How do we offer pastoral care?

One of the overarching themes that I see reiterated throughout the bloggernacle – or perhaps, one of the pervasive subtexts – is that LDS people are in need of pastoral care. They seek a space to voice their doubts, to bring their honest concerns and deepest hurts; to ultimately come and find the succor and peace of God. And, because we are a church run by laymen, we struggle to find that space. We are not always, despite our best intentions, able to serve one another. We cannot always see each other’s hearts. We cannot always offer love as we should, or compassion as we should. Most often, I believe, people seek mercy and understanding. They want to know – they need to know – that despite their stupidity, their arrogance, their mistakes, despite being petulant and petty, despite sometimes being mean and cruel, they are and can be good enough. They can change. They can grow. They can purge themselves of the ugly parts. It’s worth trying again. They are worth it.

I have thought often and long about my ability to provide pastoral care. As a missionary in a predominantly Catholic country, I was frequently shown immediate, automatic respect by those around me. Many would make the sign of the cross when my companion and I walked past them, and would say “¡Qué Dios te bendiga!” (“May God bless you.”) Women would talk to me of their relationship to the Virgin Mary, conversations that left me coming up empty in terms of comparisons and corollaries within the LDS church; their spiritual experiences relating to the Sacred Mother were not something that I could speak to. I emerged from those conversations feeling muted and also deeply touched; I could sense that through these discussions they were seeking the Divine Feminine in me. They saw me, as a woman and as a “monjita” (little nun), to be an embodiment of those who have been called like Mary to offer Divine succor as a woman. They embraced my power as a woman.

Women talked to me, a virginal young LDS woman, about births, about affairs, about abortions, about sex and lovers. About pain. Men told me about ventures to strip clubs, and about their shame in their own lust. And all I could say to them was that yes, Jesus loves you, Jesus wants you. It is never too late. Your sins are not too great. Jesus extends his hands to all. We would kneel in prayer. I was respected for my power as one called of God. It was overwhelming.

One night, after such a day, talking to people whose lives had carried them far beyond the realm of my limited experience, my companion spoke to me of her struggles with depression. With tears in her eyes, she said “How can I tell people that if they pray they will find peace, when I have spent hours on my knees and I feel nothing? Does God hate me?”

I wish I could describe how my heart broke when I heard her say that. I didn’t often feel spiritually guided on my mission – a fact that plagued me, and plagues me still – but in that moment I felt a strong sense that God loved her, that God was there, wishing to offer her comfort and peace. It filled me to the brim. And I felt that somehow, through whatever fog was clouding her mind, I was meant to help her feel that.

I believe that women have a role in offering pastoral care as well as men. It has been one of my consistent concerns about the way that the LDS hierarchy has come to structure itself. The token female speakers in the main sessions of General Conference most often speak of things that are considered uniquely the province of women. There is nothing inherently wrong in this; yet it is a quiet indication that, as a culture, we do not ascribe to our female leaders the ability to offer us pastoral care. We do not turn to them for the comfort, safety, and peace of God. Generally speaking, we do not look to women, either at the General Conference level or at the local level, for spiritual guidance and advice. We may look to them for help with childcare, for casseroles and help cleaning when there is death or serious illness – all of which are important – but we don’t go to women when we need to know that we are good enough, clean enough, OK enough before the Lord. We don’t go to women to clarify points of doctrine. It is rarely women to whom we weep and ask for help finding the solace of the Divine.

I learned through my mission that women are indeed called to do this work. We are not only capable of it, but it is part, in my mind, of what we are meant to do. Yet our current church structure, by intertwining leadership and hierarchy and male-only priesthood, has somehow left women out of the grand picture of pastoral care. It is my belief that it is inadvertent, a gradual happening that is an unintended byproduct of correlation. But it is also my belief that part of the hunger for pastoral care that we hear voiced over and over again throughout the anonymous safety of the internet is a hunger for a service that women can assist in providing.


  1. I think that Mormonism does not have a robust enough norm of priest-penitent confidentiality, and the attendant mechanisms for enforcing it, for real meaningful patoral care to exist.

  2. Great points, Galdralag. I’m reminded of a study I read about (probably in a pop social science book) that found that both women and men tended to confide in women. If this is true, then the Church structure that puts only men in position to offer pastoral care is really penalizing all of us who might rather to go to women if given the choice.

    (Although of course I realize that those who see the priesthood as the only way to civilize the beastly men will just take this as another reason why men must be the ones to give the pastoral care.)

  3. I have to agree with Kullervo on this one to be honest. When the person you confide in changes every 3 (if they did something bad) to 5 years, rather than once or twice in your lifetime (I’m taking this from a friend’s experience), we’re bound to ask ourselves ‘What’s the point? They’ll be released in 4 years knowing more about me than I care for and I’ll be starting again with someone else. ‘ But I think this is mainly because when we talk about repentance in reference to a stain that never goes away or a used cupcake, it’s hard for people to realize that you don’t have to spend years and years and years repenting for the same sin. You don’t have to hold on to that feeling of guilt every fast Sunday.

    Sometimes I think the Catholics have it right. Confess your sin, do all you can to repair the damage and then go on your way. No need to be the 60 year old widow confessing for premarital sex with her deceased spouse 40 years ago.

  4. I have noticed that what the OP considers the most effective pastoral care that I have received in the wake of my wife’s death has been from the women in my life, whether sisters in the church, my wife’s friends, or co-workers. I haven’t been surprised by the reaching out from the women in the church or her friends; they shared the loss. I was surprised how many people she had touched and how deeply.

    I wonder if part of it isn’t in the general difference in the makeup of women and men that is so common that it is a stereotype. Men are fixers, women are nurturers. Most of the reaction from men was that they wanted to fix me. The women have been more willing to let me grieve and share the sorrow. I don’t even bother talking with the bishop any more, which seems ironic since he is a funeral director. The most comforting thing he has said to me is that he believes maybe it was just her time.

  5. Great post, Galdarag, and nice to see you here now as well as at your Both Sides Now blog.

    I resonate with your post and agree with commenters so far. I would add that the church’s visiting teaching and home teaching programs are, in theory, an attempt to bring some elements of ministerial care to members. With that said (and a striking parallel to your experience as a missionary) lack of training, little oversight, vague goals, and continuity challenges from frequent changes in leadership – i.e. Relief Society and Elders Quorum/High Priest Group leaders – undermine these programs. To clarify, I know many dedicated and inspired home and visiting teachers. However, a significant percentage are doing duty visits – e.g. 15 to 30 minutes at the end of the month. That may suffice in Utah where the ward members are also neighbors, but it is ineffective in other areas. The HT and VT programs can be good adjunct, but they are insufficient to meet the core human need for pastoral care that you so clearly articulate. I have come to believe that we’re in great (dire?) need of well trained full time long term pastors with local bottom up as well as central top down controls and influence. All due respect to sacred texts and general conference talks, I no longer buy into our LDS financially pragmatic lay ministry.

  6. I’d like to see RS presidents assigned to counsel women. It would relieve the bishop’s work load and women generally understand women’s problems better than men do. It would also prevent situations where a bishop and a woman in an unhappy marriage find themselves inappropriately involved with each other.

  7. The model many protestant churches use is to have a senior pastor and one or more associate pastors. Often the senior and associate are of different genders, and I think this serves the congregation very well, particularly in offering the kind of pastoral care Galdralag mentions.

    This post reminds me of one by fMh Lisa on how problematic it can be for teenage girls to have to confess to older men. How much better it would be for women of all ages to have another woman to confess and confide in.

  8. As someone who has had some pretty difficult things to work through in my life including a fairly heart and earth-shattering divorce, I can only say AMEN to this post. I was expected to receive support and succor from a man, that I don’t know, who is automatically going to identify with the guy who caused a lot of my pain rather than me. Hm. And men, let’s just say it now… usually aren’t comfortable when a woman cries around them. Stereotype. But truth. At least in my experience 🙂

  9. A few years ago I had an amazing Bishop that I felt I could talk to about everything. I went through a rough patch and some Sundays all I would have to say was “Bishop I need to chat” and he would skip Sunday School to let me blab all my insecurities. To this day I still love that man and respect what he says. I’ve come to realize that it probably has more to do with him as a person as opposed to his “divine calling.”

    I contrast that to my Bishop now who is a great man. He’s chill and fun (FYI: These are all single ward Bishops) but I’ve tried to talk to him and it’s apparent he doesn’t understand anything of what I tell him. Therefore, I don’t care to visit with him at all. I still respect him, but don’t necessarily think he could provide that pastoral care I’m seeking.

    My visiting teacher also happens to be the RS pres and she is the one I turn too. When she comes to visit (never shares a message – thank goodness) we literally talk for hours and she always listens and validates what I have to say. (Even if she is somewhat shocked by it.) The point is she “gets” me unlike the Bishop.

    I like that idea of having a pastor with assistant pastors of both genders. I think that would make a lot of people more comfortable. I’ve never had to confess my sins to the Bishop, but I imgaine if I had to I would rather tell a woman.

  10. One of my favorite insights into the ministry of pastoral care come from Dietrich Bonhoeffer –

    “What I am able to do for another person will be shown to me in prayer. Prayer commends others into the faithful hands of Christ and Christ will deal with them. In order to pray correctly, we must be able to listen to the other person. Those who are no longer able to hear another person are no longer able to hear God’s Word…or to pray! Our love for another consists first of all in listening.”

    Not every Church leader can be a trained pastoral caregiver (though it would be nice for Bishops and Stake Presidents to receive some basic training in caregiving/counseling skills – the guidance is the handbook is rather sparse) , however, a willingness to listen first and talk second will provide many caregivers with the proper openness to offer some basic pastoral care.

    FWIW – I am in the very early stages of a Doctor or Ministry dissertation on the influence of theodicy on a persons practice of pastoral care (focusing on LDS theodices). My basic thesis is that how we view God’s interaction/presence in suffering influences how we interpret the needs of the sufferer, how we listen to them, and what encouragement we offer them.

  11. I am embarrassed that I failed to include this in my previous post, but women in leadership positions (not just Bishops and Stake Presidents) would also greatly benefit from sound training and discussion in pastoral care. The truth is the best pastoral care is rarely offered in the bishops office, it is in our home/visit teaching, extending ourselves to each other in times of need, talks after Church when we notice someone who may be struggling, etc.

    Thanks for the post and the comments. They have been helpful and enlightening.

  12. I am roman catholic, a single male seeking neither marriage nor that kind of issues. I had never considered the human male/female relation conflict as all of you are exposing here. I had always focused that conflict through the sight of ideology and policy struggles to hold administrative power, as homosexual pressure groups do for Political Parties.

    I began to study this human male/female conflict a few weeks ago. But I think I was being prepared for this event through my relation with our Blessed Mother, as you call Her. This way you focus is new for me.

    Yesterday I decided to change something in this cultural structure so to struggle for a change of the actual male oriented paradigm. So I ask myself now here with you: how many of yours feel enabled to give rise to this kind of exemplar to your environment and to the whole world?

    My personal experience, my exemplar:



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