I will begin this post with a disclaimer: the story I am about to tell is a pastoral story. That means that I have used my pastoral privilege to alter details to protect the identity of anyone who might be involved and of course, to make the story fit my point better. We pastors like nothing better than a story that perfectly fits our point and it is often easier to tweak the story than the point.
Anyway, the story. I am almost always one of the first to arrive for worship. I like the time it gives me to set up my stuff on the pulpit and refocus on the coming worship. My nervousness level generally requires that I re-visit the pulpit several times to make sure that things are still set up properly–who knows when some evil gremlin will turn the hymnbook to the wrong page.
So, I start for the pulpit to check the hymnbook and tablet yet again. But now, there are people present so I stop and talk. I hear about the frustration of getting a driveway cleared (we had heavy snow before the worship; I hear about the sick grandchild in another province; I hear about the depression someone is struggling with; I hear about the anniversary trip coming up soon. Eventually, I make it to the pulpit and discover that the hymnbook and tablet are just as I left them. I check my watch and discover that we have 2 minutes before we are supposed to start, just enough time to get to the back and pray with the choir before worship begins.
But the trip to the back of the sanctuary, which should take 15 seconds (20 on bad knee days) gets interrupted as I hear about the upcoming surgery and how comfortable someone feels in our worship and how someone else has to be away and will miss Bible study next week. Eventually, I make it to the back for prayer–it has be rushed because it is already past time to start–but one of the choir members has to finish telling his story and another has to remind us that she won’t be with us next week.
Now, as I mentioned, this has never happened–but it happens almost every week. People have stuff they need to share–and they want to share it with me. They want to share it with me not because I am such a great person or because they recognize that I am too polite to ignore them. They want to share this stuff with me because I am the pastor. Sharing it with me helps them be aware that God is concerned with their concerns. When I listen to them, they feel that God has been listening to them.
Many of us in ministry struggle with this reality. We forget, I think, just how important it is to many people to receive this pastoral care. It is easy for me to focus on the coming worship and try to make sure that everything is ready so I can lead worship without the anxiety that comes from not checking the pulpit 42.5 times. It is sometimes tempting to think that my task of helping the church develop a newer and bigger vision is more important than listening to someone talk about some fear or triumph or detail of life. I am tempted to think that my study of the derivation of the key words in the text for Sunday’s sermon is a more important focus for my energy than listening (for the 10th time) to the story of how a grandchild who had problems at birth is now walking and talking.
But the truth I have learned is that I am a pastor–and people in the congregation need their pastor to hear them and listen to them and care for them. Feeding the sheep is not an option for when I have some extra time–feeding the sheep is the essential priority of my calling. When I don’t give this pastoral care the priority it deserves, I get reminders of how important it is. One reminder is how long it takes to get to the pulpit.
If I ignore the reminders and continue to neglect the feeding of the flock I have been called to, the whole congregation will suffer–and anything else that I think is important will fall apart.
Trips to the pulpit such as I described here are a reminder to me of what is really important.
May the peace of God be with you.