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Pastoral care is perhaps the one thing that people most associate with the church, be it in the context of local parish ministry, chaplaincy, or even in places of education or work.  Expressing care and concern for one another, especially in practical ways has been part of the Christian faith since it first began.

The gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35.  Traditionally the minister or priest has been seen to primarily fulfill this pastoral role as part of their duties. In fact the word "pastor" - which is derived from the Latin word for "shepherd" - is often used interchangeably for the role of minister.  However, as many churches begin to move away from this minister centric model of pastoral care to a more sustainable model of employing and/or of building a team of pastoral workers, and with an increased focus on issues of mental health and well-being within pastoral care, what does this mean in terms of safeguarding and some of the challenges it may bring:

Every tradition and culture in the world has its own version of pastoral care to support people as they grapple with the challenges of life - issues such as identity, motivation, values, grief and loss, loneliness, meaning, relationships and resilience. One of the responsibilities set out for Anglican clergy is the ‘cure of souls’ perhaps better translated as the care of souls.

The principles of good pastoral care can be applied to all faiths and secular organisations, with the provision of pastoral care becoming a profession in its own right. Increasingly, ordained ministers are being conflicted between their responsibilities for the ‘care of souls’ and the demands of running the church as a complex organisation. The responsibility for pastoral care within churches and other Christian organisations has become increasingly devolved.

"Churches of all denominations are increasingly developing an ‘every member ministry’ model of pastoral care where church members are encouraged to care for one another through small groups and the organic development of Christian friendship."

Churches of all denominations are increasingly developing an ‘every member ministry’ model of pastoral care where church members are encouraged to care for one another through small groups and the organic development of Christian friendship. This is an appropriate model which works well much of the time. However, problems can arise when people fall through the gaps because they are not in small groups or especially in larger churches, where they may go unnoticed

Another challenge can be the blurring of boundaries between friendship and pastoral care. People do not always recognise when others have more complex pastoral needs and fail to refer them to those who have specialist skills.

What is Pastoral care?

Pastoral care may involve:

  • Sustaining others through prolonged difficulty or immediate need
  • Enabling a persons journey of healing and wholeness
  • Supporting someone through the process of reconciliation with God, self and others
  • Offering guidance about resources
  • Bringing different perspectives
Who is a Pastoral Carer?

A Pastoral carer is: Someone who either formally, as part of a pastoral team, group or network or informally, as part of their fellowship group or everyday relationships in the community, offers care and support to another.

What are the safeguarding challenges?

Perhaps the biggest challenge with pastoral care is the issue of blurred boundaries. People can often act out of good intentions but lack appropriate support, supervision and accountability.  Many within your organization may be excellent befrienders and carers but lack the understanding or discernment to know when pastoral needs are complex and the person needs signposting to further help from clergy or other agencies. When people operate beyond the limits of their own competency the church ceases to be a safe place for all. 

Some people feel compelled to care and behave as though they are the sole life-support system for everyone.  From the outside they may appear to be living out exemplary Christian care, but such relationships may not be healthy and may not help people to discover God or grow in their faith during difficult times.

Guarding against Codependency can be another challenge. Codependency describes a relationship in where one person is perpetually needy and the other person is perpetually rescuing – this is an unhealthy combination.  The rescuer can often take on the role of the martyr and cannot cope with the sense of not being needed. The rescuer enables the needy person to become even more dependent and their condition becomes worse rather than better.

Other challenges can include: Pastoral relationships being confused with personal friendships; Romantic attachments developing; visiting people alone in their home late at night or allowing them to visit the carer; Inappropriate confidentiality; and the perceived need to be available 24/7.

Steps to take

Everyone who is involved in pastoral care needs to be aware that in pastoral relationships there can be an imbalance of power. Workers need to be aware that they can be exercising power and influence even without that intention. Your team need to recognise when pastoral relationships are becoming unhealthy and must be accountable to others.

Training should be provided in terms of identifying the signs and indicators of abuse and in ways of working safely. Training teams can be relatively easy but developing the understanding of the wider congregation can be a huge challenge. Regular supervision for workers and group leaders is also important as it allows opportunity to talk and discuss any issues that may have arisen.

It is important that anyone seeking pastoral care should know exactly what to expect in terms of good conduct, and that any boundaries set are respected at all times. Pastoral relationships at all levels will often run parallel with friendships and social contacts, but it is essential that they always remain distinct.

"Pastoral workers should be aware of the limits of their own abilities and competencies. They should seek further help when dealing with situations outside their expertise."

Pastoral workers should be aware of the limits of their own abilities and competencies. They should seek further help when dealing with situations outside their expertise. Recognising complex pastoral needs and the need to signpost to others, can avoid the creation of dependency.

Clear guidelines should be put in place where workers are involved in any aspect of personal finance to ensure financial integrity and accountability. That includes tasks such supporting with doing  shopping for others. The same applies for lone working policies to protect both the worker and the person receiving support.

It's also important to have a system in place for recording incidents and concerns for all activities. Entries should be signed and dated and sensitive information referenced to other records. Visiting teams should always keep records of visits – date, time and any concerns

At all times, every effort should be made to ensure that confidentiality is preserved and not shared inappropriately; although this may well be subject to what may be an overriding need to protect someone who has been, or is at risk of, abuse. Everyone working with adults must be clear that it may not be possible to keep information about suspected or actual abuse confidential. The needs of the person and any potential risk to others.

Taking it forward

Many churches are caring environments that are well placed to provide a good level of pastoral care. There is a desperate shortage of organisations within local communities who can provide this type of support.  With many churches moving from a ministerial to a congregational model of pastoral care, we need to change the culture of expectations that are put upon ministers.  This takes time and requires a willingness to embrace change and recruit, support and train our volunteers well.  Unless we do this, ministers will continue to be overloaded and burn out.

We run a half-day safeguarding course: Pastoral Care and Supporting Survivors. To learn more go to
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