By Cole Hartin
Barring the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic, if you are not visiting folks in your congregation, then you are probably not their pastor.
This was a difficult truth for me to learn. I grew up attending a large congregation that had many leaders on staff, most of them talented preachers, administrators, evangelists, and worship leaders. Few of them, however, were pastors.
I am finishing up my curacy in the next few months, and as I reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned, this is one of the significant ones: I cannot be a pastor unless I know the people whose souls are in my cure, and I cannot know their souls until I’ve spent time with them, and I can’t spend time with them unless I make a point to meet them in their homes, in their workplaces, in cafes, or in the park.
This obviously has been a challenge for me over the past year, as it has for many of us, but now as the restrictions are loosening and relative safety is on the horizon, I need to return to my proper work.
Eugene Peterson has been a sage guide for me on this point. The recent release of a number of letters he wrote to his son while he was starting out in ministry, Letters to a Young Pastor: Timothy Conversations Between Father and Son is full of wisdom. Here is one instance:
One of the great elements of distinction in the pastoral office is that it is personal. Everything — administration, teaching, healing, counsel — is represented in a named person who people can listen to and touch, speak the pastor’s name and expect the pastor to speak their name. But when this personal dimension is then reduced to merely functional and emotional areas, the implicit authority of the office is diminished greatly.
When priests cease to know the names of their parishioners, and to have their own name spoken by the folks they serve, something vital is lost.
One the goals I had when I started working in church ministry, first as a lay person, and then when I was ordained, was that I would lead a thriving and vital organization. What I thought a church should be was more a reflection of my own desires and ambitions than of anything substantive. I see now that I missed out on the vocation God was calling me to, just as much as I missed out on the kind of ministry our Lord models for us.
You see, throughout the gospels Jesus is meeting with people. He touches individuals who are sick, he meets with tax collectors and sinners, he speaks to those whose demons have driven everyone else away. In John 1, when Jesus was calling his disciples, he noticed Nathanael while he was studying, he saw him, and he called him and his brother Philip to follow him. Jesus knew their names, as he knew the names of his other disciples. It’s true that the crowds sometimes overwhelmed Jesus, but we see him consistently referring to his friends by name.
He meets them where they are, hearing their stories, rebuking them when necessary.
And when Jesus did preach to crowds, the way of being he modelled with people was slow, deliberate, and if it picked up too much speed, he retreated to the mountains to pray.
I am most comfortable in my study, sitting behind my books, reading and thinking and writing. But, with some gentle prodding by one of my mentors, Canon David Barrett, I made it a goal to visit each family on our parish list in the first year of my curacy. This worked out, more or less, though some families declined my invitation. Many of these visits were awkward, as I padded across dusty pink carpets to look at old family photos, or when I struggled to drum up conversation with silent-type men over strong black coffee.
Despite all of this, I made an effort to be present in the name of Christ, to listen to stories of people who I thought I understood and knew well. Sometimes it turned out that I did a fair job when I had sized up their character. More often than not, I was surprised and encouraged by the root systems of faith that are so difficult to see on the surface. I was impressed and left amazed at the quiet faithfulness that sustained lives of discipleship over years and decades.
That God is at work in quiet ways in the lives of octogenarians, and that he is stalking beside young parents in their twenties — these are wonderful discoveries. They are reminders that the work of the priest or pastor is not to level-up parish programs or to spearhead capital campaigns (however vital these initiatives remain), but to tend souls whom God loves. This is a trust given by God, whom we serve first and ultimately. Our role is to pray, to preach the Gospel, and to be physically in the presence of those whom God has entrusted to us. In other words, our goal is to live into Jesus’s call to Peter, to “feed my sheep” and “tend my lambs” (John 21:15,16). This happens in our worship each week, but it also happens late at night in the hospital or on a Thursday afternoon with tea and biscuits.
The job description for each parish priest includes its own peculiarities. And generally speaking, we all still write emails, make schedules, run errands, and manage people, but this is not the heart of what we do. When anything else becomes the center — other than worship focused on the triune God and service centred on individuals — we run the risk of dehumanizing ministry. I was struck by a conversation between megachurch leader Carey Nieuwhof and pastor-author Gordon MacDonald, the latter now in his eighties. After reflecting on decades in ministry, MacDonald mused that if he were to start out in ministry again, he would become an Anglican priest or a Quaker minister. He then noted that he believes pastors need to be content with smaller congregations. He spoke with grief over the way he pastored a church of hundreds of people, and at the end of the service shook their hands without knowing a single person’s name.
Pastoral work requires us to be attentive to God. But we also need to be attentive to others. Not in a general sense, but in a particular sense, the sense that we find when we visit them in their homes.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.