came to mind, day after day for nearly a month. But the tyrant of busyness prevented the trip out to that bush patch to see how the old friend was managing. In fact, as the facts emerged, Jack had fallen ill, had found his way to hospital and had died all in the space of those few weeks. Why had his name so consistently come to mind just then? Why the incessant inner prompting to act? And why the extreme negligence when, at that very moment, his need was greatest? There’s no doubt he died a lonely death.

The lessons?

The painful memory of that terrible pastoral failure to act of more than fifty years ago has had specific outcomes….

  • Whenever a name lingers for a day or two, when it just sits there, I follow up with a text, an email, a mobile call.
  • Whenever I have a dream about someone – and I rarely remember the content of such dreams – the call is made the next day. Without fail.
  • The response to such follow up is often, “How did you know to call today?” I have ceased being surprised by such statements.  They are almost standard.
  • The point was driven home once and for all when I called up a friend whose name had come to mind. He couldn’t speak for a little while through his tears.  His message?  This was the day he had planned to end it all. That was years ago. I tremble to think about what may have happened without that call.
  • I still grieve over ignoring the divine signals about being there for Jack. They were clear enough but ignored. And there is nothing I can do to rectify this enormous dereliction of duty. I still struggle to forgive myself.

Tuning in to the voice of God:

Tuning into the voice of God is not easy for most of us. But isn’t this what prayer is all about?

  • It is not just asking the Lord to heal and help those whom we already know about.
  • It is about curbing our addiction to busyness long enough to receive His list of who is needing His care through us.
  • It is about connecting our prayer with our pastoral care.
  • It’s about bringing together our desire for God with our desire for people in a way which genuinely intersects
  • It’s about really entering into teamwork with the Father to love and care for people be they in or out of the household of faith

The keys to help us:

So what are some of the keys which will help us to be alongside the Jacks of our world in their moment of deepest need?  Some suggestions….

  • Regard all people in your sphere of influence as being people in need.
  • All of us are needy people in one way or another including those who steadfastly present themselves as being on top, spiritually flourishing and at peace with the world. Most people simply do not function in permanent tranquillity no matter what their claims may be.
  • While being appropriately concerned with those who are not coping and who clearly need your care, keep your eyes open.
  • Sometimes we can be besieged by those who occupy the centre stage of our pastoral care and miss completely others who are not as articulate or assertive, those sensitive souls who do not want to take too much of our time, or those for whom the admission of deep need is painful and really beyond them. If we are not careful, we can allow others to write the agenda with our people focus being much too narrow.
  • Learn how to be quiet long enough for God to speak with you. Most of us need His help to be freed from our endless words and lengthy intercessions.
  • God can choose to give us leads whenever He wants to: in the cut and thrust of life or in the silence. But it is often in the silent moments when we are consciously opening ourselves to Him that we begin to discover His plans for us. We may not hear His voice every time but it will be good for us to be in the listening mode.
  • And remember, be very sensitive to names which come to mind frequently. It could be God writing a sign post. Most will be glad you got in touch. As indicated, some will wonder how you came to know about their need at that particular moment.


In the end we, like Jesus, are called to do the Father’s will. In our proper aspiration to be useful to Him and His Kingdom. We may yet be overly driven by our own needs and designs. In our care of His people, it is absolutely crucial that we regularly wait upon Him and let Him direct us to those needing His special touch. Who they are will sometimes surprise us. But that’s what happens when pastoral care and prayer intersect. Prayer and engagement with the needs of people are not separate products on the spare parts counter. They go together as the Maker intended.

Rev John Simpson