What is a ‘Congregation’?

We have so many resources in our Pastoral Care class on how to give moral guidance and pastoral care to congregations. But what exactly does that mean, anyway? People who are knit together by a common worship service? Perhaps a common social justice role? A building? A bible study? Pledgers?

Most of the “Pastoral Care”  needs I encounter aren’t really in a “congregation” in any of those ways.

Perhaps that’s part of my experience as an intern. Perhaps, though, that’s my way of looking at a congregation. In middle-class or upper-class urban America, the people that worship together may not be the same people who seek out care from each other. In urban settings, we are interconnected in so many different ways that it may be possible for us to stratify these different needs, so that the traditional ‘congregation’ is not at all what it looks like in a small town or in rural life–perhaps even in small city life.

stauntonwindowAs an intern at a thriving and very busy urban congregation, I am learning all kinds of things about worship, service, leadership, and children’s religious experience. Pastoral care seems to be wrapped up in those things: what care is offered to the people listening to the sermon? What care needs to be given to those in service with one another? To those being served? What kind of ‘pastoral care’ do we need to learn how to do before we can serve others in an empowering way? How does one ‘care’ for the children in the Godly Play classroom–or the environment of a Godly Play classroom?

We learn things in our pastoral care class about family systems, triangles, counseling styles, and tending to people who are suffering–I encounter these needs in my work through my faith and the church, but not always from those who would be considered congregation.

Does this mean that pastoral care is to be offered beyond the congregation, or does this mean that our definition of congregation doesn’t work?

By believing that pastoral care is something that you offer to your congregation, will our great resources of pastoral care are being turned in on ourselves and not shared with those in other aspects of our lives in faith?

Does the definition of congregation make our tradition of care more exclusive than it is intended to be?

A common thing that I hear from non-religious, atheist, and agnostic people is that they believe in the community instilled by “church”, but not in the doctrine and ritual that is supposed to bring that community together. The doctrine was exclusive and damaging, but the community was powerful and sincere. The ritual became meaningless when it was not backed by theories that mirrored the power of the community, and then became a symbol of hypocrisy rather than worship.

So… who are “our congregations”? What does it mean when we say that, and what messages does it send?

(Photos are from a visit to my dad’s church, Trinity Episcopal, in Staunton, VA.)

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