I’m sitting in a motel room in Decatur, Ga., some 180 miles from my home in Fitzgerald, Ga., as I write this.
I’m here because yesterday morning someone in our church family had surgery in Macon (more or less halfway between Fitzgerald and Atlanta) and someone else had surgery in Atlanta and either today or tomorrow someone else who is in the hospital in Atlanta will be having surgery.
I made the same run last Friday so by the time I get home tonight I will on those two pastoral sojourns have spent three days and will have travelled, not counting the slow and torturous miles getting from one place to another in the Atlanta area, around 720 miles in order to visit and to pray with those hospitalized folks and their families.
Such travelling is not unusual for me in order to visit hospitalized folks. Countless other pastors could tell the same story.
There are people, though, who would suggest – and even insist – that pastors who spend so much of their time conducting such visitation are using their time unwisely and are not establishing the proper priorities in their work.
I have seen the question posed in more than one forum lately: Do pastors spend too much of their time visiting sick folks rather than spending their time preparing for their preaching ministry and forming and forwarding a vision for the direction of their churches? Where did the expectation ever arise, some folks wonder, that the pastor would try to be present to pray with any member of the church who is having surgery or who is hospitalized?
After all, the apostles led the early church to appoint the seven to tend to the needs of the people in the church so that the apostles could devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and to prayer, didn’t they?
Now, I am more than willing to admit to the frustration that comes with trying to properly prioritize the work of the pastor. However, it seems to me that pastors these days are getting the idea somewhere that their main job is to “cast the vision” and to preach the Word and that a lesser emphasis can and should be given to pastoral visitation.
And it is true that our job is to preach the Word – we are preachers, after all – and to lead our congregations to find and to carry out God’s vision for us – we are leaders, after all.
But I cannot and I will not give up my conviction that my pastoral care role is absolutely vital to the health of the church and to the health of my ministry.
To me, it all goes back to the primary biblical metaphor for the pastor – the shepherd. Indeed, the word “pastor” literally means “shepherd.” The main function of a shepherd is to tend to the needs of the sheep by promoting their good and healing their hurts.
Karl Barth is credited with the assertion that theologians should do their work with their Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other; it is also the case that pastors (who are theologians, too) should do their work with the Word of God in their hearts and the people of their flock in their hearts, too. So far as I can tell, the only way to have that happen is to be as directly involved in their lives as possible, especially in times of crisis.
Pastors are shepherds. As shepherds, we represent the God who is the Great Shepherd and the Savior who is the Good Shepherd. We hardly need reminding that shepherds lay down their lives for their sheep. Disciplined, loving, gracious pastoral care is a part of such laying down of our lives.
The pastor of my growing up years was Rev. Bill Coleman – “Preacher Bill” to everybody. Preacher Bill did not have a high school diploma, much less a seminary degree. He preached mail-order sermons. But he was a caring and loving pastor who tended as well as he could to the hurts of his flock.
When I announced my call to preach, my good father said to me, “Son, there’s one thing you can learn from Preacher Bill: people will tolerate fair preaching if you’re a good pastor, but they won’t appreciate even great preaching if you’re a lousy pastor.”
I’m not sure that’s true of everybody everywhere, but I committed then to trying my best, with the Lord’s help, to be an effective shepherd to my hurting sheep.
It is not the path to glory.
Then again, maybe it is.
All I know is that over the past few days in the course of my travels I have prayed with, among others, a 14-month-old child having a cochlear implant in an effort to give him hearing, with a 50-something man whose melanoma has led to tumors in his brain and his lungs, and with a 20-something woman whose breast cancer has resulted in her having a mastectomy.
In such moments, I am most fully a pastor.
Michael Ruffin is curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.