Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What is a Pastor?

I’m sitting in a motel room in Decatur, Georgia, some 180 miles from my home in Fitzgerald, Georgia, as I write this.

I’m here because yesterday morning someone in our church family had surgery in Macon (more or less half-way between Fitzgerald and Atlanta) and someone else had surgery in Atlanta and either today or tomorrow someone else who is in the hospital in Atlanta will be having surgery.

I made the same run last Friday so by the time I get home tonight I will on those two pastoral sojourns have spent three days and will have travelled, not counting the slow and torturous miles getting from one place to another in the Atlanta area, around 720 miles in order to visit and to pray with those hospitalized folks and their families.

Such travelling is not unusual for me. In recent weeks I have also travelled to Columbus, Georgia (280 miles round-trip) and Jacksonville, Florida (300 miles) and I regularly travel to Albany, Georgia (120 miles) and Macon (185 miles) in order to visit hospitalized folks.

(We do have a hospital in Fitzgerald and folks do often go to the Tifton hospital, which is only a half-hour drive for me, but for “big stuff” they often to go to those more far-away places.)

As Walter Brennan’s character in the old TV Western “The Guns of Will Sonnet” used to say: “No brag—just fact”; besides, countless other pastors could tell the same story.

There are people, though, who would suggest—and even insist—that pastors who spend so much of their time conducting such visitation are using their time unwisely and are not establishing the proper priorities in their work. I have seen the question posed in more than one forum lately: do pastors spend too much of their time visiting sick folks rather than spending their time preparing for their preaching ministry and forming and forwarding a vision for the direction of their churches? Where did the expectation ever arise, some folks wonder, that the pastor would try to be present to pray with any member of the church who is having surgery or who is hospitalized?

After all, the apostles led the early church to appoint the Seven to tend to the needs of the people in the church so that the apostles could devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and to prayer, didn’t they?

Now, I am more than willing to admit to the frustration that comes with trying to properly prioritize in the work of the pastor. I often think of a cartoon I saw many years ago in which the first frame shows a pastor in his study preparing a sermon and thinking “I need to be visiting” and the second frame depicts that same pastor making a visit and thinking “I need to be working on my sermon.” Such is our life. Such is my life.

I received my M.Div. in 1982; during that course of study I received very balanced training in biblical studies, church history, theology, pastoral care, church administration, preaching, ethics, and missions. Implicitly I was taught that all those areas fell under my realm of responsibility as a pastor and that I could expect to function in all of them—and so it has been.

I cannot say what has been going on in seminary education since that time—and no blanket statement would be fair to every seminary—but it seems to me that pastors these days are getting the idea somewhere that their main job is to “cast the vision” and to preach the Word and that a lesser emphasis can and should be given to pastoral visitation.

And it is true that our job is to preach the Word—we are preachers, after all—and to lead our congregations to find and to carry out God’s vision for us—we are leaders, after all.

But I cannot and I will not give up my conviction that my pastoral care role is absolutely vital to the health of the church and to the health of my ministry.

To me, it all goes back to the primary biblical metaphor for the pastor—the shepherd. Indeed, the word “pastor” literally means “shepherd,” and the main function of a shepherd is to tend to the needs of the sheep by promoting their good and healing their hurts.

Karl Barth is credited with the assertion that theologians should do their work with their Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other; it is also the case that pastors (who are theologians, too) should do their work with the Word of God in their hearts and the people of their flock in their hearts, too. So far as I can tell, the only way to have that happen is to be as directly involved in their lives as possible, especially in times of crisis.

I hesitate to say that one attraction of the preaching and leadership aspect of the pastor’s work is that such efforts put her or him “out front” where adulation and adoration can be promoted; after all, it is just as possible that pastors might want to spend lots of time visiting the sick so that they can receive affirmation from people who find such ministry impressive. I myself must confess to the fault of too often wanting to be a “people pleaser.”

Still, pastors are shepherds. As shepherds, we represent the God who is the Great Shepherd and the Savior who is the Good Shepherd and, we hardly need reminding, shepherds lay down their lives for their sheep. Disciplined, loving, gracious pastoral care is a part of such laying down of our lives.

The pastor of my growing up years was Rev. Bill Coleman—“Preacher Bill” to everybody. Preacher Bill did not have a high school diploma, much less a seminary degree. He preached mail order sermons. But he was a caring and loving pastor who tended as well as he could to the hurts of his flock. When I announced my call to preach, my good father said to me, “Son, there’s one thing you can learn from Preacher Bill: people will tolerate fair preaching if you’re a good pastor—but they won’t appreciate even great preaching if you’re a lousy pastor.”

I’m not sure that’s true of everybody everywhere—but I committed then to trying my best, with the Lord’s help, to be an effective shepherd to my hurting sheep.

It is not the path to glory.

Then again, maybe it is.

All I know is that over the past few days in the course of my travels I have prayed with, among others, a fourteen-month old child having a cochlear implant in an effort to give him hearing, with a fifty-something year old man whose melanoma has led to tumors in his brain and his lungs, and with a twenty-something year old woman whose breast cancer has resulted in her having a mastectomy.

In such moments I am most fully a pastor.

Thanks be to God.


Trey said...

I'm glad that you are my Pastor!! Your preaching is not too bad either!! Keep doing what you are called to do and everything will turn out just fine!

Randy said...

I'd rather hear you preach than eat. Because I've heard you eat.

I KNOW you're a good pastor, my friend...you always have been.

ken ross said...

Mike, I returned to my first church several years ago for Homecoming and one person said to me "I can't remember much about the sermons you preached, but I remember you were always there for us when we need you." Lesson well learned.