People still ask me why I became a minister after a long career as a university teacher and administrator.
Some of them graciously acknowledge that I was doing ministry even when my job title was “professor” or “dean.” Here’s the story of why I became a “different” kind of minister.
The year was 1979. I had just graduated from Baylor University and I was hanging around Waco, Texas, preparing for graduate school.
I was also starting my first “real” music minister position. I had been an “associate” or “assistant” church music minister, but I’d never had the entire responsibility for the music program of a church.
That summer, I took a new church music position and I was responsible for doing all the things a music minister was supposed to do.
I planned service music. I worked with the adult choir, the youth choir and the children’s choir. I went to staff meetings. I led music in three worship services each week.
There were two of us that summer on staff: the pastor and me. And I was also responsible to visit people in the hospital.
Guess what? We hadn’t talked about hospital visitation during my classes in the school of music. I’d been in hospitals. I wasn’t afraid of hospitals. But I had no clue about what ministers did when they visited people in the hospital.
My second week on staff the pastor went on vacation. Before he left, he handed me a list. It was the hospital list. It was mine and mine alone.
He was headed out the door and out of town on vacation. I was in charge of hospital visitation.
While the blood didn’t leave my extremities and I didn’t faint from shock, I was, at the very least, apprehensive. What do I do? What do I say? How do I behave?
On the list was an older gentleman who was going to have open-heart surgery, even a bigger deal back then than it is today – and it’s still a big deal!
I went to the hospital and sat with his wife in the surgery waiting room. I didn’t know what to do or what to say.
So I carefully said very little and just sat there with her. My strong fear of failure set in and in order to avoid saying the wrong thing, I said almost nothing.
After a while, I left her my phone number, prayed with her and went on my way, not having a clue if I had done anything helpful for her or not.
I left with a sense of gratitude for the privilege of being with this dear lady during her time of need, but not having a clue as to whether I had been truly faithful to my call as a minister.
Fast-forward 36 years and some seminary training later and here’s what I can tell you: Ministry did indeed occur in that waiting room back in 1979.
I believe Christ was present when I showed up, when I didn’t try to tell her that everything would be all right, when I didn’t try to spout some platitudes about her situation, when I didn’t try to “fix” her and her situation.
You see, when we show up as Christians, we bring the presence of Christ with us. But bringing the presence of Christ is not the same as trying to be Christ. We don’t get to do that.
Christ comes with us when we show up in ministry, but he does his work in his way and in his time. We’re only conduits for his presence.
When we try to give pat answers and make glib statements to make everything “all right,” we get in the way of the powerful and gracious presence of Christ.
Even the very best of our intentions is nothing compared to the genuine presence of Christ, speaking himself into someone’s pain, anxiety, fear and confusion.
To carry the presence of Christ with us is the most precious gift we have for each other as believers. And all we really have to do is show up.
Show up thoughtfully. Show up listening more than talking. Show up humbly. Show up honestly acknowledging that Christ has the answers, not us. When we try to do more than that, we get in the way.
May God lead all of us to powerfully show up and the grace to stay out of his way when we do so.
Charlie Fuller is minister for congregational life at Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas. A version of this article first appeared on the Second Baptist blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @charliefuller15.