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The Pastoral Arts

The Pastoral Art

This essay, Al, is for you.  Last Sunday in the church parking lot I was uncharacteristically inarticulate on the subject at hand.  Here's a well-mulled reconsideration.

The most important single factor in being a good pastor is to be there.  Woody Allen is credited with the quote that "90% of life is just showing up."  90% of success in the pastoral role is the same, just showing up.  Being there when a parishioner needs you or thinks she does. Being there when death intrudes, suddenly and unexpectedly... and when long-awaited.  Being there for the 90th birthday party or the 50th wedding anniversary, whether or not you are asked to pray.  Being there to baptize the premie in the incubator. Being there when the teenager finds her way to your office and tells you she has become a witch.  Being there when the very model of righteousness confesses to you he almost strangled his wife and needs to get out of a deadly marriage. 

Being accessible.  Always.  All the time.  It rankled my wife (and I will not deny her her justification) that I provided the cell phone number for our Vermont cabin to those families for whom the death of a member was imminent during the month of my vacation.  Not just for church patriarchs or matriarchs, for anyone who thought of me as their pastor.  In the full fifty years this provision was in effect no one, not a single soul, abused this license.  I interrupted our time in the green hills only three times to return for a funeral.  Doctors may call upon colleagues to substitute for them when a patient needs an appendectomy and doc is in Bermuda; but pastors perform no technological role.  What they do is personal and spiritual, between them and the souls for whom, by God, they are responsible. The pastoral role is not readily delegated.  

The most damning criticism I hear leveled at pastors is that "he's never there when you need him."  The most stupid excuse pastor's regularly give for their absence is that they were about their Father's business somewhere else in the "kingdom." No one, certainly not me, wants to be told he was, in so many words, an innocent victim of necessary ecclesiastical triage.  Especially if the other "Father's business" is, in fact, a larger church (think Diocesan or Conference) committee meeting.  Local pastoral responsibilities should trump bureaucratic duties every time. Sure such conflicts are inevitable.  But the pastor who really wants to be a pastor will find some way to do it all without ever leading a parishioner to think his need is being sacrificed on the altar of some larger good.

Being there is showing up.  But being there also means being all there there.  The real pastor brings the full measure of his or her personality, intellect, wisdom, and patience, especially patience.  If and when I, a parishioner, spill out the Pandora's Box of my thoughts and feelings, I certainly don't want a cipher, even one sporting a halo or turned around collar, as an audience.  I want someone fully vested with intelligence and the wisdom of prior experience.   I want to be able to assume that I am being listened to not only with sympathy but with intelligence.  But, please, don't talk down to me, or, by gestures or intonations, suggest you are reaching down to me from some Olympian height of education or training.  Yes, I want someone determined not to be judgmental.  I want someone who can hear and sympathize with my pain... and, if that be the moment, my enthusiasm. I want someone who can critique me if I ask for it, and only if I ask for it.   

In fifty years in the role as a pastor, my most cherished compliment came from a former Junior High who reported approvingly of Pastor Howard that "I could speak to him about anything," including, I assume, all the sticky issues of sex that teenagers contend with.  

The hardest part of the pastor being there all there is knowing when. Knowing when to speak, if at all.  Usually, only when called on.  It's the hardest part because it runs counter to the professional impulse of the other side of a pastor's calling, that of being the preacher.  And the preacher is the person who always has a ready opinion.  I don't mean this observation as sarcasm.  I mean it as fact.  The pastor-preacher is thoughtful; that is, full of thoughts.  Conversant with the Bible and the newspaper, in on the matters which engulf the congregation, politically, socially, culturally, the ordained person has a ready thought to offer on most subjects.  Holding it in, however, is often necessary and, when that discipline is ignored, often unforgivable... especially by those who don't share the opinion offered. 

David Brooks, New York Times op-ed page columnist, recently wrote a pieceNB1 (ask me and I'll send you a copy as an Email attachment) which should be required reading in every seminary's practical theology course on ministering to grieving families. I like Brooks' advice, probably because he agrees with me.  He is a big fan of being there and biting the tongue when funeral room clichés clamor to be offered.  Brooks seems to be following the advice, some non-canonical red letter words, in the Gospel according to Thomas that "Blessed are you if you know what you are doing."NB2

One final observation about the art of pastoring: being beloved by your congregation for your attention, acumen, and compassion for them  in their weakness is, when all is said and done, the easy part of the job.  Dealing with congregants with attention, acumen, compassion, and grace in their strength is, however, the secret to longevity and respect in a pastorate. But that's the subject for another essay.


NB1. The New York Times, January 30,2014 edition, Page A19, "The Art of Presence" by David Brooks.

NB2. No, I tried, but failed to find chapter and verse; I came across the saying in one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's books, Ethics, I think.       





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