The Church 8: Practicing the Presence of Pastoring
A missing component in many churches today is, well, pastoring! Pastoring is all about the practice of being present in people’s lives. The word ‘pastor’, after all, is related in Greek to the word ‘shepherd’, and if there is one thing shepherds are known for it is being present with their sheep. To illustrate the point, I will give three examples of pastoral ministry that address the importance of presence—presence with the people.
One story of pastoring that stands out in my mind is of a pastor I have known for many years. The story is illustrative of his whole approach to pastoral ministry. Once he visited a woman from the church at her home. Her husband never attended the church and, as I recall, was something of a ‘deadbeat’. When the pastor visited on one occasion, the man simply stayed in the bedroom watching television. The pastor knocked on the bedroom door and entered the room. He said, ‘What are you watching?’ and, without being invited, he lay down on the bed beside the man and watched television with him. Here is an example of the importance of presence as an aspect of pastoral ministry. One might even say ‘incarnational presence’. To be sure, the Son of God’s becoming a man is a far richer story of incarnation than the story of a pastor flopping down beside a deadbeat husband in a low-income home to spend an hour watching television with him. But that is the point: if this is what God the Son has done for us, should we not also understand pastoral ministry in the same way? Pastoring is an imitation of Jesus. We read in 1 Peter,
1 Peter 5:3-4 3 Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.
Another story is of a large, programme-oriented church my family was a part of for a few years. The pastor delivered excellent, pastorally sensitive messages in his sermons. They were Biblically sound, and the size of the church was no doubt a result of his integrity as a person and his excellent teaching. The church was not that large when he became its pastor, but the church grew year after year. It grew to the point of having to broadcast the sermon on a screen to a separate building. Multiple pastors had to be hired to oversee missions, education, youth, and other ministry programmes in the church. These programmes attracted more people to the church—there was something for everyone. And yet, in fact, week after week in the large, Sunday morning service you seldom met anyone you had ever seen before. Worship was a regular diet of personally engaging the ministry from the platform without regarding persons around you (despite the moment in the service to ‘greet those around you’). The actual service was well cropped to one hour, and this made it possible to fit in three services on a Sunday morning. Worship was processed. After the sermon—always excellent, mind you—the first part of a song from earlier in the service was sung and then the congregation dismissed (no benediction). Had the service led to some desire for further worship or ministry, this would have been problematic.
This ‘three songs and a sermon’ Evangelicalism has grown to be fairly standard for many, and that it simply cannot sustain orthodoxy and orthopraxy in an increasingly post-Christian culture in the West should be obvious. There is simply neither enough teaching nor real community present in such churches to meet the challenges of either life or the culture at large. Religion is, by definition, whatever one turns to in the heights and depths of human experience. How much more so is Christianity a faith, love, and hope in Jesus Christ to guide and sustain the traveller on such a journey? Yet shallow Evangelicalism has no chance whatsoever of helping believers to face anything significant in life's struggles.
Nor did it in the case of one member of this church who suddenly faced major surgery. Unable to walk, except a little in the home, he missed the one hour, weekly services that were a meagre part of his spiritual life in this church. His wife spoke to the ministers about his situation. There was no telephone call, card, or pastoral visit. There was no prayer. No person from the church came by to see the person over the months of his absence from the church, even though he had been a member for several years.
Contrast this with our own experience in a church in England. By all accounts, the large church just described was the successful church over against this little English church of about fifty people. It had been around for about two hundred years in a small market town. The church was sometimes a little larger, sometimes a little smaller—like any family over the years. Of course, everyone knew everyone else—and that made the church what it was. The church actually practiced koinonia—fellowship in each other’s lives—on a weekly basis. People from the church met in each other’s homes fairly often, helped each other whenever there was a challenging situation, and the pastor visited in the home almost every week. People prayed for each other, and if someone went missing on a Sunday morning, everyone knew. The children played together—they did not just attend a Sunday School class, which was, of course, an important part of their life in the church.
Which of these churches—the large, programme-run church or the small, family-based church—practiced the presence of pastoral ministry? One simply cannot pastor from the pulpit. Nor should one try, I might submit—the church needs teaching from the pulpit. Large churches, whose pastors quite possibly at one point in their lives actually did pastor people, typically reduce their pastoral role to trying to pastor from the pulpit. They simply fool themselves. One of the requirements Paul set for overseers in the church was that they manage their own households well (1 Tim. 3.3-4). Many might focus in these verses on the role of authority, but that would be to miss an essential part of what Paul had in mind. It is precisely because the ‘church’ is not an ‘assembly’ but is a ‘family gathering’ that Paul can say this. That is, the authority of the overseer is not the authority of someone overseeing the programmes of a large group but of a group that is intimately engaged in each other’s lives like a family. The overseer in such a church is like the head of the household in a large family. Such a person lives in the home with the rest of the family, is engaged in their lives, and is respected for his care and concern for each one. What Paul says about the overseer is grounded in his understanding of the church as a family present in each other’s lives.
Quite likely, many reading this will have wonderful examples of how their church practices the presence of pastoral care. This post is for those who have not realized that this is an essential part of church and ministry. It is especially directed to those ministers in churches who have given up pastoring while still being seen as the pastor of the church. The pastor who does not show up at the homes of his parishioners on a regular basis is simply not pastoring. The pastor who is not present regularly in prayer with his people is not really a pastor. The (supposedly) ‘successful’ pastor who has now to oversee the programmes of the large church and prepare a fine sermon each Sunday is no longer a pastor. If someone needs a description of what it means to be a pastor, think of my friend pushing his way into a man’s bedroom, flopping on the bed beside him, and watching some ridiculous television show with him just to be there with him, to practice the presence of pastoral ministry the way Jesus did with us.
This is not to claim that pastoral ministry is only about being present, of course. Nor is it to suppose that any kind of presence with someone is pastoral presence. Yet what needs to be emphasized today—at least in my experience of various churches—is that many of us need to recover the practice of presence as one of the essential aspects of what it means to be a pastor.