In its most general sense, pastoral care refers to the ministries/services usually performed by a pastor. Some denominations of the Christian faith use the phrase to refer to more specific aspects of a pastor’s ministry, such as counseling and visitation. The core idea of “pastoral care” is that pastors are to care. The word pastor comes from the Latin word for “shepherd.” A pastor is to be a shepherd or caretaker of God’s flock. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3, emphasis added).
Many people have a misunderstanding of what exactly pastors do, thinking that their primary responsibility is preaching on Sunday. The joke that pastors only work one day a week could not be further from the truth. Beyond preparing and delivering a sermon, pastors provide biblical counseling, visit the sick and injured in hospitals, and disciple members of the congregation through phone calls, lunch meetings, and other social engagements. Many pastors serve as chaplains in hospitals, the military, workplaces, schools, and prisons. All of these ministries are aspects of pastoral care.
In reality, pastoral-care ministries are just as valuable as the delivery of a sermon. Caring for a person who is struggling with a difficulty, being present during a time of pain, praying with someone in a crisis—these are the moments when spiritual breakthroughs occur. Ministering through a good, biblically sound sermon is absolutely necessary. But ministering through a personal touch, i.e., pastoral care, is just as important.
There is another meaning of pastoral care that should be mentioned. Recognizing the tremendous amount of stress and burn-out many pastors experience, there are some ministries that use the phrase “pastoral care” to refer to ministry to pastors. Secluded locations where pastors can get away for a time, counseling ministries to pastors and their families, and even the pastoring of pastors are aspects of this form of pastoral care. Perhaps the best understanding of pastoral care is that pastors are to care for us, and we are to care for our pastors.