By Deanna V. Sass
Why should a diocese train the volunteer laypersons who visit the sick on behalf of their parishes? Why not let the parish do what it has always done, hosting an evening or a day of training for new lay ministers? After all, isn’t it up to each pastor to determine what his parish volunteers need?
Actually, the Diocese of Trenton has found that there are many good reasons to consider a diocesan-based training model. Permit me to give you four: consistency, confidence, competence, and compassion.
We have all heard the horror stories involving volunteers, equipped only with their good intentions and about 15 minutes of training, who go forth into the Vineyard of the Lord, starting blazing fires that need to be put out or defended in court. One hospital volunteer thought it might be OK to “hear a patient’s confession” rather than to call a priest — after all, “no one would ever know, and it would bring the patient so much comfort.”
If a diocese can plan a training program, which include all of the important features that everyone in ministry should know, the result is a level of consistency among the volunteers in pastoral care and other pastoral ministries, which gives the pastor a certain amount of confidence in those he is sending forth from his parish.
Confidence comes from the Latin root words for with faith. How wonderful a feeling it would be to have faith in those who represent one’s parish in the community. Those good folks who complete the 12 workshops in 30 hours in our diocesan Pastoral Care Training Program earn the confidence of their pastors every day in their various volunteer ministry settings.
They are less likely to make one of the mistakes that many untrained volunteers do, such as innocently publishing a prayer request in the parish bulletin without the patient’s permission. Our workshops include teaching about HIPAA regulations, ethics for pastoral ministers, boundaries, secular law, canon law, and self-care, all of which contribute to the competence of the lay volunteer.
Competence generally means particular skills, or a body of knowledge. The Trenton diocesan program, which I developed and now administer, includes lots of both.
Among the specific skills we teach are listening skills, the nuts and bolts of the pastoral visit, as well as leading rituals for laypersons and pastoral care of the sick and dying. We teach specific skills for working with persons from various cultures, for ministry with the disabled, addicts and alcoholics, incarcerated persons, the mentally ill, and the grieving. We teach how to plan a Christian funeral, and what works and what doesn’t in peer support groups, such as those which many parishes offer for the bereaved or for separated and divorced persons. I used to get frequent calls about how to handle difficult persons in support groups. The training program truly pre-empts those kinds of problems. I don’t get those calls anymore.
We complement this training by offering knowledge of the Catholic faith. We include in these workshops the Vatican II documents and Scripture, in which our lay ministries, and the call to service in general, are profoundly rooted. We teach the canon laws relevant to ministry, the theology of suffering, the healing mission of Jesus and our participation in it. We give overviews of what the church teaches about end-of-life decisions, healthcare bioethics, and advance directives.
Equipped with these skills and this body of knowledge, our parish volunteers are more likely to sidestep other ministry landmines. One untrained but well-intentioned volunteer, for instance, promised a terminally ill patient that he would not die if he merely completed a novena to his saint of choice. The additional pain that that encounter caused cannot be expressed by mere words. This is why competence involves more than just skills training and knowledge. It requires a person with spiritual maturity, an emotionally healthy person, one who has self-awareness, and who serves his or her fellow parishioners for all the right reasons. It requires both humility and compassion.
Compassion comes from the Latin root words for to feel and with. That is what we in the ministries of care strive to do, to feel with the other. To enter the realm of another’s pain, without getting lost in it. To tenderly receive our sister’s and brother’s stories of suffering, with profound respect, recognizing in them the Divine. Supporting the one who suffers in the search for God in the midst of their pain, for glimmers of grace, with which they might construe hope.
To genuinely offer compassion, we must be rooted in a spirituality of ministry, which happens to be another workshop that we offer in our training program. It is a spirituality grounded in humility, which reminds us that we don’t have the right to be with persons in the most intimate moments of their lives — we must be invited in. Once there, we must remember that we don’t deserve their gratitude, but instead, their forgiveness, for intruding into these sacred spaces in their lives.
I don’t mean to imply we’ve got it all together. But I have learned what comprises a truly comprehensive and effective training program for lay pastoral volunteers. It will produce consistency throughout the parishes of a diocese and result in lay volunteers with a high level of competence, which will give their pastors greater confidence in their service, and will result in genuine compassion to those in need of pastoral care. Now those are four good reasons to consider a diocesan Pastoral Care Training Program.
Deanna V. Sass is director of pastoral care for the Diocese of Trenton, NJ.