Definition of Pastoral Care and Historical Context
by Lisa Hunt-Wotton

This paper will look at the nature and definition of pastoral care. It will examine its foundations and will take into consideration historical context and contemporary application. Pastoral care has at its very core the love and concern for the dignity of humanity.  Its ultimate goal is the formation of Christ into each person. Therefore the greatest mode of pastoral care is Christ himself. As we grapple with an ever changing society which is fragmented and sprawling. More than ever we need a theology that embraces the idea of being connected to community and to small groups where people can find healing and guidance.

The Nature of Pastoral Care

To understand the nature of pastoral care it is important to remember that we are created in the image of God. A pastor is therefore called to respond in away that reflects accurately the nature of God (Arnold, 1982: 15). Fundamental to pastoral care is the understanding that ‘God cares for humanity in Jesus Christ’ (Oden, 1985: 36). Pastors embody the care-giving, care-receiving process. They are also the ‘listeners and interpreters of stories’(Dykstra: 2005). They assist in the understanding and refitting of our stories which, especially in times of crisis, are often fragmented and dissociated. They relate the word of God to specific needs and life experiences in a ‘relationship of loving service’(Aden, 1988: 40).


Biblical Foundations

In considering the biblical foundations of pastoral care in the bible we see that the care of Gods people began with the Patriarchs. The Old Testament portrays the pastoral images of prophets, priest, wise men, kings and judges who God appointed for the care of His people. It is from the pastoral images of rural settings like sheep and shepherds that we get the term ‘pastor’ (Dykstra,2005: 54).

We see in the Twenty-third Psalm a text that characterises the pastor/shepherd ministry as one who ‘offers presence and guidance toward the restoring of the soul’ (Patton, 2005: 3). Although shepherding is a vivid image of a pastor it is not the total function of a pastor. Everything ultimately needs to be interpreted through Jesus. Jesus is the focus, the lens through which we understand pastoral care. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, He is the gate, He secures, He protects the sheep and He is the one who ultimately gave his life for his sheep (Jn 10: 7-11 TNIV). He instructs us to care for one another, to love one another, and to care for his sheep. (Jn 21: 15-17).

The overall goal of pastors should therefore be ‘the formation of the character of Christ within his people’ (Benner, 2003: 15).

Pastoral Care Definitions

It is helpful to look at some well known and respected definitions of pastoral care. This gives us a guide by which we can apply care, sustenance and healing to those in need. Literally defined, pastoral care may be seen as ‘the function of providing spiritual…orientated leadership’ (Everly,2008). Clebsch and Jaekles state that:

‘The ministry of the cure of souls, or pastoral care, consists of helping acts, done by representative Christian persons, directed towards the healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling of troubled persons’  (Jaekles, 1975, 1983: 4).
Another solid definition which gives us an eternal perspective is expressed by R. Hurding where he suggests that pastoral care is:  ‘The practical expression of the church’s concern for the everyday and ultimate needs of both its members and the community.’ (Hurding,1992: 45).

Care Implementation

When looking at the implementation of care in the church, there are historically four primary functions of ministry for pastoral care. These have been the centre of the life and assignment of the church (Arnold, 1982: 78). These are the elements of healing, sustaining, guiding and reconciling which sit as the overarching template of appropriate care.

  • Healing: involves the idea of moving through an injury toward wholeness (Benner, 2003: 15).
  • Sustaining:refers to the support and care of the hurting person where the cure or healing is unlikely.
  • Reconciling: involves the restoration of damaged relationships including broken relationships with God  and with people.
  • Guiding: assisting people to make wise and prudent choices (Benner, 2003: 15). There are two elements to the function of guiding.
    • Inductive guidance which refers to what is taught or instructed and educative guidance which involves listening and drawing people out and helping them to find their way. Each of these functions ‘has as its aim the maintenance and strengthening of people’ (Arnold, 1982: 78).

These functions will all take on a different emphasis and strength depending on our world view, our gender, age, generation and culture. As you look at the different stages of church history, different eras had more dominant themes.

Church History

The Dark Ages (400-1200).Culture during this time was an oral one, and remained so even as Britain entered the twelfth century. Text was translated at the whim of male Christian monks who had little interest in the colloquial speech of the day creating a vast gap between the church and its people. This meant that the people relied solely on the church for education, liturgy, practical and pastoral care. Acknowledging this deficiency, King Alfred commissioned the translations of six books into Anglo-Saxon: the Dialogues and Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory I, moving society into an era of inductive guidance.

IMG_9045The famous Pope Gregory the Great provides a fascinating example of pastoral care in the early stages of this period (Pfaff,2009) . As a pastor, a teacher and a theologian, Gregory was a leading example for us today (Oden,1985: 36, 37). He wrote one of the greatest treatises in the history of pastoral care namely, Gregory’s‘Liber Regulae Pastoralis’, also more commonly known as the ‘Pastoral Care’or ‘Pastoral Rule’(Ogg, 1907, 1972). It received favour throughout Europe, Spain and Britain and had an influence for good upon the clergy of the day.

sick-dying‘Pastoral Rule’ very practically instructed the clergy on the work of the church, the care of the flock and the care of the pastor.

He called the clergy to the image of the shepherd over the sheep, encouraging them to live a life of example, uprightness, humility and purity (Ogg, 1907, 1972). Pastoral models today have built upon this foundation which has given us a more integrated insight into pastoral care. This period of church history contributes most significantly to pastoral care and continues to have a positive influence on pastoral care today (Oden, 1985: 42).


Reformation and Renewal

(14th and 15thCentury).

During this time abuse was widespread in the Catholic Church and there was high level of corruption in the papacy (Sommerville, 2009). A poorly educated and underpaid clergy provided most people’s pastoral care. There needed to be a reconciling of people to God and of the people to the church. There was widespread concern over corruption in the church. Put simply, the breakdown of the church and its failure to reform caused a revolution. The renaissance of thought concerning how society could be newly formed, sparked an unprecedented need for academic freedom, and distress at the misuse of power of the church (Wikepedia, 2090).

The Protestant Reformation was sparked by a Martin Luther (Reformation , 2009). Luther shockingly declared that the Pope had no special powers and that the church consisted of all Christians (Reformation , 2009). Luther believed in depriving the clergy of much of their power and placing it in the hands of secular authorities (Sommerville, 2009). Luther agreed with Augustine theology concerning the grace of God for salvation which provided for all men to come to God and eroded the rigid institutions of the church (Wikepedia, 2090). This revolutionised the common mans way of thinking about God.

Luther wrote books on pastoral care and proper conduct in the life of a Christian as well as guidance for ministers and their behaviour (Reformation , 2009). His passion for the people came from his own battles with despair (Thompson, 1994: 32); and it was with compassion that he addressed the ill and the bereaved in purely human terms and on their level. The message of Luther and of the reformation is still relevant for us today as we resist the mysticism attached to church appointments and focus instead on the needs of the people.

Contemporary Australia

The church throughout history and from its very beginnings has been intrinsically interested in caring for others as Christ cares for us. Each era of church history has struggled ‘imaginatively to understand what the mediation of Christ’s care means, and how it can be embodied, appropriated, and improved in every new historical circumstance’ (Oden, 1985: 39). Today in our present culture where the village life and parish community is not sociologically available, small groups are a highly successful model of pastoral care.


Small groups actually have their origin in the early church in Acts 2:42-47 where believers met both in the temple and also in house to house. Some of the most effective healing comes from the support of community. Small groups offer personal relationships, meet needs, and offer a practical span of care. Done well they can be the foundation of good soul care, offering networks to establish friendships and support groups whose primary focus is to care for the needs of the group, offering support, care and encouragement, ‘reaching out to one another in relationships of pastoral care’ (Benner, 2003: 17, 20).

In larger churches small groups provide the greatest forum of pastoral care. However, if a need arises within the group that can no longer be met by the small group, the person is referred to an area or network pastor who will be able to provide specialized care. This may at times mean that the troubled person is referred into the care of other health professionals.
Traditional and historical pastoral care began to change in the early twentieth century with the development of psychotherapy and psychological counselling. As communities and people needs changed, a tension was created between the need for historical pastoral advice and psychological help (Benner, 2003: 13). Some pastors relied on purely biblical based spiritual help and others turned to modern psychotherapy.
There is however a middle road where pastors can learn from other traditions and utilize health resources whilst retaining their own discipline of theology. Paul Pruyser a clinical psychologist puts it this way:
‘I have the growing conviction that people turn to pastors – correctly –because they want to have the opportunity to look at themselves and their problems in the light of their faith and their religious tradition, with the help of an expert in just this perspective’ (Hunsinger, 1995:3).
A pastor at some time will be confronted with the challenge of an acute psychological and or spiritual crisis (Everly, 2008). A pastor at this time will then benefit by being an advocate of comprehensive care where a diagnosis is initiated and where the pastor continues to partner in the treatment process (Hunsinger, 1995: 7), advocating a holistic approach to physical, mental and spiritual health. All the while reinforcing the fact that the person means far more to God than the problem that he or she presents (Patton, 2005: 118). This knowledge and ability to connect people to the appropriate resources and other health professionals in the community is vitally important should the need for referral arise (Arnold, 1982: 138,139).

The role of pastoral care in the community cannot be underestimated. In an era of unprecedented responsiveness and need the pastor is often the first point of reference and front line advocate of the love and care of Christ. This role has changed over the years to incorporate an element of diagnostic skills and a cache of referral tools. However the basic model of healing, sustaining, reconciliation, and guidance remain. We build upon a rich foundation of Christ, upon the legacy of biblical and church fathers and move forward with a mandate to care and feed His sheep.



Aden. (1988). Pastoral care and the gospels.Grand Rapids: Baker.
Arnold, W. (1982). Introduction to pastoral care. Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia: Westminster Press.
Benner. (2003). Strategic pastoral counselling. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing.
Browning. (1976). The moral context of pastoral care.Theology Today, 134 – 136.
Dykstra. (2005). Images of pastoral care. St Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press.
Everly. (2008, February 17). Pastoral Crisis intervention: Toward a definition. Retrieved March 20, 2009, from Special Articles: Http://…
Hunsinger, v. D. (1995). Theology & pastoral counseling. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B.Eerdmans Publishing .
Hurding. (1992).The Bible and counseling.London: Hodder and Staughton.
Jaekles, C. W. (1975, 1983). Pastoral Care in historical perspective. Northvale, London: Jason Aronson.
Oden. (1985). Pastoral care and the unity of theological education.Theology Today, 42, 34-42.
Ogg. (1907, 1972). A source book of mediaeval history. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.
Olson, P. D. (2009). Collating Caedmon The rare book & Manuscript library. Retrieved April 2009

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2 Comments on “Definition of Pastoral Care and Historical Context

  1. Pastoral care can be both secular and spiritual. It is not telling distressed people that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that there is light at the end of the tunnel. For some people the sun may not rise again, and someone switched out the light at the end of the tunnel. Pastoral care by the Christian means listening intently to someone else, and not trying to be the answer to their problems. it is demonstrating the love of God in a way that is non threatening or judgemental. Read ‘The Wounded Healer’ by Henri Nouwen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So well said Lance, Love this “For some people the sun may not rise again, and someone switched out the light at the end of the tunnel. Pastoral care by the Christian means listening intently to someone else, and not trying to be the answer to their problems”. Thank you for your wonderful insight

      Liked by 1 person

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