Spiritual Discernment in Pastoral Care: An interview with Nancy Bieber

Pastoral Care Support

A member of Lancaster Friends Meeting and a former Care & Counsel Committee clerk, Nancy is the author of Decision Making & Spiritual Discernment: The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way published in 2010 by Sky Light Paths publishing.

PYM:  In your book you explore the roll of willingness and openness, of making oneself vulnerable to listening to the Spirit.  How do you understand this willingness in the context of providing pastoral care to Friends?

Nancy:  To listen with an open heart, not having pre-judged a situation can be a challenge.  To be open to whatever truth or answer may arise in a situation of helping is not always easy.  Discerning “that of God” in the other and one’s own inner movements is an important part of pastoral care.  But, before the service is the discernment of “is it my calling?”

Discernment can help in facing our fears and not being intimidated by the many challenges of pastoral care.  For instance, accompanying someone to the hospital, of course, that is a very real need.  Noticing the inner impulse to help in that case could involve coping with discomfort and even anxiety.  I think of it as bearing witness to truth and love, taking action which involves self-sacrifice and growth.  But, it is a service undertaken with a feeling of “Yes!”

Pastoral care is also a daily discernment of the query “How do we live love?”  And, answering, “Yes, I’m going to be present to this – someone else’s pain”.  It is an invitation to be present with the other that must rise out of compassion, to “suffer with” their pain and struggle.  It is like being open to the movement of the Spirit in Meeting for Worship.  Pastoral care will grow you in that direction, towards caring and compassion.

PYM:  You also talk about spiritual attentiveness.  I often think about our intention as well as attention as Friends to be guided by Spirit.  How do you see these attitudes of awareness working in discernment?

Nancy:   Bringing the intention to being open and willing and giving attention to both the situation and to knowing yourself are both important.  For example, notice what “hooks” you emotionally, what makes it hard for you to discern what to do?  Without this kind of insight, it is more difficult to practice discernment in pastoral care.  But, there is also the hook that says, “I can’t do this!”  That’s important to attend to as well.  It’s a way of noticing the need in oneself.

Attention operates at different levels.  And, we can use the tools of discernment in Care & Counsel for the work of pastoral care in general.  The question always rises:  “Is there a need to say something [about a situation] or take some action?”  But, when this happens we should ask ourselves a couple of questions:  Is this work mine to do?  Is it what I’m called, led to do?  And, what does the group, the Care Committee, discern to be the work, its scope and limits?

PYM:  That last question is a good one.  How do you understand the work of the Care Committee in Meeting?  What do you see as its “scope and limits”?

Nancy:   A Meeting’s desire to help shouldn’t be to act as a social services agency but as a family.  In this regard resources and limits are important areas to address.  Pastoral care is spiritual care but we are also invited to look at the whole person, because we are essentially a family.  Our caring should have a family feel.

Our work in pastoral care is to help individual Friends and their families cope with the hard spaces in their lives.  As a Spiritual Director, I often work with pastors and others whose work is to accompany people through lonely, hard times with pastoral and material aid.  That is also part of our relationship, of journeying together, being present in times of real need.

PYM:  What do you see as important in preparing oneself for the work of pastoral care among Friends?

Nancy:  Of course, learning to listen to others and becoming a mentor who can help others to discern the nudges of Spirit in our lives is important.  Just sitting with the question of “what is called for here?” and discerning how the Spirit may nudge us is important.  And, we must reach out to others who are involved in pastoral care, to help us do group discernment so the group can gain clarity about helping.  This is the heart of discernment in pastoral care.

Offering one’s presence as an “elder” who is able to be present to others on the Care Committee is important work for more seasoned Friends.  New members can learn a lot from being “teamed” with another more experienced person, it can make learning easier.

Preparing oneself for this work involves deepening our compassion and understanding through opening ourselves to the conditions of others.  That’s spiritual work – it’s not just grounded in tasks on an agenda.

PYM:  Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us.  Is there anything you would like to say in closing?

Nancy:  Yes, I’d like to add that there is a kind of trust that you bring with your open, caring presence that makes all the difference in helping someone.  And, you can trust that, in simply being present, the Spirit is there!  We have to trust ourselves and each other to do this work.

We can find strength in working as a committee of well-intentioned Friends.  In our work together we form a circle of support that as many are gathered increases the measure of Light among us.

Trusting also involves believing that pastoral care concerns taken up by the committee will receive sufficient wisdom from the committee.  How to handle a difficult situation will come forth, someone will be led.  This is where self-sacrifice to a leading may come in.  There is that trust, that knowing that what is being done is right for this committee at this time.