Pastoral care – guidelines

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Yesterday I shared some training notes on giving pastoral care in the church. Here are some guideline notes based on guidelines and policies from a previous church


Your church should have  a children’s and at risk  adults’ safeguarding policy. It is important that we recognise that those policies respond to specific legal and medical definitions. Children are all (without exception) under 18. At risk adults are those who due to physical or mental health issues or other factors such as addiction in some way have reduced capacity. This reduced capacity may be ongoing and consistent or a one off event. This means that they may not be able to advocate and give free consent for themselves or remember/reflect on a situation in the same way that non-vulnerable adults can. This may expose the child or at risk adult to potential coercion and abusive experiences, even if not intended by the church pastoral worker and it may also expose the pastoral worker to the risk of suspicion, false accusation and unpleasant experience.

Ensure that your church policy has considered all risk factors and that when you meet with someone to offer pastoral care that you are operating in line with that policy.


Whilst current practice is to talk in terms of “at risk adults” in the past this category was labelled as “vulnerable adults.” Whilst official definitions have changed, the association with vulnerability has stuck.

This gives us a challenge in terms of vocabulary and classification because it is normal also for us to talk in terms of people being vulnerable and having vulnerabilities.  What we mean by this is that each and everyone of us is likely to be vulnerable to specific situations at specific times. Indeed, to recognise our own vulnerability and therefore dependency upon God and upon each other is a good thing. 

There will be times when life experiences, health issues and sin (both committed by and committed to a church member or seeker) will mean that they are more vulnerable. Because the vulnerabilities are context specific and are not linked to impaired capacity, this is different to the classification of vulnerable adults as mentioned above so that the safeguarding policy does not apply. It is however important for pastoral workers to be aware of best practice and to make appropriate risk assessment and management decisions.

Transparency and Integrity

We are aware that our reputation is important for the sake of the Gospel and for God’s glory.  When meeting with people pastorally it is important to be aware of how contexts and actions can be read and misread.  Some of this will be cultural, both on generational and ethnic grounds.

The primary concern we have in this context is that relationships can be misconstrued and misunderstood. It is not merely that  ongoing 1-1 contact may lead to temptation or false-accusation. Rather, we need to be alert to the fact that depending on frequency and intensity, contact may lead to unhelpful emotions for those involved including attachment, attraction and dependency.

For a long time, best practice has been that any pastoral contact between a male and female member should either be with an additional witness/chaperone present.   Alternatively, if that is not possible then the contact should be in a public place. We additionally need to be aware that some conversations are best held male to male or female to female.

At its most overt, this policy has been referred to as the Billy Graham policy because he was a strong and rigid advocate and practitioner.  This may alert us as well to the dangers of legalism around this.

First of all, the policy is now regarded as offensive to younger and particularly (though not exclusively) secular/western generations.  It is seen as implying that females are temptresses and that men should be afraid of them.  It is considered to imply that men and women are incapable of forming appropriate platonic and working relationships.

Secondly, we need to be aware that the policy does not account for the challenges of same-sex relationships, abuse and accusation. The most recent disturbing allegations concerning fallen evangelical leaders concern same-sex relationships including with adults as well as minors in group as well as one to one contexts. This also reminds us as pointed out during the Safer Families For Children training that we tend to put a lot of confidence in numbers but having additional people present is not necessary a protection.

Thirdly, we need to remember that Jesus was not frightened of cultural perceptions as demonstrated by his conversation with the woman at the well.

Care and Respect

It is important that we show love, care and respect for those we meet with.  It is important to therefore consider the following

  • Environment:  Have we considered whether the place we meet will be conducive to the type of conversation we wish to hold. Some venues and layouts may feel intimidating and bring up difficult memories and emotions.
  • People – as we consider the issues around integrity we also need to be alert to how bringing different people into the conversation changes dynamics too. Additional attendees may raise questions about confidentially, increase formality and signal discipline. Further, greater numbers may suggest in some contexts an element of shaming and/or intimidation/coercion.
  • Partnership: Pastoral care and discipleship will include teaching, discipline and rebuke. Therefore there will be times when we will have to communicate to a person an expected behaviour/response. Even then the choice/responsibility lies with them. However a lot of our pastoral care is not of that type and is rather about members of the church seeking us out for help, advice, prayer etc about health, previous experiences, difficult emotions, decisions and a desire to grow in godliness. Therefore the less that they feel as though they are passive in the process and the more that they are active participants the better. I always advocate that our demeanour should be less “I am here to help you/tell you what I think” and much more “I’m here to come with you as together we go to God and how word for help.”  To some extent we can encourage them to lead in shaping the pace and nature of the process.
  • Often the biggest hindrance in life (not just pastoral care) is that we use the wrong process. Sometimes a process is itself broken or ineffective. Sometimes it is not a bad process in itself but is the wrong process for what you are trying to do and if you keep using it you will simply experience frustration, failure and pain. Make sure you are using the right process for healing and recovery, reconciliation, faithfulness through suffering /persecution, instruction, correction or discipline. The right process will include vocabulary, steps, environment and goals.


Be aware that pastoral contact will provoke an emotional response.  It is important not to be frightened by this nor confused.

A couple of comments

  1. Tears do not necessarily mean sadness or repentance. Indeed there is wise historical  advice from Jonathan Edwards not to judge spiritual work based on outward manifestation.
  2. Behind tears, anger is often a major reaction. This may be caused by a sense of offence and may well be linked to guilt and to shame
  3. Response can be delayed.  Indeed it often is. It is possible to leave a conversation with no apparent or even a positive emotional response only for someone to react negatively later. Indeed this can be true the other way. The person who reacts angrily, defensively and with hostility at the time could well be the person most likely to come back in repentance a few days later or to open up with tears of sadness about what they have really been suffering with.

On that basis I believe it is best to forewarn others where they are likely to observe/experience the reaction especially if it is likely to be delayed.


Confidentiality is not the same as secrecy.  It is important that all involved are aware of this.  However, I am a firm believer in seeking to keep matters to the smallest circle of knowledge possible.

This means for example that if there is a low level advice/care issue it is likely to be kept within a congregational leadership team/ 1 or 2 elders. However, there will be situations that should be shared with the whole eldership. Again, it may not be necessary to share all of the details.

However, whilst giving a brief overview, we should be careful of not giving enough information leading to the risk of concern and speculation. So for example, we can explain the general nature/area of pastoral care and also rule out what it is not.

Pastoral Reporting Structures

This is about support, escalation and expertise/specialism not about hierarchy

  1. Small Groups (community groups, home groups, life groups) are often the best place for pastoral care and discipleship to happen in terms of day to day life.  We probably need to make this more overt to the church. This would then mean that anyone who joining your church should be should be linked to a small group as soon as possible. This means we know where first point of contact is with the group leaders regardless of whether the person chooses to attend regularly or not.
  2. Exceptions where an item might go straight to elders:
    • Church Discipline
    • Requests for membership and baptism
    • Discernment of a calling to ministry
    • A pastoral issue including serious and terminal health issues/death and bereavement where because of the person it is likely to have a wide and significant impact on the church. For example if a church leader suffers prolonged health issues or one of our dearly loved older members is dying/has died (Bernard, Joan Newby as examples).
  3. You may also want to identify other church members outside of the formal leadership who may have gifts in the areas of pastoral visiting and encourage/co-ordinate this.  This will include both for care by visiting the sick and house bound but also discipleship for 1-1 Bibles studies, family Bible study and prayer etc.
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