by W. Jackson Watts
One of the most important aspects of pastoral ministry is understanding how one’s “pulpit ministry” is connected to their “pew ministry.” By pulpit ministry, I mean the regular, weekly preaching and teaching of God’s Word. In what I’m calling “pew ministry,” I’m referring to the personal engagement of the pastor (or pastoral staff) with congregants through ministries like visitation, counseling, and simply being present in times of physical trials.
Pastors spend a significant portion of many of their weeks in hospitals and nursing homes–perhaps just as many hours as they spend invested in personal prayer and study of the Word at times. For myself (and I suspect many others), sometimes we wonder if we are actually being faithful to the theology of the pastorate found in Scripture and our ordination vows. Why is it so easy to allow our love for people and/or desire to meet their expectations to create imbalance in our pastoral work?”
These are not new concerns. In fact, Acts 6 narrates the circumstances which led to the institution of the diaconate, designed especially to share the physical burdens of the flock of God. There are other Scriptural admonitions given to entire congregations which seem to imply (at the very least) that pastoral care should sometimes by re-envisioned as “congregational care.” That is, with an “every-member ministry” mindset in which some believers have the gifts of mercy, the pastor(s) and his people ought to bump into one another regularly in the hospital waiting room to see another brother or sister.
There is a different angle on this dynamic of pastoral care that I was reminded of recently. I was reading one of the best books on ministry that I have ever read entitled Freedom for Ministry by Richard John Neuhaus. I regret that the book is so little-known among Free Will Baptists. However, it is written by a deceased Lutheran-turned-Catholic, which probably has something to do with that. Also, it was originally published in the late-1970s. Still, Neuhaus provides a stinging critique of the unhealthy shape of so much late 20th century church life, while also providing warm, godly encouragement and direction to pastors of many stripes.
In the following excerpt, Neuhaus narrates something of a common concern:
Perhaps every pastor has had the experience when visiting a [congregant] that a child answers the door and excitedly announces to the parent that ‘God is here.’ The adults share a chuckle and observe that soon enough, maybe too soon, the child will realize the pastor isn’t God .
This humorous anecdote starts to touch upon a larger issue. Sometimes we have anxiety about whether or not we are developing the impression within people that they haven’t truly been visited by a church family member until the pastor himself has done so. Neuhaus develops this anecdote by addressing this type of concern:
Yet the connection between the representative and the One represented is very strong, as is the connection between the Church and the ministry of the Church. All our talk about lay ministers and the ethos of democratization notwithstanding, the minister inescapably represents the Church. We are rightly disturbed when people speak of a local church as ‘Pastor Jones’s church.’ Pastor Jones is first to protest that it is Christ’s church; and the more he insists on the point, the more people admire his modesty and give that as yet another reason for being a member of Pastor Jones’s church .
Another way of pastors may experience this latter sensibility is when, as they greet members in the foyer departing the service, they hear the phrase, “Good service(s).” Not good sermon, but good service, which immediately begs the question, “Does this also mean I get all the blame when the music isn’t so great?” Nevertheless, let’s return to Neuhaus’ account of how the church’s ministry and pastoral presence are tied together:
As we go about our everyday tasks, our actions both shape and reflect our understanding of the models of the community’s ministry. A lovely fourteen-year-old girl dies shortly after a tonsillectomy because of the criminal carelessness of an anesthetist. One rushes to the home to join the relatives and neighbors in weeping and in raging at the wrongness of it all, and in offering up this outrage to him who judges justly and in mercy. One’s being there is in a powerful sense the ‘presence’ of the Church, and of Christ. Why is it so urgently, so pathetically, important that the pastor be there? Because he is the palpable sign of the supportive community and the community’s Lord. Of course Christ has preceded the pastor. Of course Christ’s presence is abidingly immediate to each believer. Of course, of course. But in such times of crisis these commonplaces are frighteningly distant and abstract .
Here I think Neuhaus calls our attention to how Christ’s incarnation, and ultimately the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, enables us to think about the importance of being physically present to people. God did not create disembodied souls; He created persons. Furthermore, He created complex creatures with thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and emotions. Of course, due to the Fall we also experience heartache, disappointment, anxiety, grief, and all manner of inner conflict prompted by the vicissitudes of life.
So although Jesus may be physically absent from this world, when we serve people in His name, we perform those acts as unto Him (Mt. 10:42; Col. 3:17, 23). And when pastors link hands with the ill in a moment of prayer, we need to make sure they understand they are linking hands with the community of faith.
Practically speaking, I think the best way of embodying such a perspective would be to begin by developing a clear understanding in the local church of God’s call to member care from the New Testament. Additionally, the tendency to prioritize personal contact in times of acute physical crises is a wise judgment. If people are looking death squarely in the eye, then not only is comfort a need, but preparation for the life to come. Even if pastors are reminding believers in these dire situations that God is with them, often there will be unbelieving family members, friends, and medical professionals nearby. We shouldn’t overlook these opportunities for member care and evangelism.
Finally, I think Neuhaus’ observations remind us about the need to communicate that when pastors or laymen minister in these types of circumstances, they should remember the need to let people know that, “We’re praying for you,” and “We love you,” as well as, “I love you, and I’m praying for you.”
 Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 43.