Pastoral Care Structures in Churches 

How a church organises its pastoral care is a critical part of the way it serves the congregation and wider community.  Many models exist and each church will vary in what they can offer.  This article explores some principles that can be involved in ensuring a pastoral care system is a safe place for those accessing support and care.

Principle One – Confidentiality

Churches are by nature difficult places for confidentiality.  This is partly because some relationships have a purely social and supportive function, whereas others are about managing the organisation and teams well.  For some churches, there is also a role around maintaing accountability and appropriate behaviour for those in leadership or who claim membership of the church.  Because many of these roles are unclear, and because some individuals (such as a Pastor/Vicar) will hold 2-3 roles themselves, it makes it difficult to understand what ‘private sharing’ is to be kept private and what information needs to be passed on, and to whom.  It is also true that secrets are powerful things and gossip or inappropriate disclosure can run riot, causing great destruction within church settings. 
A solution to this is for churches to be very clear about their confidentiality policy, and to communicate this to their leadership team, pastoral team, small group leaders and prayer team.  The confidentiality policy should also be made clear to the church in any settings where private information is likely to be shared.  This may look like a small group leader saying ‘information shared in this group is confidential between us, but if there is something especially concerning I may have to share that with the Minister.  I will always speak with you first before I would bring any private information forward, and it might be that we go together to let the leader know about your challenges.’
In some cases the above kind of statement will limit sharing, but in most settings I have found individuals are relieved to know there is another strata of support which they can access within the church.   
Some churches will hold a very strong line on confidentiality, which may create a situation where key information is kept from the central leadership.  Other churches will operate from a place of ‘shared confidentiality’ where teams or the church leaders are aware of what is said privately.  Every system of confidentiality has its challenges.  It is my belief that a church must live with these challenges instead of amending the system when it proves inconvenient.  When one interferes with an established system of confidentiality it then starts to feel unsafe, and thereby limits all vulnerable sharing. 
Of course there are conditions where confidentiality must be broken, primarily where there is a real and imminent threat to oneself or others.   Different diocese within the Church of England and other denominations will have ‘safeguarding policies’ which clearly lay out when to breach confidentiality.    

Principle Two – Boundaries

What are the limits of pastoral care your church can provide? 
Some individuals will take every possible offering of pastoral care.  They will join 2-3 small groups, requests weekly prayer at services, and also have a regular visitor from the church helping them.  That may be fine if the church is in a position to give this level of support without neglecting others who are less vocal about their needs.  It is a useful exercise for church leaders to discern the level of care that is appropriate given their resources and the level of pastoral training within the team.  One of the difficult realties to accept about the church is that it is both a place of support, acceptance and nurture and also an organisation that wants to keep looking forward in its mission and reaching out to the community.  Here the boundaries of what a church can offer by way of support become important. 
Boundaries are also critical in discerning the level of ‘professional’ care offered to others.  A few questions to ask here may be:  Are the pastoral team aware of what is good listening and support and what is counselling or psychotherapy?  Does the prayer team have an understanding for how to safely address issues of mental health or deep trauma?  If a church says they offer ‘counselling’, are they clear on what that means?  If they call themselves ‘counsellors’ and give the impression that they are of the same level as a professional counsellor or therapist, do they carry the level of insurance, qualifications, and registration/accreditation associated with professional counselling and psychotherapy?  A church can find themselves in dangerous and ethically compromised positions by being ‘fuzzy’ about the care that is offered.  It is my experience that those offering pastoral support to individuals by way of listening and prayer can be extremely valuable to those who are also seeing a counsellor or therapist.  What is important is that the boundaries of what is being offered are understood by the person providing support, and then also made clear to the person seeking care.      

Principle Three – Training and Support

Pastoral care is a difficult task.  There is skill involved at every level and carers are left with the pain and the weight of people’s soul-searching.  It is important that pastoral teams are looked after and have environments where they can both share their experiences and learn together.  The process of sharing their concerns and difficulties in a safe place and supportive environment can make their task more bearable and can also help them gain insights in their care for others.  When those offering pastoral care have an outlet to share difficult experiences or questions, the risk of breaking confidentiality also decreases. 
Those providing pastoral care in churches are often a mixed group.  Some have no previous training but may enjoying praying with others, some may come from helping professions such as social work or nursing, others may have some training in counselling skills at a certificate or diploma level.  In working with such a team it is useful to agree a baseline and a few principles for pastoral care.  I have used the Acorn ‘Just Listen’ programme for this task, but there are other resources and approaches.  It also important that however support and training of a pastoral team is offered, it is in keeping with the confidentiality policy of the church. 

The ‘myth’ of total pastoral care.  

One of the challenges in offering pastoral care is that individuals sometimes believe that the church should care for them as they want God to care for them.  This often looks like a total and comprehensive level of support, with great disappointment when there is a boundary set or a small failure of provision.  It is useful to acknowledge that although the church points towards God in the way it endeavours to support others, they can never truly embody the nature and qualities of divine care.  
This article has explored pastoral care structures in churches.  These structures will always vary from church to church, and I am suggesting that the three principles of confidentiality, boundaries, and training/support for workers be considered as a way of keeping pastoral care strong, safe, and consistent.  I have offered this, and other kinds of training to pastoral teams.  Please be in touch should your church benefit from more information.   

Ron Bushyager is a psychotherapist working in London and Surrey.


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