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Creating a Lay Pastoral Care Team Ministry

General Assembly 2000 Event 519
From the River Road Unitarian Church (RRUC)


Basic Concepts

By Sylvia Friedman

River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, MD, is a large church—1400 members, with only ONE minister! When Bill Murry left to become President of Meadville/Lombard, Sylvia Friedman was on search committee, and realized there was a great void in pastoral care. She met with the new minister, Rev. Scott Alexander, to start the process, which took fourteen months.

There are presently two pastoral care teams at River Road. The first team has eight people, all retired; the second team has seven people, half are retired and half are age forty to sixty-five.

They have worked with fifty-three families; made thirty-five visits to homes, hospitals, nursing homes; made many phone calls; and worked with eighty families and individuals as of last week, including the terminally ill, acutely ill, and those in nursing and retirement homes. They drive people to church every week and provide respite care (relieving the care caregiver).

Much planning goes into how to help a family or person: teams meet in two or three to discuss before action is taken. Sylvia strongly recommends that you start with a mission statement; think about what you want to do, and don't want to do. Think about the size of the church, the number of people available, their hours of availability, their professional background, and what are the needs of the church (older members) (maybe a buddy system, medical equipment loan program).

Selection, Training, and Mission Statement

By Sylvia Friedman

It's really important to have people with a mental health background if you're dealing with people with major life transitions, or are really emotionally upset. Pick your programs, start slow, and do it well. Don't take on too much

Meet twice a month for overview discussions. Friedman said that she cannot overemphasize the importance of confidentiality; you must develop the trust of the confidentiality. Only the minister and the pastoral care team knows who's being seen, but what's being said is confidential. Permission is always asked for the kinds of help given.

River Road Church had a strong commitment to training, and giving people ownership of the pastoral care process, to get them really involved. A trainer came for five hours, stressing the religious component of pastoral care (Unitarian Universalist (UU) vs. Christian).

Team on "Death and Bereavement" will help from the moment they're notified of a death; the first step is evaluation. One person writes sympathy cards for the group; she is the "card specialist." Team members don't do counseling or psychotherapy; usually women are assigned to women, men are assigned to men.


By Ann Faegre

The premise is that we are a caring community, and pastoral care is an expression of that caring. Pastoral team members do NOT do counsel, therapy or give advice. They make references and recommend connections. She suggested a buddy system, hospital and nursing home visits, and respite care for stressed out parents and other caregivers.

Collaboration with the Minister

By Rev. Scott Alexander

The minister needs to get out of the way and let others run it; even though ministers like to help people, and need to be needed, they need to get out of the way.

This program has changed the face of the congregation; in a time of great growth at RRUC, it has reassured people that intimacy will still be there; the minister is spread around more effectively, and uses the mystique of his position to be effective when necessary.

People are gradually learning that to be a member of RRUC, they can ask for help and they will be helped. Over time, a higher percentage of people are asking for help, and are receiving it. It's become more acceptable to ask for help.

Rev. Alexander's main point was that you cannot leave pastoral care just to your minister.

Neighborhoods and Getting People to Ask for Help

By Constance Hendrickson

A committee gets together and makes a list of who's not coming to church, or otherwise missing. We make notes from "Joys and Concerns," After a while, a network has grown up, where people know to refer those in need of help.

The minister talks and writes about the Pastoral Care Team constantly, so he gets a lot of names, which he refers to the Caregiver network.

The culture of the church changed almost immediately, as people got to know about it.

Benefit to Pastoral Care Team Member

By Constance Hendrickson

The team has benefited from its own care, as team members have also gone through problems and need help.

Questions and Answers

Rev. Thandeka asked: What would you like new ministers to know before they go out into the world? Authority is like love; the more you give away, the more there is.

Rev. Linda Hart asked: In a mid-size congregation, it's hard to get parishioners to take responsibility for pastoral care. When people say, "It's the minister's job," how to you answer that? In ministerial training, they need to get training in empowerment (different from the model of ministerial executive power)

Dr. Ellen Johnson-Fay commented: At the mid-size church conference last year, Jean Trumbauer gave excellent workshops. Some of her books—Created and Called and Sharing the Ministry—were excellent, and are highly recommended.


A Program of the River Road Unitarian Church (RRUC), Bethesda, MD

Sylvia Friedman, Coordinator

For more information contact conglife @

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 2, 2014.

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