Rev. Tess Baumberger: Putting the pastoral in pastoral care

Rev. Tess Baumberger

Happy New Year. If you are reading this column it means that you survived the holiday season despite exhausting preparations, wacky family dynamics, heart-attack-on-a-plate meals followed by mountains of sweets, gift-crazed children, and maybe even a New Years Eve party or two. Congratulations! You made it. Happy New Year.

Traditionally, the New Year is a time for resolutions. One of the resolutions we share at Unity Church is to offer good pastoral care to our members and friends. After all, this is one of the reasons we come together in church community, to offer and to receive comfort from one another in our times of suffering and need.

One way we intend to improve the care we offer is through a new lay pastoral assistants program. We will train lay people in the basics of pastoral care, then pair them with individuals who need basic care on an ongoing basis. As always, those in crisis will come to me. The program allows us to offer more pastoral care to more people than I could possibly visit each month.

The word “pastor” (minister or priest), and the phrase “pastoral care” share a common root with the word “pasture.” This may seem odd until you consider the image of the Divine as a good shepherd in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

In Christianity the idea evolved that clergy are also like shepherds because in some sense we stand in for the Divine, especially when we perform certain priestly or pastoral functions. These functions often have to do with offering spiritual nurture, probably because the literal meaning of the root for “pastor” and “pasture” means “to feed.”

Ministers feed their “flocks” spiritually by creating nourishing, thought-provoking worship services. We also pastor when we assist and guide people through transitions like birth, marriage, divorce, and death. Like shepherds guide sheep, we guide people through such times.

While it can be a comforting image, the thing I don’t like about seeing the minister as shepherd is that it can be disempowering to lay people. They are not sheep! If you have ever met a Unitarian Universalist, you will know that we are not very sheepish at all, especially when it comes to expressing our opinions and holding on to our individuality. In fact, we joke that leadership in our congregations is like herding cats. I like cats. In fact, if the whole reincarnation thing is true, I want to come back as a bookstore cat (nap in the sunny window, read secretly on top of the shelves, etc).

In our congregations, as in those of other faiths, professional clergy share the ministry with lay people. Together, we shepherd the congregation. For instance, both lay leaders and ministers work to make sure all in the “flock” are safe and together, and not heading for any cliffs. Together we watch out for any wolves in sheep’s clothing.

At Unity Church worship assistants, lay preachers, paid staff, musicians, greeters and choir members all work with the minister to create meaningful worship services. In a similar way, the lay pastoral assistants will work with me to feed people by offering comfort and care to those in need. They will work with me in caring for the elderly and infirm, visiting those who are dying, helping those who are wounded heal themselves, and helping those who are lost and afraid find their way back to safety and to some sense of home. We do this mostly by listening, asking clarifying questions, and offering our compassion, understanding, acceptance, and support.

This is good and sacred work, and it is also demanding. And so I will work to feed our lay pastoral assistants by providing ongoing training at our monthly meetings. In addition to training, these meetings will give assistants a forum where they can share how the work is affecting them, their challenges, sorrows and joys. That way I can support those who share the ministry of pastoral care so that, as a group, we may provide better care to more people, as we have resolved to do in this New Year, and beyond.

The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at the Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. You can reach her at 508-238-6373 For more information about Unity Church, visit