Pastoral Care (lat. Liber Regulae Pastoralis), as known in the English world, was written by the Bishop of Rome Gregory I the Great in the sixth century CE. Formed by four major books or parts, Gregory deals with the qualifications and behaviors pastors/teachers must show when shepherding the flock.
Despite the fact that it was written 1400 years ago, Pastoral Care has been a must-read work in the area of pastoral care/leadership. Unlike the modern tendency in the Western church of separating pastoral care from other areas of ministry such as worship and leadership, Gregory shows his readers the importance of keeping pastoral care and leadership integrated in a church context. In this respect, I will briefly focus on two areas where leadership and pastoral care converge: the importance for a pastor/teacher to know his audience and the usefulness of the Scriptures in pastoral work.
In the Prologue of Book III, Gregory suggests that church pastors/teachers and their congregants must be in accordance if the former want the church to be edified through Scripture. Such accordance would allow pastors/teachers to preach the same doctrine of the gospel but using different ways to exhort. Gregory writes, “[E]very teacher, in order to edify all in the one virtue of charity, must touch the hearts of his hearers by using one and the same doctrine, but not by giving to all one and the same exhortation.” (Henry Davis, Gregory the Great: Pastoral Care, p. 90) By “the same doctrine” Gregory seems to refer to the gospel message, while the term “exhortation” seems to include not only preaching but also counseling.
The diversity of exhortative means, for Gregory, must be reflected in the way pastors/teachers counsel and exhort the flock. Gregory recognizes forty different kinds of persons and how they should be exhorted (pp. 8, 90-91). Among some, Gregory invites church leadership to distinguish between men and women, old and young people, slaves and masters, the meek and the choleric, those who confess their sins and those who do not, and such like. This suggestion is important in church leadership because it acknowledges the plurality of people that form a congregation. Besides, it calls church leaders to know their audience in both senses: corporally and individually.
Knowing a church corporally means that a pastor/teacher should know, in general terms, how their congregation is formed and what are the most important corporal needs of the parish, for example. Knowing individually an audience means a pastor/teacher should be aware of the spiritual needs of most members of their congregation. In other words, the pastor/teacher ought to know who of his members are suffering, experiencing loss, sadness, who need prayer, for instance. Consider what would happen if the pastor of a congregation ignores completely the spiritual wellness of their members. Think about the issues those members would face in the long term. Would pastors preaching effective to this congregation? As Gregory suggests, pastoral care must be exercised individually and corporally. In the end, the good or bad administration of pastoral care in a church setting depends on how a pastor/teacher approaches Christian leadership. This twofold way where pastoral care is exercised can help church leaders to understand better the nuances of each dimension and how each can be a powerful means to edify the people of God — the main goal of Christian leadership.
Although the idea of knowing individually a pastor/teachers audience is difficult to put into practice in a large congregation, the lack of attention to this area may be detrimental to the spiritual wellness of such a congregation. Gregory uses the metaphor of the harmony in a melody to make this point: “[The] strings give forth a harmonious melody because they are not plucked with the same kind of stroke, tough plucked with the one plectrum.” (p.90) Pastors/teachers use the Scriptures to proclaim the message of the gospel and exhort people, but in the parish, the need of each person varies. A person might need to hear something in particular while another one might not. This diversity of needs challenges church leaders to have a balance between how they lead the church and how they take care of the needs of the congregation.
Furthermore, Gregory’s use of Scripture for moral teaching is worth mentioning as one observes that he does not use the Bible as it were a self-help book. Instead, Gregory engages his pastoral concerns with the Scriptures in order to find insightful counsel from a biblical perspective.
In Admonition 3, for example, Gregory claims the poor and the rich must be admonished different. While to the poor the teacher “should offer (…) the solace of encouragement against tribulation,” the rich should be “inspired with the fear of being proud.” (p. 93) Gregory bases his reasoning on what it says in Isa 54:4; 11, 48:10 and Paul’s charge to the rich in I. Tim 6:17. The passages in Isaiah deal in some way with the consolation of the poor (e.g., widows) and how God is their consolation. The Pauline text, in contrast, is a thought-provoking charge Paul makes to the rich to embrace humility. By connecting these passages to his pastoral concern, Gregory makes an interesting conclusion: the poor should be consoled while the rich should be charged. The integrative character of Gregory’s method remained useful for many years in the church. There is, of course, the risk of abusing of this method. However, one aspect that can be noted in Gregory’s examples is the idea that Scripture provides pastors/leaders the ‘prime matter’ they need for their work be done. Scripture is always a means God will use to bring healing to people both physically and spiritually. One aspect important to highlight here is regarding the usefulness of emphasizing the moral sense of Scripture for the believer’s life. In many Christian circles, the use of the Bible for pastoral care is seen, at least, as an inadequate application of Scripture. It seems that this is part of the reactionary position to the rampant rationalism of modern Western culture.
Considering Gregory’s approach to pastoral care/leadership, the use of Scripture for pastoral care/leadership would not be supplemental or secondary, but the primary source with which church leadership works.
There are some challenges important to note. First, Gregory’s approach might raise questions about the application of his model in a medium-size or large congregation. How can a large congregation offer adequate pastoral care to all members? One thing to have in mind is about the definition of pastoral care in modern terms vs. Gregory’s understanding of the term. For Gregory, pastoral care seems not to be reduced to merely an individualized practice, but it also has a communal dimension. Pastoral care can be exercised broadly through preaching and exhortation. This makes that pastoral care in a large congregation could be done through preaching that invites congregants to increase their self-awareness of their human condition and need for Christ.
Second, the context of Gregory’s Pastoral Care happened where the church had embraced the idea that a pastor/teacher resembled the image of a public administrator. Ambrose’s On the Office promoted this idea. Probably against this notion, Gregory promoted the idea that a pastor/teacher must be more than a mere administrator, but a physician of the soul (following Gregory Nazianzen). It is for this reason that in Pastoral Care, especially the Part III, Gregory the Great invites church leaders to increase their self-awareness. The pastor/teacher must practice what he preaches. In the case-by-case examples offered, Gregory discusses how leaders should live by and how they can counsel congregants. The spiritual issues described in the book not only happen to congregants but clergy as well. Taking into account this historical context, I read Gregory’s Pastoral Care as an invitation to understand the office of the pastor/teacher as a balance between church administrator/pastoral caregiver. Is this reading accurate? Is there space for a pastor/teacher to be an administrator in Gregory’s pastoral care proposal?
In short, Gregory’s treatise about pastoral care/leadership brought renewal to the early medieval church. The clergy was encouraged to pay attention to the spiritual needs of the parish and avoid overlooking such an important task. One may say that for Gregory pastoral leadership and pastoral care were not different ‘coins’ but two faces of the same ‘coin’ where the pastoral leader is called to shepherd the flock using the Scriptures as the means to support their ministry. Gregory’s Pastoral Care has a lot to offer to the modern church regarding taking the Scriptures seriously for living a life according to the gospel and the will of God. The Scriptures speak the same message to different people in different ways, and this makes “the same exhortation is not suited to all” (p. 89). Although an ancient pastoral care manual, Gregory’s words remain useful for today for its holistic approach to ministry and balanced perspective.