Pastoral Care in the Christian Reformed Church – Part II

Just what has been don e and is being done in the Christian Reformed Church in the area of pastoral care? Certainly the facts in the matter are of importance in telling the story of pastoral care in the church. Naturally, we shall have to be rather general in our effort to list the practices and policies in this important phases of the church’s ministry. Practices and procedures are bound to vary in different settings. Such variations occur, for instance, between city and rural churches, between long establishes churches and home missionary fields recently organized as churches. Also there is considerable diversity in pastoral work due to the differences among the persons doing this work. There is, for example, the long standing recognition of some ministers as excellent pastors and others as being more inclined to stay in their studies.

The Pastor’s Training

An exhaustive study of the history of the church is not necessary to disclose the fact that pastoral care has always been a matter of great concern in the training of the church’s ministry. In a superficial review of the facts we note that the theological school listed a course in “Practical Theology” in the year 1895–96. This course included Catechetics, Liturgics, and Pastoral Theology. William Heyns began teaching Practical Theology in 1902. This included instruction in Poimenics, which reflects on the pastor’s work as that of a shepherd. Poimenics was then described as the “study of the pastoral work required by the Holy Scriptures of the minister of the Word, his conduct in house-to-house visitation and in visitation of the sick and in special cases.” The lectures of Professor Heyns in Poimeniek in one hundred thirty eight pages of mimeographed material lie neatly bound on the writer’s desk. One cannot help being impressed by the orderliness and thoroughness of these lectures. They contain, for instance, eight pages on “Zielekranken en hun Behandeling” (The Mentally III and their Treatment). Although much of this material is now out-dated, it does nevertheless show a concern a half-century ago for what it regarded as a modern phase of the pastor’s work, namely, pastoral psychiatry.

Heyns taught Practical Theology until 1926. Then Professor Samuel Volbeda took over, and in 1926–27 Poimenics was described as follows: “Study of the Scriptural grounds, religious character, and psychological approach to the pastoral care of ‘the Hock of God’.” The words “psychological approach” catch our eye. But it is worthy of note that by 1931-32 these words had disappeared from the description of the course. Then Pastoral Theology under Volbeda was described in these terms: “This course deals with the scriptural principles governing the spiritual care over the Bock of God to which ministers and elders are called, and aims at preparing the future ministers for the wise, sympathetic, and devout exercise of the shepherds office.” Why was the “psychological approach” dropped? There may have been several good reasons. It is worthy of note that Volbeda listed James Pratt’s The Religious Consciousness as the one work in the psychology of religion in the bibliography of the course for 1920–30. Possibly the utter incompatibility between Pratt’s thinking and Reformed principles contributed to the dropping of the “psychological approach.” Pratt’s view, like that of most of the older psychology of religion literature of his time, was that we learn the facts and meaning of religion and theology by studying man’s religious consciousness.


The ministry of the Christian Reformed Church continues to be trained in Poimenics. Taught by Professor Martin Monsma, the course is presented under the description given in 1931–32.

General Pastoral Care

A distinction has commonly been made between general pastoral care and special pastoral care. We follow that distinction in noting what has been and is being done in the church in pastoral care.

Outstanding under this general care has always been a strong insistence on regularity and faithfulness in exercising the means of grace. No continuing failure to attend the worship services or the sacraments is permitted to go by unnoticed or unchallenged. The term “oncer” has become a term off opprobrium in the church. It refers to those who make it a habit to come to divine services but once on Sunday. In most churches a careful check is made on those attending the Lord’s Supper to determine if there are needless absentees. A person missing the Lord’s Supper two or more times without apparent good reason is generally approached as to the reason for his neglect.

What does such insistence on regularity have to do with pastoral care? Does such insistence mean to suggest that the mere regular attendance at such functions spells spiritual health and vigor? By no means. However, this is clear. In keeping with its high view of the nature of the church the Christian Reformed communion holds a high view of the means of grace. Worship and the keeping of the sacraments are not simply church social functions. They are important functions. Through them the member of the body of Christ is to gain that continuing nourishment and spiritual vitality which are essential to his life as a Christian.

In these functions he meets not his friends first of all; he meets the living God in the living Saviour.

To this we must add at once that there is a most important spiritual. social aspect to such functions. In the fellowship of the saints the faithful church member gains blessed supports for his inner life. The “togethering” that has always characterized the church gives to the member a strong sense of ‘belonging….He is an integral part of something that has high purposes for the coming of God’s great kingdom. In the ups and down of life he realizes that what happens to him is a matter of tender concern to his brothers and sisters in Christ. In time of serious trial and grief his needs are brought to the throne of divine grace by the pastor in the attentive hearing of all the flock. And his desire to retain the goodwill and respect of the church group acts as a strong restraining tug on his sleeve when he faces temptation.

This fellowship of the saints is furthered especially in the society life of the church. A society for every age group has become the goal in most churches. Therefore there are societies beginning with Boys’ and Girls’ clubs (with twelve years the usual beginning age) and continuing through the Young People’s work to the men’s societies, ladies’ aids, and Mr. and Mrs. clubs. Then there are organizations with special goals, like the choir and the mission group. Naturally the measure of success and effectiveness varies from organization to organization and from church to church. In the main it can be said that the success of the organization is commonly in direct ratio to the measure in which the group keeps its goals high and its efforts serious. The introduction of more and more program material of an entertaining character to the increasing neglect of serious Bible study is usually disastrous. Such a remark may require some qualification so far as boys’ and girls’ clubs are concerned. But in the main its thrust will have to stand, in the opinion of the writer.

Of no little importance in the total pastoral care of the church has been its insistence on the thoroughly Christian nurture and education of the children. More than one person has come into the Christian Reformed Church from other communions because of the belief that this church had an admirable program for the training of the young. Through faithful teaching and example in the home, through catechism and Sunday School in the church, and through its strong insistence on the necessity of daily instruction in the Christian school, the church has largely been enabled, under God’s blessing, to develop spiritual stability in its youth and a high degree of loyalty to the church. To be sure, there is and always will be reason for penitent acknowledgment of much failure in this crucially important area of the church’s work. Some of our covenant youth seem to be amazingly unable to give an articulate reason for the faith that is in them. Yet, in the main the church has reaped great returns from its rather unique application of the doctrine of the covenant in its training of those of whom Jesus said, “Of such is the kingdom.’ As a cautious generalization it can be said that faithful general pastoral care at this level usually means less special pastoral care later.

Special Pastoral Care

Under special pastoral care we mention family visiting first of all. This might be placed under general care, since the element of individual concern is not particularly prominent here and this is an outstanding characteristic of special pastoral care. However, although family visitation has its limitations so far as individual work is concerned, it is still in a category different from such things as the worship services and society activity. Family visitation is required by the Church Order, as already noted. Its method varies conSiderably. The conscientious consistory tries to complete a full round of family visiting once each year. Strenuous efforts must be put forth to keep the visit of about one hour on a high spiritual plane. Not uncommonly it deteriorates into mere chatting about the stock market, current events, or pigs and cows.

An elder working with the writer once said, “Family visiting must be so conducted that every family has at least one serious spiritual conversation per year.” The note of irony in the remark should not mask the high obligation resting upon office-bearers in this phase of their work.

Family visiting has easily been one of the main parts of the pastoral work of the church. No doubt it can stand restudy and improvement. But it is a phase of the work that should not be neglected. This is not an idle remark. The writer has heard of more than one instance of serious failure on this score, both in the frequency of the visits and in their manner. On the other hand, it is a fact that many consistories and pastors give serious attention to the effective and faithful furtherance of this work. Some pastors have drawn up suggested material for use by the elders in their visitation work. Much help for more effective work in this area can be gained from Peter Y. De Jong’s book Taking Heed To The Flock.

Certain phases of special pastoral care can simply be mentioned in review. Calling on the sick at home and in hospitals has always held a place of importance, not only for the pastors, but also for the elders and deacons. The church has not failed to capture the special advantages that are given to pastoral effort in the setting of a hospital room or other sickroom.

Regard for the needs of the poor has also been a prominent part of the church’s pastoral ministry. Through the work of the deacons the church has been able to bring much blessing to many through this ministry to the poor, to families with special burdens in times of sickness, to families finding it impossible to meet the cost of Christian education for their children. And it is a pleasure to see the concern for the feelings of those in need which is shown in the deacons’ going to the distressed family to offer help if needed rather than requiring that the person in trouble come to beg for aid. The writer does not know what each church’s practice is on this score, but he shares a marked preference for the more delicate way. This is not a bare financial transaction. This is part of the church’s ministry of compassion. Such compassion includes regard for the feelings of the distressed party.

As already indicated in the previous article, the Christian Reformed Church has taken church discipline seriously. Although there have been and are reports of glaring exceptions, it can nevertheless be safely said that most of the churches have and do go through the painful process required in dealing with those who lead offensive lives. From the “Form For Excommunication” it is clear that disciplinary action is not merely a judicial event, as Article XXIX of the Confession of Faith might suggest when it describes the third mark of the church simply as “punishment of sin.” Discipline has genuine pastoral implications. The “Form For Excommunication” indicates that this extreme step is taken “to the end that, if possible, he may hereby be made ashamed of his sins.” The Form further exhorts everyone in the church to “take warning by this and similar examples to fear the Lord and diligently to take heed unto himself, if he thinks he stands, lest he fall.”

We mention just three other areas in which the church has done faithful special pastoral work. The there hospitals, Pine Rest, the Christian Sanatorium and Bethesda, stand as monuments to the church’s pastoral care. They all began out of concern for the special needs of certain afflicted ones in the church family. A place of Christian care and mercy was needed for these special cases.

Another area in which the churches have done commendable work has been in the attention given to the men in the armed forces. Most churches have seen to it that the boys received at least two papers, The Banner and The Young Calvinist. More or less elaborate systems of correspondence have been set up to keep the boys in uniform in touch with the church. Service homes have been established to help in this ministry to the boys away from home.

Still another area receiving increasing attention is that of marriage counseling. More and more pastors are having serious talks with couples planning marriages. The marriage form is discussed as to its meaning, the seriousness of marriage is impressed upon the couple, and also certain spiritual aspects of the more intimate phases of marriage are dealt with.

The Purpose of Pastoral Care

What has been the purpose, the goal of all the pastoral activity we have passed in review? Is it the church’s task to be a kind of general service agency to take care of any needs that people may develop? Is the church supposed to be a nursery, school, hospital, mailing service, visiting committee, public relations board, family service agency, psychiatry clinic, welfare commission, police department, etc., etc., all wrapped up in one? The church must always remain the church. This over-riding fact must direct her varied activities to the proper goals. These varied activities must always be pastoral in character. Pastoral care, as indicated in the previous article, is work done by the church of Christ for the church of Christ. And it is done mainly though its office-bearers. And what the purpose of their work is Paul has made plain in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter four, where he describes this purpose in these words: “for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

In a word, the purpose of pastoral work is to preserve the church of Christ and to minister to it so that she may grow in spiritual strength and maturity. It is apparent that these two purposes flow into each other. The church is kept from the world and from the control of the evil one as its grows in spiritual strength and stature. Even in the humblest pastoral ministration the far-reaching spiritual goals are present. Always this holy purpose is present, that the church, the bride of Christ, may become ever more ready to meet the bridegroom, her Lord Jesus Christ in all His glory.

Now a question presents itself. We can best present this question by indicating in two Latin phrases just what the work of the church is in its pastoral ministry. Pastoral care has been called cum vitae spiritualis, and it has been called cura animarum. The former means that pastoral care is the care for the spiritual life of the members of the church, while the latter indicates that it is the care of the souls of the members. Admittedly the latter term is a bit broad. But is there not also something unsatisfactory about the former designation? Though one does not hesitate to subscribe to it. yet he feels that in one sense the phrase is too narrow. There is, strictly speaking, in the life situation in which we find the members of the church, no such thing as the “spiritual life” as a separate something. What we call the “spiritual life” is always interlocked with every phase of the person’s existence. There is something abstract about the designation “spiritual life” when we use it to describe that with which the pastor works. The pastor is called upon to deal with human beings in the living situations in which they are found. To be sure, he must address himself to the spiritual core of life, the new man in Christ Jesus. But, like the core of the apple. this is organically related to and affected by every other part of the total life of the individual. In dealing with any part of life we have to deal with all of life.

The writer hesitates to pose as trying to settle this question. Yet he would humbly submit that the phrase cura animarum (the cure of souls) is more satisfactory. It is understood, of course, that this care is under the direction of the Word of God and aimed at the purposes mentioned earlier in this section. The term animarum (souls) avoids the suggestion of abstraction mentioned above and intimates that the pastor’s work is with man as a spiritual being, with his soul touched by and reflecting every facet of his life.

Some Positive Suggestions

In reviewing the important work of pastoral care in the Christian Reformed Church one cannot come to any other conclusion than that the record speaks of a ministry that has been faithful, principled, and effective to a large degree. On many fronts one could not expect a large measure of improvement in the church on earth with its many imperfections. One can only respond to the record with gratitude to God for leading his church in these paths of faithfulness in the care of the flock of Jesus Christ.

It is therefore with some reluctance that the writer suggests two areas where improvement might and should be sought. One of these has to do with the large city churches. Reports are only too frequent that there arc individuals in these churches who feel unwanted and neglected. In many in· stances there is a Subjective factor that must be reckoned with in evaluating the complaint. Yet the complaint is not be ignored. The common observation is that most people feel their devotion and effort are needed in a smaller, struggling church, but as the church grows in number there are a good many who slip back into a feeling of large uselessness.

Cannot the church give thought to new ways and means of meeting such problems? Must a church lose some of the delightful qualities of spontaneity, devoted and joyful service by many, and a spirit of mutual interest and regard of a warmly personal kind just because there are more people to share these things? Must the bigger churches simply be allowed to get “that way”? Cannot thought be given to means by which each living soul in the church is made more of a concern as to his vital participation in the life of the church? It is when church membership becomes a listless and non-vital thing that the devil likes to lay his traps to waylay Christ’s own. Is not this an area for the “protective and corrective” phases of church discipline? Would it be amiss to suggest that some kind of committee be erected in the church whose concern it shall be to consider means by which individual members can more fully participate in the program of the church? And at the same time let the church develop a broad program of society life, evangelization, music, leadership in clubs, instruction—all requiring many, many hands to do the work. Active participation is a most important key to vital church membership. Let the churches reckon with this fact.

A second area where improvement is suggested is in the scientific character of the pastoral work. Pastoral psychology and psychiatry are here. And they have valuable contributions to make. The writer has heard young ministers express amazement at the valuable insights gained from reading in these fields. He is persuaded that a solid course in Pastoral Psychology or Pastoral Psychiatry should be instituted at Calvin Seminary. Such instruction will help the pastor to see aspects of many pastoral problems that he never dreamed existed or that were simply puzzling to him. He will be in a better position to see the many and delicate ways in which spiritual matters interlock with other phases of life. He will understand, for instance, why a person who suffered much emotional hunger and loneliness in younger years comes to feel at a later stage of life that God does not care for him and all is lost. He will understand the difference between a solid and genuine sense of guilt and neurotic guilt. His preaching, though not deviating one whit from the line of truth given in God’s Word, will reflect a greater sensitivity to the deeper inner needs of the flock he is called to feed. His preaching will be strengthened, not weakened.

The first part of this study concluded with a question. How shall we compensate for the loss of cultural distinctiveness that is becoming increasingly a fact in the Christian Reformed Church? The answer suggested here is two-fold. In the first place, let the Christian Reformed Church study, understand, and develop more and more her the spiritual distinctiveness. After all, the distinctiveness of the church is in the final analyses not cultural. It is spiritual. It lies in her distinctive message and her distinctive program flowing out of that message.

In the second place, let the pastoral care of the church grow in expertness. The two positive suggestions for improvement stand on this point. The gospel of grace is for the whole man. Let us then better understand the whole man so that we may do a more effective job of watching over and caring for the Back of God.