Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/29 2016

Pastoral Care and Counseling to Navigate Social Services

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tips for pastors to help congregants navigate social servicesAs clergy, we find that we are constantly asked to be experts at tasks and we’re unprepared—plumber, roofer, fundraiser, cleaner, social media expert, copier repair person, barista. Tasks we spend years preparing for in seminary revolve around divinity and theology. Tasks many of us hope we are prepared for revolve around care and counseling. Theology and counseling. We desperately want to make a difference as pastors. We are called by God to spend our lives and our careers telling people about the love of Jesus Christ. It just so happens that nearly all of the people we tell are hurting. And we desperately want to pour ourselves into fixing that hurt.

Pastoral Care

There is a difference between pastoral care and counseling. Pastoral care is walking with someone in their time of trial, hurt, or misfortune. Counseling is problem solving. Counselors have a care plan and a care team to make sure that they are meeting the goals of their plans with their clients. Counselors have brief relationships with clients. Counselors do not walk through life with their clients like pastors do.


Counseling is a brief (a few months or years) relationship with someone focused on a malady in their family system or their emotional state. Counseling is seeing tangible results. And it is incredible to see results. These are results that often evade us in parish ministry.

As a pastor and a counselor, I have found both relationships extremely rewarding, though they have remained separate. I have never been a counselor to a parishioner. The roles are so different. Breaking bread with someone, baptizing their children, being present as they die; this is the role of pastor. This is the honor of walking with someone in the ups and downs of daily life and proclaiming “God loves you!” “Jesus is here!”

As a pastor walking with congregation members, we naturally come in contact with a variety of social service systems. Hospitals, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, suicide hotlines, nursing homes, schools, child services, and the justice system to name a few. Because of our exposure, people oftentimes look to clergy as experts in a subject that we are learning to navigate ourselves. Here are some tips for congregation members as they navigate unknown social service systems.

Six tips to help your congregation members navigate social service systems:


1. Stay calm.

Most people encounter social service systems, whether for children, adults or the elderly in times of stress. If the person in need of the service is under great stress, is too young, or is ill, it is important that someone who can be calm stay a part of the conversation. You must be able to listen, not just hear what the services are saying.

2. Get a buddy.

Even the most competent social service employee will miss something in a conversation regarding a system. Bring someone along with you to your appointments; have someone with you when you register online. Don’t do it alone. You will miss something.

3. Take notes.

When meeting with a healthcare, financial, social security, or child welfare system, take notes. Date your notes. Document what you are to do next and what the system is to do next. Follow up if things are not acted upon as you expect.

4. Come with questions written down.

Spend three minutes before your appointment, discharge, etc. and list questions that you have. Write them down. When the doctor, social worker, or case manager asks, “Do you have any questions?” say “YES.” Everyone should have questions when heading into an unknown system or situation. If nothing else, ask for information on who to contact when you have questions after leaving the appointment/hospital.

5. Advocate.

Be your own advocate and advocate for your friends and loved ones. The only way we can advocate for one another is if we let each other into our health, financial, and social needs. Trust your neighbor, mother, child, or friend when they tell you something is wrong. And do everything you can to work out the problem with them.

6. Connect with a social worker.

Find a local social worker who can be on call for your congregations needs. Most congregations have a social worker who attends, or someone will have a connection. The social worker will be able to help congregation members navigate the systems.

The role of pastor is so unique. No counselor, social worker, or social service is invited into the fullness of life in the way pastors are. In this unique role it is important to know our limitations and lean on experts who can help us and our congregants navigate some of life’s most frustrating and frightening moments. It is part of the honor and responsibility of walking with others and pointing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.


4/27 2016

Pastoral Care and Counseling to Help Families Heal

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pastoral counseling helps families healWithin the ministry of pastoral care, healing from brokenness is a central goal, both for individuals and for the families of which they are a part. Although pastoral care can certainly be extended at times of great joy in a family’s life (such as at the time of a marriage or the birth of a new baby), families most often feel the need for pastoral care and counseling during experiences of brokenness in their lives together. Of course, brokenness within a family may take many forms: caring for an elderly parent; grief following the death of a loved one; divorce or familial estrangement; the loss of a job; abuse or violence.

In the midst of such experiences, individual pastoral caregivers and caring faith communities are called to facilitate healing in families’ lives. Healing, in this sense, focuses on the restoration of wholeness and fullness of life, and does not necessarily mean “cure.” In other words, it may not always be possible to fully restore a family’s health or wholeness, or to reverse the family’s current situation in any meaningful way. Instead, in this way of thinking, healing means helping people overcome an impairment by helping to lead them to a place beyond their previous condition. It may also mean assisting families to move to a higher level of spiritual insight and awareness of God’s love by integrating their experiences of brokenness with their faith.

To be clear: healing does not come directly from individual caregivers or faith communities, or from any particular approach they might take in their pastoral care ministry. It is God who heals, but there are many things caregivers and communities can do to facilitate healing in the lives of the families they serve. Here are just a few examples of what this healing work might look like:

  • Developing a pastoral care network in your congregation so that lay people can be trained to care for one another more effectively, even as care is also provided by those serving in official pastoral roles. Stephen Ministries is one of the most comprehensive and well-respected programs for training members of faith communities in pastoral care, but there may be other good programs available in your area. If you’re not sure where to start, consider contacting the local judicatory staff for your church’s denomination to see if they have specific recommendations.
  • Including attention to the reality of family brokenness in the worshipping life of the community, perhaps by naming some of these struggles in the prayers of the people, in pastoral prayers, or in sermons. For many families, having their challenges acknowledged (in a general way) in worship helps them to feel less alone, and to let go of the notion that church is for perfect people. One of the most powerful ways of helping families heal may simply be communicating, in worship and in other places in the congregation’s communal life, that you don’t need to “have it all together” before coming to church.
  • Hosting support groups in your church for various kinds of family issues (grief, divorce, parenting, etc.) You may have people on your congregation’s staff with the expertise to run these groups themselves, or you may simply wish to invite community organizations to consider holding their support group meetings in your space and making sure your members know such groups are available. Either way, this can be another important means of conveying that the church is a place for people to bring their whole selves, and that healing can be found in the midst of the faith community.

Just as family brokenness can take many forms, healing from brokenness can take many forms as well. The key is to figure out what kind of healing work makes most sense in your own ministry context. In the end, the goal is not to take one particular approach in our ministries of pastoral care and counseling, but simply to make sure we are communicating—as individual caregivers and as caring Christian communities—that the lives and struggles of families are important to us, and that God’s healing is available to all who seek it.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.


4/19 2016

Pastoral Advice on Avoiding Burn-out

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burnoutI am a prime candidate for burnout.

I am a mother of a 5-month-old, a 6-year-old, a wife, a pastor planning several brand new programs and projects, a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend, a neighbor, an employer, the list goes on. I am busy and I am tired. But all of our lists go on and on, don’t they?

We are taught in seminary and by mentors that burnout is an apocalyptic event that all pastors are to avoid. We are given many examples and strategies of how to avoid this all-consuming fire that is coming for all of us: read the Bible, read the confessions, and pray. Find a group of pastors that you meet with each week/month/year. Make sure you have a spiritual director. Go to pastoral counseling. Spend time with your family. Spend time alone.

Just looking at all the strategies begins to make me feel anxious. How can I possibly avoid burnout when I don’t have the time or energy to employ the strategies that are proven to work?

This is the tension where I spend my time, and where I suspect most pastors spend their time. Right between “I am so busy and tired” and “this is the best job/life possible.” And right in the midst of it is the healthy place to be.

Burnout by very definition is a fire that takes over and is uncontrollable—a fire that burns everything down around it and eventually there is nothing left and the fire goes out. For pastors and professionals personal, spiritual, psychological burnout is very much the same. Burnout is when we are overwhelmed by what we are doing and what is expected of us to the point that there is nothing left—nothing left for us to give and nothing left for us to receive.

So how do we avoid burnout?

For each individual it is different. There is no prescribed strategy that will work for everyone. But we have to find ways that keep us from becoming overwhelmed by what we are doing and what is expected of us.

Personally, I know that the fire is burning uncontrollably around me, when I am no longer receiving. When I cannot receive love from my family and friends, when I am unable to listen to others, when I am unable to see the good that is happening around me in ministry and at home—that is when I am approaching burnout. At that point, I have to adjust my perspective. I have to take moments to myself. And then I am ready to receive and to give all over again.

So maybe there is not one strategy to defeating burnout. Maybe there is a different strategy for each individual. Maybe there is a different strategy for different times in our lives. The most important thing is recognizing your personal signs that burnout is approaching before the fire kills everything in sight.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.

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