Starting a Lay Pastoral Care Ministry Team 

A Lay Pastoral Care Team is a group of people dedicated to supporting people with specific needs. At a time when our population is aging, caring for older adults is especially relevant. This is an ideal ministry for laity as they often have long-term relationships with older members. And there is a role for people with different skills. Those who are good at listening and caring can be visitors. Those who like to DO things can buy or prepare food, schedule visitors, write notes, gather information and resources, serve as drivers, etc.

What’s important is that you have a team of people who can respond to needs in your congregation. Older adults are the primary recipients of pastoral care. But this can also extend to those who need a break from caring for someone who is ill or shut-in, those whose loved one has died or be with someone who has a chronic illness or disability.

Congregations cannot depend on the clergy to provide pastoral care. They do, of course, provide care when people are dying, struggling with death or an illness or need to speak with a priest. But routine visits to the lonely, sick, elderly, homebound, etc., are best done by the laity both because this us a core ministry of the laity and because there are more laity in a congregation than clergy so those needing care will receive it more frequently! Lay pastoral caregivers find that this ministry is deeply meaningful and that it usually deepens their spiritual life. The following notes are suggestions on how to start a lay pastoral care ministry in your congregation.

Recruit members of a team.  Look for people who are: 

  • Willing to make a two year commitment 
  • Are able to respect confidentiality 
  • Have some understanding of what they would be doing
  • Are able to devote two hours a week (or whatever amount fits your situation) 
  • Are good listeners 
  • Are willing and able to learn
  • Are able to work with others on a team 

 Recruit vs. Volunteer – it is hard to say “no” to an inappropriate volunteer 

  • Interview volunteers, knowing that you may need to help the interviewee focus on a different ministry if you likely already know this isn’t a good fit
  • Have adjunct tasks available that volunteers can do – sending cards/notes, buying or cooking food, serving as a driver

Develop a mission such as:

“Provide a ministry of hope and caring so that no member of our congregation need be alone?  We will visit the ill at home or in the hospital, support those going through a life crisis, maintain contact with those unable to attend church due to illness or disability, support friends and family involved in care giving, and comfort the bereaved(River Road UU Congregation, Bethesda, MD)

Provide training:

  • Build the team (c. 4 hours on relationship development, general discussion of what this ministry entails, the needs of older adults, etc.)
  • Develop skills (1 or 2 day-long workshops or several shorter sessions) on skills like: 
    • Visiting people in the hospital, nursing home, home, etc. 
    • Issues related to death and bereavement
    • The religious component of pastoral care
    • Importance of confidentiality
    • Knowing your limits
    • Communication
    • Active listening
    • Referrals and community resources
    • Extended training over time might include topics such as:
    • Dementia
    • living wills
    • advanced medical directives
    • CPR
    • options for retirement living
    • bereavement
    • depression
    • planned giving, wills that give wisdom/values
    • advanced medical directives
    • how to manage older parents

Decide what you want to and can do (start slow, build over time) 

  • Easiest to do is sending cards/handwritten notes or making phone calls
  • Next is coordinating and conducting regular visits — both Lay Eucharistic Minister visits and just visits to chat
  • Coordinate respite care for caregivers
  • Manage a buddy system for older adults living alone
  • Develop and manage a Medical Equipment Loan Program (this could be for a cluster of churches or, if you have lots of unused space, for the diocese’s churches) 
  • Help members moving to local retirement communities get connected with other Episcopalians there and try to find them transportation back to the church on Sundays 
  • Make hospital, nursing home or hospice visits
  • Support those going through life crises
  • Support members and their families with terminal illness
  • Provide information and support at the time of death and try to support the bereaved person for the following two years
  • Provide educational materials about living wills, advanced medical directives, retirement communities, support groups, etc.
  • Establish a Memory Café at your church or in partnership with other faith communities or agencies (

Meet monthly

  • Share experiences, ask questions, discuss best practices
  • Choose a book to read together or have someone do a presentation on a topic, demonstrate and practice a skill, etc.
  • Be accountable to one another — develop norms, best practices, policies, etc. and check in regularly to make sure everyone is observing them. Some examples are:
    • All visits are done in pairs — never go alone.
    • Take safe church training and review those practices periodically.
    • Don’t talk about what someone shared with you
    • Don’t reveal a diagnosis unless you have the person’s permission to do so.
    • Don’t create a dependency on you.
    • Make sure you are meeting the person’s needs, not yours.
    • Be discrete, polite and gentle.
    • Pray for the people you visit.
  • Spend time in spiritual reflection, Bible study and prayer. Pray for the people you serve and pray for each other.