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Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition by Thomas C. Oden

Thomas C. Oden teaches at Drew University Theological School, Madison, New Jersey. Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition was published in 1984 by Fortress Press. This book was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Conclusion: Preaching and Pastoral Care

Gregory’s Pastoral Care is the most influential book in the history of the pastoral tradition. In it he deals discretely with highly individualized remedies. Pastoral wisdom must listen intently to the unique characteristics of a situation and apply a specific remedy accordingly.

When dealing with a community of hearers, however, rather than counseling in one-on-one dialogue, the task of pastoral care becomes infinitely more volatile and hazardous. For in preaching, the pastor must deal simultaneously with persons of widely different needs, ploys, and passions.

To what degree can pastoral care meaningfully occur through preaching? Gregory’s basic maxim is still a useful guide, even though difficult to apply: An exhortation that is intended to be delivered to a general audience must be gauged in such a way that "virtues are fostered in each without encouraging the growth of vices opposed to such virtues."1 This requires exceptional skill and preparation on the part of the speaker. Preachers must be aware of the diversity of persons in their congregation, yet try to speak so that the Spirit, through scripture, addresses many hearts in ways that will be fitting to each, as different as these hearers are known to be from one another.

In the last poignant section of his Pastoral Care Gregory provides a pithy summary of the complex balance needed to foster virtue without inadvertently encouraging vice. That section is worth reading, carefully and meditatively. It is reviewed as a concise and fitting summary to our lengthy expedition.

"Humility is to be preached to the proud in a way not to increase fear in the timorous, and confidence infused into the timorous, as not to encourage the unbridled impetuosity in the proud. The idle and the remiss are to be exhorted to zeal for good deeds, but in a way not to increase the unrestraint of intemperate action in the impetuous. Moderation is to be imposed on the impetuous without producing a sense of listless security in the idle. Anger is to be banished from the impatient, but so as not to add to the carelessness of the remiss and easy-going. The remiss should be fired with zeal in such a manner as not to set the wrathful ablaze."2

Such preaching prays to be enlivened by the Spirit that it may reach its precise targets.

Indeed pastoral care can and must be attempted through preaching: "Good things are so to be preached as not to give incidental help to what is bad."3 More than fleshly wisdom or human cleverness is required if one is to encourage a balance of behavioral excellences without eliciting new behavioral deficits. Gregory’s dialectical balance is exquisite: "The highest good is to be so praised that the good in little things is not discarded. Attention should be called to the little things, but not in such a way that they are deemed sufficient and there is no striving for the highest."4

The pastor in public communication continues to care for souls publicly but within a communication context that differs from that of individual dialogue. The problem of pastoral preaching becomes even more complicated when you realize that any one of those hearers may experience inwardly contrary passions at any given time. This makes the public task of care of souls through preaching challenging and exacting. Gregory compares pastoral preaching to an act of wrestling — deftly dodging quickly this move and that ploy while trying to get in a telling move at exactly the right time.5

Gregory’s idea of pastoral preaching hinges on his notion of contrary compulsions. The hearer who is temperamentally optimistic and ordinarily self-affirming will at certain times become deeply depressed, overwhelmed with sadness. The pastor’s problem in public communication is to offer encouragement that takes into account the pain yet will not link easily with false optimism.

The plot thickens, however, when the pastoral preacher realizes that other parishioners sitting in the same congregation have their own distinctive sets of ambivalent tendencies and passions. Such individuals may be plagued with inordinate hastiness, always running around with high anxiety levels; yet on certain occasions, when they need to do something quickly, they may be suddenly gripped by fear. The pastoral preacher tries to assist the person suffering from those two distinguishable psychological syndromes — which Gregory terms precipitancy and anxiety. The pastor hopes that the hurriedness can be diminished, but without thereby intensifying the anxieties. In speaking with such a precipitously anxious person, the pastor is also aware of the selfaffirming optimist in the next pew, who suffers from an entirely different set of contrary compulsions.

In confronting this perennial problem in the care of souls Gregory again turns to a medical analogy: Sometimes a person who has a constitutionally weak body experiences a violent illness that requires a drastic remedy. If the body cannot endure the strong remedy, the doctor must treat the violent illness in such a way that the fatigue and weakness of the body is not increased. This may require the application of treatments that are ironically working in opposite directions. You are trying both to counteract the violent illness and the fatigue at one and the same time — in due Proportion, as the body is able to take on two different, even countermanding, treatments. This is the hazardous ground over which the care of souls must at times warily proceed. When a person suffers from distinctly contrary compulsions, the care given may be analogous to that involved in giving highly refined doses of medication. It calls for a subtle timing sequence that can help the person actually take one administrable treatment in due course while delaying another unadministrable treatment in hopes that the conflicting treatments do not become worse than the illness itself.6

It is for this reason that sometimes a smaller compulsion may be temporarily disregarded in order that the greater and more dangerous compulsion can be pastorally treated. Suppose an individual has two major contrary compulsions, one of which is mildly dangerous, and the other of which is gravely dangerous. Would not pastors then be justified in allowing the lesser problem to increase if, in doing so, they are able to work significantly on the more severe compulsion that conceivably could cause something worse?

It is not unusual therefore to find pastoral care "overlooking what was mildly wrong," in order to take seriously what matters more urgently.7 Effective pastoral care must be free to exercise a kind of tolerance for vice, allowing a certain compulsion to continue while deliberately reducing another more dangerous one.8

Should pastors always tell a person the whole truth, or should they withhold the truth at times when it cannot possibly be assimilated? Gregory argues that the application of truth in pastoral situations must be explicitly gauged to the capacity of the hearer to grasp the truth; otherwise the truth can be dangerously ill-timed. He compares the pastor’s approach in this connection to the string of a violin that must be tuned to exactly the right pitch. Too loose, the string sounds flat; too tight, it may snap. There is a danger in offering to weak and unprepared souls the most profound truth at the wrong time. Such was the dilemma that caused Paul to write to the congregation at Corinth: "For my part, my brothers, I could not speak to you as I should speak to people who have the Spirit. I had to deal with you on the merely natural plane, as infants in Christ. And so I gave you milk to drink, instead of solid food, for which you were not ready" (I Cor. 3:1-2).

Gregory thought that the pastor is responsible for even inadvertent use of language. By negligence, the pastor remains responsible for things said inaccurately or accidentally. "When a man removes the cover of a well or digs a well and leaves it uncovered, then if an ox or an ass falls into it, the owner of the well shall make good the loss" (Exod. 21:33). Similarly, if we are negligent in speech, if we leave behind us a hazardous, uncovered well, then if someone falls in and is injured, we are responsible.

Where one’s footsteps go is a truer indication than where one’s words go. Rather than relying exclusively upon words, as if they were in themselves the sole agency of pastoral care, it is better to view one’s deeds as basic proclamation. Inevitably the parishioner will see through language to its actual correspondence with behavior.

The seriousness with which Gregory himself took this maxim is revealed in the concluding comment of his Pastoral Care, where he sighs:

"I, miserable painter that I am, have painted a portrait of an ideal man; and here I have been directing others to the shore of perfection, I, who am still tossed about on the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, sustain me I beseech you, with the plank of your prayers, so that, as my weight is sinking me down, you may uplift me with your meritorious hand."9




1. PC 3.36.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. PC 3.37.

7. PC 3.38.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

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