Cathy recently wrote a brilliant post about pastoral care. Here is a large chunk of what she had to say.
Pastoral care is rejoicing with the joyful and sharing the sorrow of the sad. It's about bearing each others' burdens, while maturing to bear our own. It's helping each other change, in these waiting days, into the likeness of Jesus. This doesn't only happen in a crisis. A lot of good pastoral care will be prevention (training in godliness), and fortifying each other for future suffering.
A lot of hardship, grief and suffering outlasts a brief crisis. Real, long term relationships are what we need.
So perhaps it is helpful to think about pastoral care as all the stuff we all do to help each other persevere and mature, in long term relationships. It's not only what leaders and paid staff of a church do for everyone else, in the crises.
The end of pastoral care is the Day when we see Jesus. The goal of pastoral care is to have people get to that day, loving and trusting Jesus. It's about encouraging each other while it is still called Today, until that day, lest we drift in the meantime.
It's not our job to rescue people and take the mess away (Jesus ultimately does that). Our job is to help them endure through it, leaning on Jesus. Part of that encouragement will be alleviating crises with meals, visits and some solutions. But our care for people in a crisis won't be particularly effective if there is no shared "family" life before and after the crisis.
I really love the distinction Cathy has made between immediate crisis care and the long term pastoral care of helping one another to grow in our maturity in Christ so that we deal with our crises with increasing, God honouring maturity. I think I am less melodramatic and self-absorbed than I was, say, ten years ago, when a crisis comes upon me. And I hope and pray that in ten years time I can say the same thing, that I will be less melodramatic and self-absorbed than I am now. There will always be a place for sensitive practical help for those in tough times. I know I have been the recipient of many acts of kind and loving care. But we serve one another well by continually pointing each other to the bigger picture so that we might be better prepared for adversity and then face it when it comes in ways that glorify God.