Two recent articles stimulated my thinking about pastoral care: Bert Witvoet’s editorial about flesh-and-blood pastors (August 22 issue of CC) and a feature piece in Christianity Today on the first anniversary of the Charleston Massacre (May 20, 2016). For years, the mainline churches in North America have discussed declining membership (sometimes noted with unholy glee by other Christian groups). Churches of all stripes do regular navel-gazing as they try to figure out new models of ministry: small groups, cell groups, local or foreign mission emphases, collaborative leadership and so on.
“What will work for us?”
“Shall we set goals for increasing membership or does this sort of activity somehow limit God’s Spirit?”
“Should we close this congregation, merge, or restart this church?”
And then this paragraph from Christianity Today about the church in Charleston: “Interim pastor Norvell Goff was praised for reopening the church the Sunday after the shooting. Worshiping, preached Goff, ‘sends a message to every demon on earth and in heaven: No weapon formed against us shall prosper.’ Still, a number of victims’ family members say there were no calls, meals or pastoral visits in that season of grief” [emphasis mine].
This shocked but didn’t totally surprise me. Easier to preach about than to sit with.
The raw materials
To address these questions, I propose the solution offered by my beloved Uncle August Olm (Uncle Augie) who had a unique way of making soup, or stew – it was never clear which was which. Uncle Augie was a bachelor, a confirmed union man who was out on strike for at least eight years at least when relations with the Kohler Company (plumbing fixtures, motors, generators) became strained to the breaking point.
No income? Uncle Augie simply returned to his home in Franklin, Wisconsin, moved into a garage/barn that became his house, grew vegetables (he was a superb gardener), sat for hours at Meggar’s tavern, and delighted nearby college students with his encyclopedic knowledge of local events, WWI and past weather information; the students were glad to buy him a beer in exchange for help with their local history research projects.
No Jack Sprat, Uncle Augie ate the fat and rejected the lean. Grease joined tobacco juice (he used Copenhagen, I think) on his chin. He liked to give a big kiss (a schmutzer) to his nieces and nephews and their fiancés, which was a sort of test of acceptance into the Gesch clan. When we visited Uncle Augie he always offered the adults a beer and the youngsters some soda-pop. Us kids always asked for our pop in the bottle or can, because we had seen the water marks and grease on the glassware.
At all costs, we avoided eating his stew, his soup – whatever it was. There was always a big pot on the stove. It must have started sometime with raw materials: beef, potatoes, carrots, etc. But we always met this mash in media res (in process). Uncle Augie would dip into the pot, look at what he got and then add some replacement. Not enough meat? Throw in some stew meat. Low on potatoes or veggies? Simple. Get something from the garden or root cellar and chuck it in to simmer away.
I propose we think about pastoring in our churches using ingredients from the list below.
You will have to decide which things to include, which to reject, when to season them with grace, and when to grimace. The stew is yours to construct.
Ingredients for a Pastoral Stew
A good pastor should be a flesh-and-blood pastor. He must be there where you are.
I know of a minister who announces this: “My regular office hours are on Tuesdays from 9:00-3:00. Please call if you would like an appointment on another day.”
I know of a minister who kept the church door and her office open from before breakfast until about 5:00 p.m. each day with a little sign posted on the door: “Gone to get the mail” or “in a meeting until 3:00” or “doing a visit until 11:00 a.m.”
A long-time elder told me, “I met with Rev. B. every other week and prayed with him, but he never really understood what it meant to be a shepherd. His sermons were good, but he just didn’t get pastoral care. He’s gone now.”
A resident from a retirement home (semi-independent living) told me excitedly: “Pastor L. came to visit me.” I had thought the pastor was Rev. H, and she must have read my mind: “Oh; he’s gone. We have a new interim pastor and he came to our building to visit me.”
A bishop carrying a shepherd’s crook (crozier) told a parishioner who questioned a recent ruling, “Young man, you are well-advised to attend a different church.”
A young pastor described one of his pastoral visits this way: “I rode along with Mr. Y. on the logging truck yesterday.”
An old pastor who didn’t much like athletics showed up at every home basketball game to support his church teen-agers.
A minister from another denomination visited a hospitalized person six times in seven days when she was notified of the situation.
An elder from a very strict doctrine-oriented church always looks for young people standing at the far end of the church parking lot and joins them. When they try to quickly hide their cigarettes, he says, “Hey, I like smokers.”
Perhaps your pastoral stew will use some of these ingredients and reject others. I hope your stew-pot will contain something besides water. When I consider how to be a deacon, or minister/pastor, or elder, or how to fulfill the common “general office of believers” I will need a hearty stew of some sort. When I try to figure out how to minister to LGBTQ members (as the Christian Reformed, United, Anglican, Presbyterian and other groups say they are trying), I need something besides water in my stew. When I know about people suffering from chronic illness, old age or insecurities, ignoring the situation is not an option, nor is a thin gruel. I need a hearty stew.
Oh . . . in case you were wondering, Uncle Augie always had time for everybody. He took us fishing, played cards with us, sang barbershop quartet music and played his accordion (always in the key of C major, no matter how the song was written). He was, in my opinion, really an august person who served others as best he knew how.
You just read something for free.
But it didn’t appear out of thin air. Writers, editors and designers at Christian Courier worked behind the scenes to bring hope-filled, faith-based journalism to you.
As an independent publication, we simply cannot produce award-winning, Christ-centred material without support from readers like you. And we are truly grateful for any amount you can give!
CC is a registered charity, which is good news for you! Every contribution ($10+) is tax-deductible.