Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Monday, 23 January 2017

Christian pastoral care and multi-culturalism

David Pettett

In a recent post on the value of measuring outcomes of pastoral interventions in hospitals I asked the question about what is meant by ‘the spiritual needs of the patients’? What are ‘spiritual needs’? How are spiritual needs defined? When pastoral carers and healthcare professionals speak of ‘spiritual needs’, do they mean the same thing? Are we speaking the same language?

I suggested that we are not speaking the same language but that Christians who engage in pastoral care in public institutions never the less have a vital role to play. Ultimately the ‘outcomes’ of Christian pastoral care cannot be measured with any scientific accuracy. This is not to say that pastoral intervention has no ‘value’ or benefit. When patients are surveyed about how they feel after a pastoral intervention they generally report a positive outcome. These can sometimes be seen in shorter hospital stays, improved pain management and better cardiovascular outcomes.[1]

A survey conducted after a pastoral care intervention may record these measurable benefits but in fact Christian pastoral care brings a whole lot more. However, as the term ‘pastoral care’ itself is used more and more in a secular context, the distinctiveness of Christian pastoral care risks losing its unique focus and benefit. In another earlier post, I argued that a biblical understanding of the human condition, of who God is and of where the world is heading is the necessary basis for bringing real compassion and empowerment to suffering people in hard places. Pastoral ministry that relies only on psychological insights into the human condition and does not bring a biblical understanding is not pastoral ministry as Jesus brought it to those he encountered in their suffering and it is not the legacy Jesus left us.

My fear for pastoral ministry in the public square is that the unique insights into the human condition which a Christian understanding brings is at risk of following the secular agenda in an attempt to remain active and relevant in the public sphere. Yet if Christian pastoral carers lose the uniqueness of the Christian message in secular institutions, Christianity will lose its prophetic call to a world in need.

Pastoral care is not simply ‘intentional friendship’. In trying to work out how people from different faith backgrounds can work together in pastoral care David Oliphant claims to have developed the ‘philosophy’ of ‘intentional friendship’[2]. He offers this idea as the lowest common denominator by which people of different faiths and none can work alongside each other to bring ‘pastoral care’ to those who are suffering.

I must admit I do not understand why Christians see a need to lose their unique and prophetic voice in the face of multi culturalism and because they life in a multi faith community. Isn’t this the very context in which, to be faithful to our God and to be respectful of others, we must speak more of the uniqueness of Christ? If all our pastoral care is doing is achieving shorter hospital stays, better pain management, better cardiovascular outcomes, and respecting people of other faiths, then we fail as Christians in the world.

I am not advocating for disrespect of anyone of another faith. I am arguing for Christians to do better at working out how to be Christian in a multi-faith context. And I am arguing that this does not mean reaching an agreement on what we have in common and leaving the rest behind. What a grey world that would be. Multi-culturalism allows and celebrates our differences. It is the job of Christians to work out how we can best bring our unique message into a multi-faith, multi-cultural context in a way that respects both the demands of the government institutions in which chaplains minister and also respects people of other faiths and none who are created in the image of God.

To that end my future posts will explore how this can be done.


[1] See for example, Duncan Blake. Clinician and Carer Both Help Suffering, in Australian Journal of Pastoral Care and Health Vol. 5, No. 1 March 2011. pp. 11-14.

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