Visits through the Distance: Pastoral Presence by BJ Funk
Raise your hand if you are a pastor who inwardly rejoiced when hospitals closed their doors for pastoral visits because of Covid-19. If only a fleeting moment, did you whisper a sigh of relief because Covid regulations meant you did not have to (a) make an already long day even longer with an afternoon stop by the hospital before heading home, (b) make small talk with a sick patient you hardly knew, or (c) enter a life or death situation where the family counted on you to say words of comfort? Maybe the coronavirus took away the “have to” of hospital visits, freed you from a late day of work, and released you from any perceived pressure to enter the room of a very sick patient and pray “the right words” for the family.
Raise your other hand if you inwardly rejoiced because finally you were given permission not to enter nursing homes. Covid stopped that, too. And hold up a foot if you relaxed, free from having to visit in anyone’s home. Quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing became your favorite vocabulary words as you stayed more in your office, inwardly loving the extra time to study or write your next sermon. And what about that particularly annoying church member who wants visits every day, often, and most of the time? Now you have a medical excuse. Just put on your mask, hold up a bottle of hand sanitizer, and tell her, “it’s for your own good.”
And actually, it is. It’s for your own good, too. If we listen to anything at all on the news, we recognize that Covid-19 is not something for you to ignore. It promises not to ignore you.
However, before we ever heard of this pandemic, there were pastors who felt the call to preach but not the call to reach. Visiting members and guests can be a treacherous journey outside of one’s comfort zone, into a new and frightening place. It can feel so intimidating that you want to run, so scary that you question your calling. After all, God does not give you multiple choice questions of what you would like to do or not do in ministry. For most pastors, there is a divine and very real pull from God, so strong that it cannot be ignored. It’s a call to preach.
Your part is a simple yes or no.
God sends no divine list with that divine calling. He does not ask if you are shy or bold, happy or melancholy, a “people person” or not. God doesn’t ask if you have counseling skills, if you know how to keep a confidence, or if you know how to laugh and cry with your sheep. God doesn’t ask if you would like to do a funeral. You will do a funeral. God doesn’t ask if you can speak before a congregation. You will speak before your congregation. He doesn’t ask if you can handle late nights or early mornings. All of this is tucked inside of those initial words calling you to preach the Gospel.
I have my own reasons to be grateful that I don’t have to go into hospitals or nursing homes right now. Though I’m not the pastor who does not want to visit, I am secretly thankful for permission to stay out of the heat: the burning-South-Georgia- summer-heat that falls all over me, ironing itself to my clothes and burrowing into my skin, pulling the life out of me. Covid saves me from a hot summer car that I would drive to my hot summer pastoral visit. (You’re the first person I’ve told, so please don’t tell.)
Actually, if we are truthful, there has been a sliding away of pastoral visits in recent years. I don’t know exactly when it started, but I do remember two conversations I had a few years ago with two elderly women. Both women’s comments moved into my heart and left a memory that gave me impetus to grow in my own resolve about visiting.
The first woman told me that years ago her pastor went out visiting church members’ places of business when their doors opened in the morning. She was a hairdresser, and she looked forward to the many days her pastor stopped by just to say hello and offer a prayer before he went to the next member’s workplace. I was impressed, and she was too. The pastoral visit at a business or in a home was expected and welcomed. I felt a little tug at my heart when I recognized pastors used to make in-person visits a priority. What changed?
But it was the second lady’s question that has stayed with me, sitting down in my heart and refusing to budge. I come back over and over to what she asked me, and if my heart could shed tears, I would keep a puddle in my heart’s lining. She was in my denomination but not in my church. In her 70’s, she sought me out at a store, and asked, “BJ, are they teaching at seminary that the pastor does not have to visit the older members?”
I was floored. She was kind, but serious. Had things gotten so bad in her church that she supposed not visiting was actually on a syllabus and would be covered in class?
She added, “We are the ones who give the most money. Many of us know about tithing, whereas many of the younger members don’t. Yet, we are the ones who are neglected.” There was no self-pity or anger in her voice. She was serious and very concerned. The look in her eyes and the sincerity of her question went home with me that day. I ate her words at supper. Every now and then, they appear on my dinner plate again, and I question if I am part of giving this wrong impression to our older adult members.
God have mercy.
Who will stand up for those who feel unloved and uncared for in our churches? That would be you, the one called to preach and proclaim the message of Christianity.
However, this is nothing new. Ignoring certain groups goes as far back as the beginning of the church in Acts. The Grecian Jews complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Every human being feels unnoticed and left out at times. I love my John Wesley Study Bible notation for John 4: “Somewhere in the courts of the outcasts, Jesus is always waiting.”
When pandemic closings caused pastors to look for innovative ways to stay in touch, we were offered many. You, like me, are now likely able to Zoom, FaceTime, Facebook Live, and You Tube. I’ve learned how to tune in to an online Sunday School class and to teach an online Bible study. I must admit – I feel a little smug standing before our congregation and listing the several ways they can have church now – virtual church, of course. (I wish just one person from Generation X, Y or Z would hand me a gold star for my efforts or even better, send someone to me to model these new technological endeavors.)
But as good as technology can be, there is nothing that takes the place of one on one, eyeball to eyeball, ear to heart listening when someone is hurting, lonely, sick or facing isolation that can lead to panic and depression. Pick up the phone. Sit down to write a note of love and appreciation.
Our congregants are lonely for their church family. They are frightened over news reports. They long for a pastor to reach out with warmth and love over the phone or through email, text or regular mail. Be that pastor who feels the loneliness in your congregation. Be the pastor who reaches out to help those who are missing church.
It’s a great time to educate your sheep that church never was a building, anyway. Church is made up of warm souls coming together to know more about a very warm, very alive and very loving Christ who wants to sit by your side and give you a great big hug. Not a virtual hug. A real one that sends waves of peace into your heart.
The Holy Spirit also has something to say during this pandemic. God wants to remind you of his dynamic power in the first few verses in the book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2, NIV)
That actually describes our current situation. There is an emptiness that causes divisions and strife in this earth. There is darkness due to what we have done to God’s beautiful creation and darkness inside of us due to our questions and fears with this pandemic. Yet, the Spirit is still hovering over you, and God says: “Let there be light…”
There will be an end to this current dilemma. You will find the light. Get still and sense the Spirit hovering.
Lord, hear our prayer.