Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pastors Don't Do Much

Obviously, that’s mostly meant to be a provocative title… of course pastors do all sorts of things. Whether they’re writing sermons, attending church council meetings, visiting the sick or cleaning up the bathroom after a long hard day of Vacation Bible School, pastors are busy with a nearly endless list of tasks on a daily basis. As someone who hopes to be one of those pastors not too many years from now, the more I think about it though, in their best moments at least, pastors don’t do much.

How have I come to such a strange notion? Over the last five weeks I’ve been participating in a Clinical Pastoral Education program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. It’s been an absolutely amazing experience. On average, half of my day is taken up by various lectures and group discussions, with the other half devoted to meeting with patients. While I’m learning so much about myself and exploring the essential skills and theory for providing pastoral care, my greatest learning so far has been, once again, that at their best, those providing pastoral care don’t do much. I’ve found in fact that I spend a great deal of my time training myself to say less, to listen more, and simply to be a non-anxious presence for the patients I’m ministering to. Despite my human tendency to want to control a conversation, to always say the right thing at the right time, or to simply to help folks, most of my best patient visits have been when I haven’t said much of anything at all.

I spent some time yesterday thinking back to the times I myself experienced helpful pastoral care throughout my life, and I once again I realized, that in a way, those caring for me didn’t do that much… yet it still meant the world to me. One example is when I was in hospital nearly three years ago while recovering from surgery to remove my thyroid. I was still waiting to hear back whether my thyroid had been cancerous and was also worried about my mother who had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. I hadn’t formally met the new pastor of my hometown congregation yet, but when he saw my name in the hospital registry he came in to speak with me. The conversation wasn’t all that long, and I did most of the talking, but in many ways that was the day I started moving towards becoming a pastor myself.

This whole phenomenon begs the question, how can doing so little mean so much to a patient, or anyone we talk to for that matter? In answering that question, one ends up arriving at the powerful mystery of how the Spirit is constantly working through all us, whether it’s with a chaplain listening to a patient or a loving parent listening to her or his distressed child. A few years from now when I’m horribly stressed out over trying to find a caterer for my congregation’s silent auction or making sure the annual Rally Day is well attended, hopefully I can look back on CPE and remember that when pastors are at their best, they don’t do much.


  1. Good insights, Dustin. It reminds me of Eugene Peterson's book, _The Unnecessary Pastor_. Sometimes we get so caught up in all the programs and projects we forget that simply being with people in God's presence is one of the most valuable things we can do. Peterson tells a story about hearing an older, successful pastor (I think Peterson was still in seminary), answer, "I run a church," when he was asked about his job. Peterson wrote that the answer seemed very wrong to him. Being a pastor is not about running a church machine. It's about helping people connect with Christ.
    What you wrote accords with my experience, too. Even on a purely human level, listening -- truly listening to someone with full attention and without judgment -- is a gift that many people long to receive.

  2. Tim-

    Thanks so much for your comment, and I'll have to be sure to check out that book. Instead of running a church machine (as you aptly put it) it seems like a major part of a pastors job is listening, and cultivating a community where people listen to each other as well. Thanks again for checking the post out.

    God's peace,