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Seizing the Moment for Teaching Pastoral Care

by Ian Dixon

Ian Dixon is a New Zealander who is professor emeritus of pastoral theology at Knox College in Dunedin. Dr. Dixon has been a visiting professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and a visiting lecturer at New College in Edinburgh. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 4-11, 1987, p. 103. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Pastoral theology (like all seminary courses) cannot be taught as a purely academic discipline. Being more a skill than a system of facts and ideas, pastoral care cannot be mastered merely through reading books and hearing lectures. To learn how to minister effectively, prospective pastors must first experience pastoral care -- and it can be experienced in the seminary.

Seminary professors can teach pastoral care not only in the pastoral theology classroom, but in other seminary situations as well. The opportunities arise spontaneously, often at surprising times. If the teacher takes advantage of these occasions when and as they arise, students can learn by experience how to help people cope with life’s inevitable traumas.

During my years as a seminary instructor I have often observed that the theological classroom is bedeviled with rivalries, put-downs, hatreds, suspicions, anxieties and identity crises, not to mention hard-line, inflexible prejudices. Teachers shouldn’t allow students to conceal that reality behind a façade of highly graded essays, dissertations and examinations. Even fieldwork can seem to be competently performed and yet disguise many negative attitudes or habits. In assignments, students can write acceptable arguments that belie their basic behavior and attitudes. I soon realized that I needed to discover why a student was angry or depressed, why she was fearful and aggressive or why he went into a tailspin when crossed or interrupted in a discussion.

As a visiting professor at another seminary. I once taught a pastoral-care course using contemporary novels as the texts. Through novels and plays, human situations can be imported into the classroom by means of the narrative and the character presentation. One student chose to present to the class Peter De Vries’s novel The Blood of the Lamb. As he described the sickness and death of one of the characters, a 12-year-old child, and her father’s profound grief, the student broke down. We did not attempt to pass over this. Other students disclosed the grief they had felt at the deaths of family members or friends or the breakup of partnerships. Some were describing feelings they had never before confessed. The students were giving and receiving grief ministry.

I let the conversation flow naturally. Some of it was addressed to me and some was expressed in small groups. After a time, I moved around among the class and talked with individuals or with twos or threes. This development could not have been structured or preplanned; I had to let it roll on until it completed itself. Later the class quickly agreed to keep the conversations confidential. That evening I called at two or three apartments where I realized that further discussion was needed. These were actually pastoral calls. Looking back I realize that that class of about 20 students became the most intentionally caring class I have ever led.

Another day while working through Angus McKenzie’s Late Call, an excellently constructed novel about three generations living under one roof, the presenting student vented the anger she felt toward her own father. Again, this triggered a chain reaction from half a dozen other students. One exclaimed, "I never thought I would be allowed to talk about a thing like that!" I suspect that one of the students was acknowledging her victimization in a long-suppressed case of incest. She was obviously dealing with something she had not been able to handle before. She later sought counseling from an appropriate source.

Not all the class sessions reached that dramatic level. But I was learning in a new way how near to the surface lie guilt and anxiety. I believe our discussions taught the students how simple it is to provoke these reactions -- in preaching, counseling or other situations.

To be effective pastors, seminarians also need to learn that they need not be invulnerable pillars of theological certainty. Some students, influenced perhaps by their home churches’ expectations, perceive seminary as a kind of finishing school. The students are supposed to have a definite commitment, a firm faith and an identifiable personal development. To this they simply need to add biblical and theological knowledge along with professional and pastoral skills.

Seminaries should be prepared to help students grapple with searching, doubting and moral dilemmas. The new ideas they encounter at seminary may have brought their earlier faith understanding to an impasse.

In another course, where we were discussing ministry to the dying and the bereaved, I had asked each student to prepare a brief position paper on what theology she considered appropriate to such ministry. One student presented a blank sheet.

"I have nothing to say," he said. "At this point I am not sure that I believe in God. I could only succeed in ‘being present,’ as you would put it, and help the person to die peacefully or to face grief calmly -- or whatever."

I replied, "You would do that better than anyone I know! If you did survive in the ministry -- which in your present state of belief is unlikely -- I would welcome you as my minister at the time of my own death."

He looked very surprised at my response. I told him he appeared to be the kind of person who knew how to be present.

He stopped by my office a couple of days later and said that my remark in class and my affirmation of him had made him want to grow theologically. "It is like you opened a door and invited me to walk through it."

I have helped develop pastoral groups in seminaries. These are known by many names, but I am not impressed by most of them. No matter how sophisticated their curriculum is, there are special moments in the pastoral learning process for which teachers cannot plan. These moments are unpredictable. The whole theological education process must attempt to catch those moments as they come. Seminarians still need an academic environment of lectures, tutorials and seminars in all subjects, including pastoral care. But in no classroom should any teacher be exempt from the responsibility of pastoral formation.

Many schools require their students to do fieldwork in a church. This provides valuable practical training. But the classroom need not be impractical. The seminary is also a field which develops and hones the student’s skills of sharing, caring, spiritual nurture and personal evaluation. This kind of development cannot be scheduled directly into a curriculum. Instead, all seminary professors, of any subject, should sharpen their knowledge of pastoral education in order to be prepared for opportunities as they arise. Some of the seminary’s most valuable lessons are "caught" rather than "taught."


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