My colleague at the church I serve has always described pastoral counseling as an extension of pulpit ministry. I think that is a very helpful and important description. But in reading through William H. Willimon’s Worship as Pastoral Care (Abingdon Press, 1979), I’ve seen that the language can be broadened further. While taking care to not lose sight of the theocentric character of corporate worship (i.e., not turning the worship service into a man-focused gathering where meeting human needs takes priority), Willimon suggests that we have lost sight in our shepherding of the “significant by-product” of worship: as the covenant people gather to render praise to God, they also receive his grace through word and sacrament.
Willimon has some insightful thoughts in this regard:
Worship is a major, if recently neglected, aspect of pastoral care. Worship can be enriched by a better awareness of the pastoral dimensions of so-called priestly acts. Just as pastoral care has often neglected the corporate context, so liturgical studies have frequently mired down in historical and textual trivia, archaism, and clericalism, forgetting the pastoral, people dimension in divine worship. In turn, pastoral care can be enriched by more attention to the priestly dimensions of so-called pastoral functions.
A warning note should be sounded here. As I indicated in the last chapter, the first and foremost purpose of our worship is to respond to God. In its most basic sense, worship has no other function than the joyful, ecstatic, abandon that comes when we meet and are met by God. Any attempt to use worship to educate, manipulate, or titillate can be a serious perversion of worship. As I noted earlier, much of our Sunday morning worship, especially in Protestant churches, has been flattened to a purely human enterprise in which people are the chief focus of our liturgy rather than God. While motivation for social action, comforting of grieving people, or education into a broader knowledge of the faith may all be worthy goals, if worship is viewed as only a technique of achieving these goals, worship is being used and thereby abused. God is not to be used for our own purposes, not even for our own good purposes. My thesis is this chapter is not that we should use the liturgy as a new method of pastoral care but that the liturgy itself and a congregation’s experience of divine worship already functions, even if in a secondary way, as pastoral care. The pastoral care that occurs as we are meeting and being met by God in worship is a significant by-product that we have too often overlooked.
In the New Testament, “worship” is a comprehensive category that describes a Christian’s total existence. Liturgy is literally “the work of the people” whether that work occurs inside or outside the temple. We have, in our time, made too neat a distinction between work and worship. Likewise, Christian ministers, if they are doing what they have been called to do, will testify that no clear distinction can or should be made between their work as priest and their work as pastor. When the pastor counsels parishioners in his or her study, beside a hospital bed, or around a kitchen table, the pastor is only doing what he or she does in baptism, at the Lord’s Table, in a sermon or a wedding – guiding the people of God in a liturgy whereby they are enabled to meet God and God can meet them. When the pastor breaks the Communion bread, raises his hands in a benediction, or leads in prayer, the pastor is only doing what he or she does in counseling or other acts of pastoral care – healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling those committed to the pastor’s care.
Pastoral counseling is a very important means of pastoral care. But corporate worship is a most necessary component for the care of souls. Not only does pastoral counseling guide God’s people toward fuller worship of him, corporate worship is the primary means through which God strengthens his hurting, grieving, broken and trembling sheep in this their pilgrim journey. Let us never lose sight of this fact in our preaching, public prayer, and leading of worship.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)