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Learning to Be a Circle of Care

By Patricia C. Thomas

The five members of Ministry & Counsel sat around an enormous tree-trunk table in our clerk’s comfortable living room. Warm tea in hand-made mugs scented the air and soothed our ruffled nerves. Our meeting’s Ministry & Counsel had been tasked with devising a way to provide a ministry of pastoral care to an elderly member of the meeting. We considered how our little (average 12 in worship on Sunday morning) unprogrammed meeting could cope with the nature and amount of ongoing pastoral care this Friend would need now that his health and abilities were declining. It was hard not to feel overwhelmed. Murmurs of, “if only we were larger” and “one of the advantages of having a pastor is someone does this stuff,” were overhead by the clerk.

“Do any of us even know how to do proper pastoral care?” one friend asked. Four pairs of eyes looked at me. “You’ve been to ESR, Patricia, what do you think we should do? Don’t you have to have training for something like this?” I replied, “I agree it’s too much responsibility for one person, but we shouldn’t let worry about getting it right prevent us from offering care. Nevertheless, I think we’d all feel better if we had some tips on doing pastoral care.”

Another member of the committee said, “The last meeting I belonged to created what we called Circles of Care. Each circle consisted of two or three people with one acting like a kind of go-to, point person who received phone calls from family or a long-term care facility. The go-to person could also respond when a matter needed immediate attention. All the members of a particular Circle of Care met together periodically for mutual support.”

We all agreed this was a great idea and an hour later we had a plan: Campus Friends Meeting would appoint a three person Circle of Care to visit and respond to our Friend’s on-going needs. We felt good about having created an organized ministry of care. That evening we began an adventure in bearing each other’s burdens in the name of and on behalf of the monthly meeting. We donned our coats and re-entered the snowy night knowing that God was an active presence in our decision-making. Although we had fully prepared a plan, we knew we were stepping out in trust depending on God’s faithful presence.

At the next meeting for worship with attention to business, our meeting embraced the idea of a Circle of Care as a manageable way to provide pastoral care. Later, I facilitated a one-hour event I termed Pastoral Care 101. The discussion proved helpful as one way to ensure folks while they considered participation in future circles.

Ministry & Counsel set time aside at each meeting to receive updates and to hold appropriate discussion about issues the circle was facing.

There were glitches and valuable learning opportunities along the way that initial year. We bumped up against the medical profession, the health care system, family dynamics; and we were often challenged with balancing the desires of our dear Friend with what felt like just-plain-old common sense. We helped each other set healthy boundaries. When our elderly Friend’s needs were greatest, we sorted our way through a division of labor that included the whole meeting.

Since that snowy evening many years ago, Campus Friends Meeting has named Circles of Care to accompany a Friend dying of cancer, two Friends facing the increased needs which aging brings, and a young Friend struggling with major medical challenges and decisions. Members and attenders not serving as “official” care-givers, periodically have stepped up to the plate and provided much needed extra assistance, such as assistance with moving to an extended care facility, trips to the doctor and/or hospital, telephone and email exchanges with family members, even the occasional pet-sitting service.

So, what have I to share with others after nearly 20 years of community-based pastoral care giving? I know experientially the vital importance of “presence”, being there with a compassionate heart that takes away any need or desire to convince or judge. Because people are so busy these days, our very presence signals loudly and clearly that people are important to me and to our monthly meeting, so important that I give you the gift of my time. Our presence in the room may also serve as a reminder God, too, is Present — Christ is indeed in our midst. Moreover, because God is the Curegiver — a term used by Kenneth C. Haugk in his very helpful little book, Christian Caregiving a Way of Life — we can rely on God for results.

“What Christian caregivers do is prepare the ground for the Great Curegiver. Preparing the ground means doing the best possible job to create a therapeutic situation and then waiting on the Lord expectantly. It is God who provides emotional, mental, physical and spiritual growth according to his will. We are companions with God as we accompany the person to whom care is given; we can become a ‘facilitator of God’s hope.’” (Haugk p.19)

We humans are created in the image of God. Because God loved us, we are drawn to love God and one another, Jesus showing us how. Time and again Jesus modeled the Ministry of Presence: he exhibited patience toward the woman who suffered from 12 years of severe bleeding as he moved through the crowd; on more than one occasion he employed a hands-on, compassionate presence with those who were blind. Jesus gathered the little children onto his lap and blessed them and he intentionally ate meals with outcasts and nobodies. We are the lucky beneficiaries of God’s unceasing love.

We are created to bear one another’s burdens in spite of any fear of making a mistake, getting in over our heads, not knowing how to react in the midst of anger and tears, or what is the “right thing” to say next. I’ve found that it sometimes helps to pause on the front porch or just outside the bedroom door and take time to center and pray — to take a moment to remember that Christ, the great Physician is already inside waiting for me, preparing a space. There may be a favorite Bible verse which reassures me I am companioned by our loving God. This private porch moment can also be an opportunity to express gratitude, recognize and name any fear that has tagged along with me or to simply ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. Often times I am reminded that God promises: ”My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Neither you nor I need have, nor are we expected to have, all the answers. Take the next right step, say the next honest word, pray when asked, nod, smile and frown, be your best compassionate loving self. Remember, don’t promise more than you can deliver. It is far better to show up unannounced than to promise a phone call or return visit and fail to come.

When we share the burden of caring for one another, we give witness to God’s all-encompassing compassion as the great Curegiver, and we go forth with the promise that Christ companions us each step of the way.

A couple of good resources:

Christian Caregiving, a Way of Life by Kenneth C. Haugk, Augsburg Publishing House, 1984
The Compassionate Visitor by Arthur H. Becker, Augsburg Publishing House, 1985

Patricia Thomas graduated in 1990 from Earlham School of Religion with a MMin degree. She is a life-long Friend and has been Campus Minister at Wilmington College for four years and pastor of Chester Friends Meeting. She currently serves as Clerk of Wilmington Yearly Meeting and as clerk of Campus Monthly Meeting. Patricia is also the author of the Pastor and Professor Mystery Series.