The Pastor’s Need

The classical writers always insisted that the one who gives care needs regular and special care himself. Those who have the cure of souls, are worthy of all care, the priest often needs to be cared for. Gregory the Great saw that the specific hazard of pastoral ministry is that one becomes so focussed upon others’ needs that one’s own well being may be jeopardized.

In restoring others to health by healing their wounds, he must not disregard his own health … Let him not, while helping his neighbours, neglect himself, let him not, while lifting up others, fall himself. In many instances, indeed, the greatness of certain men’s virtues had been an occasion of their perdition, in that they have felt inordinately secure in the assurance of their strength, and they died suddenly because of their negligence. (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, Part IV, ACW 1 1, p234)

John Chrysostom argued, that pastors need more help and care because of extraordinary expectations associated with the pastoral office:

The priest’s wounds require greater help, indeed as much as those of all the people together They would not have required greater help if they had not been more serious, and their seriousness is not increased by their own nature but by the extra weight of dignity belonging to the priest who dares to commit them. (Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Ch VI-10, sec 16, p. 151)

Keeping guard over oneself is likened to the need of each ship in a crowded harbour to steer carefully to avoid collisions, especially where a silent anger lies hidden:

Let us keep guard over ourselves with all care. For when a harbour is full of ships, it is easy for them to get crushed by each other, especially if they are secretly riddled with bad temper as by some worm. (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 4, sec 77, p43)

Gregory the Great maintained that effective care of souls has two aspects, care of others and care of oneself – neither dominating the other:

Pastors are called to fulfil their charge over others in such a way as not to fail to accomplish the charge over themselves, and to be ardently solicitous on their own account in such a way as not to grow slack in watching over those entrusted to them. (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, Part III, Ch 4, ACW 1 1, p97)*

Appropriate concern for oneself, ordinate self-love, is a pastoral duty and requires praying for one’s own needs. Aelred of Rievaulx prayed:

You know well, O Searcher of my heart, that there is nothing in my soul that I would hide from you, even had I the power to escape your eyes … Further, against the vices and the evil passions which still assault my soul, (whether they come from past bad habit, or from my immeasurable daily negligence, whether their source is in the weakness of my corrupt and vitiated nature, or in the secret tempting of malignant spirits) against these vices, Lord, may your sweet grace afford me strength and courage; that I may not consent thereto, nor let them reign in this my mortal body. (Aelred of Rievaulx, The Pastoral Prayer, sec 5, CFS 2, pp110–111)

The difficulties to encountered in priestly ministry are innumerable, listing them ‘is like trying to measure the ocean’ (Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, Ch VI, sec 8, p149). The irony is that the deepest joys of ministry are intrinsically related – precisely to what makes ministry at times very difficult.

Benedict claimed that pastoral care requires at the same time honesty, compassion, accountability, and prudence. It is not meant for one lacking in courage, candour, or imagination:

Let him reflect how difficult and perplexing a business he undertakes, at once to govern many souls and to be subject to as many humours: to suit himself to everyone with regard to their capacity and condition; to win some by fair means, others by reprimands, others by dint of reason: that he may not suffer damage to his flock, but rather rejoice at the increase and improvement of it. Above all, he is not to dissemble or undervalue the care of souls committed to his charge, for the sake of temporal concerns, which are earthly, transitory, and fleeting; but ever to reflect that the government of souls is his business, and that he is accountable for them. (Benedict of Nursia, Rule, LCC IX, p296)

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham. His recent book Fathers and Anglicans the Limits of Orthodoxy is now published.