Pastoral Care: A Ministry of Being

Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “take care of my sheep.”

John 21:16

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Both Episcopal and non-Episcopal schools are in the business of educating students of all ages, backgrounds, races, religions, cultures, and abilities in caring, nurturing environments. What is unique about Episcopal Schools however, is that Episcopal Schools are “embodiments of the Christian faith…that honor, celebrate and worship God as the center of life,” and as such “are created to be models of God’s love and grace.”  One important way we share God’s love is through pastoral care. The Episcopal Church defines pastoral care as “The ministry of caring at the heart of the church’s [or school’s] life.” In my ministry as a school chaplain, pastoral care is woven into every aspect of my day. Tending to Jesus’ sheep is multifaceted, and the following are a few of my reflections about pastoral care after serving forty years in education, the last ten as a chaplain in an Episcopal School.

Pastoral care is God’s love and grace made visible in a community. In Episcopal schools we do our best, with God’s help, to see life through “Jesus’ pastoral eyes.” Taking care of Jesus’ sheep is sitting with a child to hear about their loose tooth, the recent death of a beloved family pet, or how hard it is when it’s not her class’s turn to use the playground.  It is praying and talking with a faculty member who is making difficult decisions about end-of-life care for a parent. It is stopping in the hall or at lunch to really listen to the answer when you casually ask a colleague, “How is it going?” It is making hospital and home visits to those who are ill, and sending pastoral emails to the community to share the joyful news of a new baby or ask for prayers for a colleague who is grieving the loss of a loved one. 

It is also making space for students to share what is going on in their lives. We begin our Religion class with a brief check-in that gives students a chance to talk briefly about what is going on in their lives. Over the years, I’ve witnessed how our students’ empathy and sense of belonging have grown stronger. Students express their condolences when they hear a classmate’s beloved pet has died, and sympathize when hearing that a classmate’s broken toe means no gymnastics for the next month. 

Pastoral care takes a village. God created us to be in community and gave different gifts to each person in that community. Although not unique to Episcopal schools, in my experience, Episcopal schools are communities that prioritize pastoral care—communities who care about, and take care of, their members. While I, as the school chaplain, may be identified as the “pastoral care person,” I cannot be everywhere or know everything. I am blessed by parents, colleagues, and students who inform me of pastoral concerns in the community—about which I may not be aware—and working in a supportive community that cares about its members.  

For example, members of the parent association go out of their way to express their gratitude throughout the year to school employees—from beginning the year with goodie-bags and cards to welcome us back to school in August, to bringing in massage therapists to provide chair massages during Teacher Appreciation Week in May. In addition, I would not be the school chaplain that I am today were it not for the invaluable support of the NAES community through resources such as the NAES Online Community, webinars, the Mentoring Program for New Chaplains, and monthly Zoom chats.

Ministry of presence is a critical component of pastoral care. My ministry as a school chaplain has deepened my understanding of the power of “presence of being.” This means when faced with a pastoral need not only asking “What would Jesus do?,” but more importantly asking “How would Jesus BE?” There are times in my ministry when the most pastoral thing I can do is to sit with a person and be present. Be, not do. Listen, not talk. Hold the space, not fill it. Pray silently or aloud when they have no words. Doing is sometimes needed and is valuable, but it’s important not to get so busy doing, that we forget to stop and be. 

And finally: There are as many ways to provide pastoral care as there are people to provide it. When COVID made it impossible for colleagues to stop by my office to get candy from my candy basket I put “Candy Boxes In a Bag”—a snack-size Ziploc bag full of candy with a short message of encouragement—in employee mailboxes. If I see a colleague is overwhelmed with a new baby at home and needs to finish report cards, I offer to take their recess duty that week. Texting prayer hand emojis to a colleague who is home recovering from surgery reminds them we are praying for them. The text takes a minute, yet is another way to extend the support and care of our community. 

I leave you with the blessing we recite together at the end of our weekly Lower School Chapels. It reminds us that the smallest gesture can mean so much.

Make a difference in someone’s life today,
let your kind word, action or smile 
touch the heart of everyone you meet.

The Rev. Sally E. Slater is Chaplain at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD.