I came to congregational ministry by way of Chaplaincy. In 2000 I enrolled in a six-month Chaplaincy program at New York University hospital, drawn to the idea of being present to people in their times of deepest sorrow or joy. That experience was so powerful, felt so sacred, that I applied for the Master of Divinity program at Meadville Lombard within days, as part of the path towards becoming a certified hospital chaplain. I also volunteered at St. Luke’s and, once I moved out to California, enrolled in UCLA’s Clinical Pastoral Education program.
In the many years since, I have found myself drawn to and rooted within the richness of congregational ministry, which involves the cultivation of trust on so many different levels, in different contexts, and over much longer periods of time.
I recognize this ministry as simultaneously pastoral and prophetic, drawing attention to, and lifting up, the full spectrum of human experience, as precious. Pastoral encounters take place not only during scheduled hospital visits or office counseling sessions.
Every encounter is pastoral. Every encounter is an opportunity to affirm that which is unique within one another, and to make that web of interdependence visible and strong. Every encounter is an opportunity to celebrate life’s milestones (great and small), the Mystery in which we all abide, and the ways that we (see and unseen, known and unknown) impact one another.
Along those lines, it has been a delight to help shape and notice the impact of the way in which such milestones are expressed in the congregations I have served. While the “Joys & Sorrows” part of the worship service can be experienced as detracting from a shared sense of reverence, it can also be shaped into a holy vessel! Visitors and newcomers frequently comment that this portion of the service moved them deeply.
Since congregational life is a “Shared Ministry”, it is important not only for the minister to be accessible and attentive, but also for there to be diverse and meaningful ways for members to express care for one another. A commitment to living with our Covenants is central. Bringing greeting cards to team/committee meetings can also help. That way, members who are ill or homebound, who are celebrating a milestone, or have done something to inspire gratitude, can receive cards filled with the well wishes of their community.
Covenant Groups and Sharing Circles are a wonderful way to build depth-ful connections. Another idea is to set aside a place in which people can write down and post “gratitude notes” for others in the congregation, visible for all to see. Volunteer recognitions help draw attention to the different forms of generosity that exist within our congregations. This is a form of pastoral care!
Above all, what’s required is the ongoing cultivation of a commitment to Presence: caring enough to notice who’s there and who isn’t, to offer expressions of gratitude, to listen deeply and recognize the Holy in one another.
As I often say on Sunday mornings, “so much of who we are, of what we carry within us, is not visible at first glance; not immediately evident. It may need to be nurtured within the secret chambers of the heart’s memory, or the mind’s imagination. May awareness of this possibility guide us, each, to compassion with one another. And acts of kindness.”
In furtherance of my own desire to continue to grow in my ability to be present to others, I have been more attentive to my own spiritual practice – setting aside time for contemplation and prayer. In September, I also enrolled in the Stillpoint certification program for Spiritual Directors.