The CEO Has Left the Sanctuary
Putting the Pastor Back in Pastoral Ministry
By Mike Mirakian | July 27, 2016
I know my way around the hospital. There are three in our community, and I have a preferred parking location at each. I know which entrance to use and where the stairwells are. I know where to find the ICU and when most visitors are not allowed.
I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I’m a pastor, and I believe in providing pastoral care to the people I serve. My cell phone recognizes the numbers of many of our members, and usually I recognize their voices on the other end of the line. And I know the hospitals, rehab centers, and retirement communities.
Let me establish upfront that I am far from perfect in living out my pastoral calling. I’m sure I have, at times, let people down and failed to show enough care in difficult moments. I fall short, but I try my best to provide pastoral care to the church I serve, a sacred responsibility that seems to be falling lower and lower on the job description of many pastors.
Pastors preach, lead, and care. Each pastor makes choices about how much time and spiritual vitality he or she will put into each of these tasks. Pastoral care is exhausting, time-consuming, and often goes unnoticed by most of the congregation—which may be why it’s so tempting for pastors to neglect it, as I once did.
When I entered ministry fifteen years ago, I struggled with pastoral care. It wasn’t a priority to me when I compared it to vision and leadership, outreach and preaching. Visiting hospitals and praying with people in need were chores, necessary but time-consuming obligations that I too often let slip. Like many pastors, I carried a burden of unmet expectations, feeling guilty for not serving better or caring more. At times I even resented being the one who was supposed to show up in a moment of need. I felt like I could never do enough—and so I did even less.
At times I wished I were a doctor who could prescribe medicine or a psychologist who could offer therapy. Instead I was just a pastor who might show up and pray.
Pastoral care is exhausting, time-consuming, and often goes unnoticed by most of the congregation—which may be why it’s so tempting for pastors to neglect it.
But God is gracious and knows how to shape those he calls into ministry. Eventually, the truth of James 5:16 began to sink into my heart: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Eventually, I began to understand the power of incarnational ministry as a reflection of Jesus showing up and loving us in the flesh.
As I was walking through a hospital parking lot late one afternoon, a church member whose relative lay dying inside, thanked me for coming to be with his
“I’m happy to,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” he replied.
He wasn’t being critical or dismissive. Instead he was acknowledging the difficulty and sorrow of the moment. No one was “happy” to be there.
Perhaps happy wasn’t the right word, but I felt grateful to be part of what that family endured. I was grateful to be their pastor during that time. I was grateful to be used by God to bring a measure of comfort to their sorrow. I was grateful, even joyful, that my prayers could be effective—if not to bring healing, then to invite the Spirit’s peace and strength.
For me, pastoral care has risen to a first-order responsibility. It has become a joyful, fruitful investment in God’s kingdom.
CEO’s, Activists, & Shepherds
There seem to be three models for being a pastor these days. There’s the CEO model, where the pastor runs the church like a corporate executive, managing staff, conducting meetings, setting agendas, casting vision, and building organizational structures. Then there’s the activist model, where the pastor puts energy into community development and social justice issues, preaching with a prophetic voice to the church as well as the community. Third, there’s the shepherding model, where the pastor prioritizes caring for people of the church, nurturing their souls and building relationships through personal, relational ministry.
The first two models seem to get lots of headlines and accolades these days. We celebrate big, multi-staff church pastors, where the CEO model fits best. We applaud pastors involved in social change and community engagement, where the activist model reigns.
Perhaps in certain ministry settings, the pastor should prioritize leading over caring or should invest more time in community engagement than shepherding. The CEO and activist models may fit some churches. But not most. Pastors need to be wise enough not to conform themselves to someone else’s calling or shape the churches they serve into the mold of another ministry.
Most North American churches—most Covenant churches—need pastors who shepherd and care well. Yes, we need pastors who lead and organize, reach out and evangelize, but we also need pastors who have the time, energy, and desire to sit with hurting souls and pray over troubled hearts.
Some suggest that to grow a church, the pastor should stop pastoring—that is, stop being personally involved in pastoral care. The theory is that as a church grows from small to mid-sized to large, the pastor must prioritize leadership and staff management. Care, then, becomes the responsibility of trained laypeople or perhaps another staff member.
Sadly, this church management theory leads some pastors to neglect their call to care well.
Every pastor needs to face this truth: each person in the church needs a pastor who shows up, who ministers with presence, who knows how to love freely and compassionately. Caring well isn’t easy and may not come naturally, but it remains at the heart of the pastoral calling and should bear at least equal weight with preaching and leading.
The Value of White Space
As I grow into my pastoral calling, I am learning some important lessons.
For instance, I am learning to put people ahead of programs. Churches are busy places with full calendars. There are meetings to attend and services to plan, staff to manage, and volunteers to recruit. Pastors can easily be consumed with developing and growing programs, but it’s the people touched by the programs who matter most.
I recently started a men’s Bible study at our church. About a dozen of us gather each Wednesday to do what you do at a Bible study, but what makes this event so special has little to do with my preparation or teaching style. It’s special because of the time we invest with one another, the stories we tell, the prayers we lift up, and the encouragement we share. It’s the people and how they are touched by God who matter most.
I am also learning that pastoral care requires a skill essential to good conversation—listening. Caring for people looks and feels a lot like conversation, and to be good at it, I need to let the conversation remain mostly one-sided. So I listen to stories and worries and needs and fears and anxieties and hopes and regrets. I listen so I can understand and so I can pray. I listen so that those in need can be heard, and perhaps so they can be assured that God hears them too.
During seminary, one of my mentors taught me about incarnational ministry, or the ministry of presence. It took me several years to accept his wisdom, but I now believe that face-to-face, in-person, take-on-flesh ministry not only reflects Jesus’s time on earth, but even allows me to be, for lack of a better phrase, a stand-in for God’s gracious, comforting presence. Twitter, Facebook, and email have their place in ministry, just like phone calls and handwritten correspondence, but nothing will ever match sitting beside a friend, looking into hurting eyes, and holding a hand in prayer.
Early in his ministry, a young pastor I know was complimented by a church member who said, “You’re always where you’re supposed to be.” The pastor took these words to mean that he was punctual at events and meetings. I wonder, though, if what the church member really meant had to do with incarnational ministry, with the importance of being where you’re supposed to be, being present with those in need.
Perhaps the hardest lesson I am learning about fulfilling my pastoral call has to do with white space. In college, I worked on the newspaper staff and spent many hours editing and laying out copy for print. It’s tempting to cram as much content as possible onto a page—to write longer articles, include more images. But I learned the value of white space, of leaving parts of the printed page blank to allow readers some breathing room and to focus their attention on what matters most.
To care well, pastors need such white space. We need uncommitted time and unhurried schedules. In the midst of unending responsibilities and unmet expectations, we need margin in our days and space to breathe under the weight of spiritual burdens. We need this for ourselves and for our families, and we need it for the people we serve.
Busyness and productivity don’t equal success in ministry, especially in the area of caring. A full calendar of commitments and appointments and programs does not prove a pastor’s worth. In fact, the opposite rings more true. Leaving white space in my schedule means I can answer when the phone rings. It means I have energy available when a need arises. It means I can spend time with a grieving family and give myself fully to leading a funeral service that wasn’t on anyone’s calendar a week ago. It means I won’t resent an unexpected visitor or keep my eye on the clock during a conversation.
I am a long way from becoming the shepherd Jesus desires for his church, but God’s calling is taking root and my heart is learning to love, which is why I am happy—no, blessed—to care for his people.