One of the greatest privileges I have is to pastor. I mean that in a very narrow (but not reductionist) sense. I am not talking about the ability to lead a church or to envision a group of disciples; nor do I mean the business of preaching and leading worship for others. What I mean is to be open and available to others in such a way that conversation flourishes, superficiality is stripped away, and layers of meaning are uncovered.
I have been trained and conditioned to ensure good pastoral encounter. There are serious considerations to be taken into account when dealing with, often vulnerable, adults. For instance I know that setting is vital: ensuring that folk feel safe and that they don’t feel cornered or trapped is of the utmost importance. I know that language is significant and that you need to take particular care with the words and phrases used. I know that maintaining boundaries and roles makes for a safe and hospitable space. I also know that pastoral supervision is important and that sharing some of the burden of pastoral care with other colleagues is good practice. And I recognise the need to signpost, and sometimes carry, people to agencies who have particular expertise.
But over the last two years I have found myself being a virtual-pastor. I never really decided to do it – it just happened. I am now in conversations with people who have had horrible things done to them by others; people who have suffered the terrible loss of a child; individuals who have just had a few bad cards dealt them; folk who are wrestling their way through broken relationships; and people coming to terms with terminal illness.
None of these conversation happen in real-space - all virtually. Some of the people are folk I knew at school, but now know I’m a vicar, or people I met at meetings or conferences. It is still a great privilege but the rules don’t quite seem the same. Language is still important but there is only so much you can get in 140 characters (and there is far more chance of being misunderstood). Your setting is given (the world wide web – albeit a cornered off bit of it!). Boundaries are awkward – sometimes people ask to meet up in person, but that seems like a massive leap from the online conversation. And who (and how) do I share this with? As a pioneer this is not happening in my church and I don’t have a ‘staff team’ as such.
It seems to me that I am engaging more and more in on-line pastoral care and a lot of that is significant pastoral care. But are all the rules of good pastoral encounter transferable? Or do we need new rules and guidance to help those of us who pastor on-line to be better equipped and resourced?
Have others experienced this? Do you know of resources that might offer some help? Or does good pastoral care need to be embodied – lived out in the flesh?