When I was a pastor I thought it was my job to make suffering people feel better. I was dismayed at how unsuccessful I was at it. I counseled the hurting and prayed for the dying, Yet people seemed no better when I left than they were when I arrived. Their condition had not significantly improved, at least as far as I could tell.
In time I came to see that it was not my job to make suffering people feel better. That is God’s job. My job was to remind people of God’s presence. Most of the time pastoral ministry in the context of suffering is the ministry of presence not the ministry of repair. We may sit in silence or we may speak words of promise but we do not fix. We cannot. The problems are too great. They call for a remedies that are far beyond the scope of our skill or ability.
In the moment of suffering this ministry of presence seems terribly inadequate. We leave the hospital bedside confounded. Or we feel a mounting sense of panic as the counseling session progresses and we realize that we have no simple solution to recommend.
Days, months or even years later, when some someone reminds us of the crisis and thanks us for being such a help, we are astonished. “What did I do?” we ask in honest wonder. With a gentle smile they answer in kind, offering truth for truth: “You were there!”
Not long after he started attending our church, Ed asked me about something that had been bothering him. It was a question that took me by surprise. It had nothing to do with election or the fate of the heathen. It didn’t concern some obscure point in the Bible. Ed wanted to know what I did all week. “What exactly does a pastor do?” he asked. When I described a typical work week, it was his turn to be amazed. He thought that my duties were limited to the thirty minute sermon I delivered each Sunday, something he assumed I did without preparation.
Ed is not the only one to think this. Nearly every pastor I know has been asked this question, sometimes by the church board! This should not surprise us. The sermon is the only exposure most people have to the pastor’s work. The pastor’s other responsibilities of leadership, planning and pastoral care are hidden from view. Even if they were not, some would wonder if such things actually constitute real work. For them any task that does not produce a callous does not qualify as work.
How should we deal with the pressure we feel to justify ourselves in light of this misunderstanding? The challenge is to inform the congregation without trumpeting our accomplishments or exaggerating our effort. This is something the apostle Paul did with the Corinthian church, making them aware of some of the pressures he faced as an apostle (2 Cor. 11:28). The goal is not to evoke pity or to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them, but to educate God’s people and solicit their prayers.
Try not to be defensive when someone wants to know what you do all week. Those who ask this question are not trying to insult you. They are genuinely mystified. Help them understand the nature of your calling and ask them about their work. You are probably as unaware of all that their job entails as they are of yours.
Pastoral work is cyclical work. It is work which is marked by rhythm and repetition. There is the weekly cycle of sermon preparation. It doesn’t matter how well the sermon went on Sunday. When Monday comes, the process must begin again. The better the message, the greater the pressure we feel to repeat the experience. As much as we love sermon preparation, even the best of us must sometimes feel as if we are on a treadmill. Sunday night leaves many a pastor dreading the approach of a new work week just like the factory worker or office employee.
Our ministry of leadership is also cyclical, subject to the ebb and flow of life within the church. Every congregation has its own seasons. In some churches summer is the time when things slow down. Attendance dips and committees or programs go on hiatus as members leave for vacation. In other churches summer is the busy season. This rhythm of congregational life can frustrate a pastor whose planning cycle and expectations are out of sync with the rhythm of the church. Ignorance of this aspect of the church’s culture is a recipe for misunderstanding and mutual frustration.
On the surface you might wonder how pastoral counseling could ever feel routine. The church is filled with a variety of people whose background and circumstances differ from one another. Yet after a few years we discover that even when the faces and the names change, the problems are the same. We must confront the same sins. We are asked the same questions. Our preaching, too, begins to feel monotonous as the a few fundamental themes resurface in passage after passage. Or as the same holidays demand our attention year after year. It doesn’t take long before we begin to feel that we have only a handful of sermons and that we preach them over and over again.
Our first step to addressing this challenge must be to recognize the value of rhythm and repetition in the life of the church. Repetition is a necessary to growth and learning. Rhythm and repetition are evident in nearly every aspect of created life. We live in a world marked by the returning rhythm of work and rest, seed-time and harvest as well, as the need to hear the same things over and over again. It is only our frenetic leadership culture, afflicted as it is with the spiritual equivalent to attention deficit disorder, that sees these things as a detriment.