Pastoral Care Versus Spiritual Care

pastoralThere is an on-going controversy regarding what term is preferable, “Pastoral Care” or “Spiritual Care.” For some people this has become quite a heated issue. I have no interest in stoking this fire, and certainly encourage ministers and lay ministers to use the term they prefer. The use of the term “spiritual care” is often driven by a desire to be religiously inclusive, or inter-faith. I can see how that could be useful for some; and many people who have chosen to use the term “spiritual care” over “pastoral care” for this reason. Many who are seeking to be more inclusive still use the term “chaplain, ” or “chaplain services”— a term whose provenance is even more exclusively rooted in Christianity than the term “pastoral.”

While a number of terms are acceptable, I prefer the term “pastoral” over “spiritual” myself, and that is the term we use at our training center in chaplaincy and care. Here are some reasons why:

  • History and Tradition. Pastoral Care has close to 2000 years of history (longer if one includes such writings as the 23rd Psalm and Ezekiel 34). This history provides valuable insights into the role of a pastoral care provider. Outside of Biblical writers, Tertullian, Augustine, Pope Gregory the Great, Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Boisin, and Hiltner (an important but highly abridged list) have given great insight into pastoral care over the centuries. The role of a chaplain is not only to  utilize one’s own faith community, but one’s faith tradition in the role of “curer of souls.” The term “Spiritual Care” lacks that tradition. In fact, the term “spiritual” is used differently than its historic Latin roots of “spiritus.” The term then had less to do with “ghost in the machine” then as energized meaning or purpose. The disconnection of the present meaning (or vague idea of meaning) of spirit from its historic (as well as Biblical) meaning provides not only confusion to the role of spiritual care, but a lack of sound history or tradition to draw from.
  • Metaphor. The role of a chaplain or pastoral care provider is highly abstract. Ministerial identity of any type is going to be abstract. Because of this, metaphors are often used to help us understand. A metaphor links an abstract term with a concrete term. The link is incomplete, since abstract objects are clearly not the same as concrete objects, but they provide wisdom if one takes time to reflect on the tension of the relationship. The term “pastoral” comes from the Latin term referring to “the role of a shepherd.” Thus, the term pastoral care, means care that is informed by the care that a shepherd provides his/her sheep. The term “chaplain” is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor, but has roots in a concrete object, a “little cape.” This is to remind us of the story of St. Martin of Tours, who gave half of his cape to a poor beggar, serving Christ in so doing. Other metaphor’s exist as well.  A particularly popular one is from Henri Nouwen– the care provider as a “wounded healer.” The term “spiritual” is an abstract term. Explaining an abstract concept with another abstract term is not particularly informative.
  • Breadth of Ministry. Pastoral Care, drawing both from its historical and metaphoric roots, is seen as fairly holistic. Emmanuel Lartey sees a number of functions that fall within pastoral care. The first four were identified by Clebsch and Jaekle in the early 1960s (drawing from historical pastoral care) but then adds more from himself, Clinebell, and Lester. These functions are SUSTAINING, HEALING, GUIDING, RECONCILING, NURTURING, LIBERATING, and EMPOWERING. Based, again on history and metaphor, these abstract terms can be seen to be applied broadly— not just to spiritual concerns (such as relationship with God or existential meaning), and not just psychoemotional concerns; but also physical. social, economic, and political concerns. Without its historical and metaphoric roots, it is not surprising that “spiritual care” is often narrowed down to only counseling. In fact, among those who hold to a perspectival or ‘level of explanation’ view of counseling, there is often even a separation between spiritual problems (needing spiritual care counselors) and psychoemotional problems (needing psychotherapists). We are holistic, integrated, beings, so sub-specializing problems has drawbacks, and greatly reduces the role and impact of ministers.
  • Identity. While the goal in chaplaincy is to be inclusive, this inclusivity is tempored by ministerial identity. A chaplain or religious care provider is supposed to be ordained or affirmed or commissioned within a specific faith community. That faith community has both breadth (an existing community of those who share this faith) and depth (a trail of belief, faith, and membership of this community through time). This identification is a source of strength, not weakness. We are not able to believe in nothing… we are to help people find meaning, and we cannot help others find meaning unless we in some sense or understanding of existential meaning/purpose. For Christians, it is pretty obvious that such a multidimensional identity connects us with millenia of pastoral care. For Jews, the metaphor of the shepherd as a care provider is also strong. Muslims can also connect to this metaphor, and it seems reasonable that many other faith groups can as well. The term pastoral care seems highly appropriate for ministerial identity. Other religious groups (and even atheistic or freethinker chaplaincy groups) may still find value in the metaphor of the shepherd, and they should feel welcome to use the term. After all, many non-Hindus practice Yoga without feeling the need to change the name, and many Hindus practice Yoga without feeling the need to use a different name, to express solidarity with non-Hindu Yoga practitioners.

Of course for those bothered in some way by the term “pastoral care,” they should feel perfectly free to use another term such as “spiritual care” or “religious care” or “chaplaincy care” or something similar. For us, the value outweighs its limitations.

Robert Munson, ThD, Administrator, Bukal Life Care



2 thoughts on “Pastoral Care Versus Spiritual Care

  1. Pingback: “Pastoral Care” versus “Spiritual Care” | MMM -- Munson Mission Musings

  2. Pingback: Pastoral Care or Spiritual Care… – Adventures in Pastoral Theology

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