I texted a woman in our church about her dad’s surgery a few days ago. He had undergone a serious heart by-pass procedure. “How did it go?” said my iMessage. A few minutes later I could see that she had ‘read’ the text (a feature from Apple). But I didn’t get any response in return.
For an hour.
Then I got a text back: “Fine. Thanks.”
I shot back quickly this wonderful pastoral phrase, “Great. Glad to hear it.”
I saw that she read it…and was preparing a response. (iMessage shows a glowing, pulsating ellipsis when the other person is tapping out a text.) I waited to receive her text.
It never came. It was almost as if she started typing…and then came to the conclusion, “Why bother…” and stopped. And went to her dad’s beside.
I texted back something inane like, ‘Talk later’…and got on with my day; another pastoral encounter dispatched efficiently.
Is that really the pastoral ministry? Is that practicing the ‘care of souls’ or in some traditions, ‘the cure of soul’? I think not. So much of the way modern, electrified, church leaders and ministers do their work has become too efficient. Is it effective? It is even real? Rather than a pastoral touch that spiritual leaders can have on the people God, do we minister a ‘glancing blow’ instead?
Here are three old-school ideas get back to the spiritual ‘care of souls’ that drew so many of us into the ministry; three ways to remind ourselves and others that we are in the ministry to touch people not to handle them.
1. Make a Pastoral Visit. Drop by the home of a member for a visit. Have no particular purpose other than to see how everyone is doing. No favors. No agenda. No recruiting for program. Stop to listen and know the people.
In the world we live in, of course, you can’t just stop by unannounced. You have to make an appointment. And the proof that such a visit is rare will be when you actually try to schedule the visit. “What do you want?” they will ask. You’ll promise that you just want to stop by to visit. They will fuddle for dates and times…but if you can make it work, it will be wonderful.
You will find out who your people are! Where they live…and what they read (peek at the bookshelves). You will pet their dog and drink their coffee or sip their water. And you don’t have to stay long. They might prefer you don’t! But you will bring your pastoral heart to the lives of people. The next time you visit that home may be because someone in it has died, or some child in it has run away. But don’t let the bad occasions for that visit be the first time you cross the threshold of the door. Make the visit. Know your people.
2. Write a snail-mail note…by hand. This is an old gesture that is drenched with meaning. It is not a text or an email; it is not a printed page off a printer. But a note, by hand, from your desk. It could be a thank-you note for the good work their child did in for the youth. It could be a note of congratulations for the mom’s new job which you heard about from someone. It might be a note thanking them for a special financial gift they gave last week. It might be a note to let them know that you prayed for them that morning.
But it should written by hand. By hand. Penmanship is an old word and an older art that is lost to the frantic clicking of keyboards today. People will read and delete an email. They will read and toss a printed letter. But few people will discard a hand-written note. After all, our faith got started with hand-written letters.
And hand-address the envelope too. They’ll be sure to open it. You know this to be true from your own life: when you get your daily mail from the mailbox on the street or the apartment lobby, it is the rare hand-address envelope gets set aside from everything else and opened first. And kept.
3. Pray every time you say you will. How often have we said to a person we meet for coffee or at the gym, “Okay, then. Listen…I”ll be praying for you…” and we never do. “Hey, I’ll keep you in my prayers…” and we forget about it just as soon as we turn away. The promise to pray has become as casual and trite as the old southern cliche, ‘Bless your heart.’ It means nothing.
So if you are inclined to say, “I’ll pray about it…”, stop right then and pray. I do this every now and then at the coffee shop where I meet with many of our members. I’ll say to them, “Thank for the time…and I want you to know that I will be praying about our conversation.” They say, politely, “Well, thank you.” And then I’ll say, “Let’s pray now…do you mind?” And they will NEVER say no. So then, if appropriate, I will take their hand and say a quick prayer of blessing or intercession or thanksgiving. Whatever the occasion might call for. Not long and flowing…but short and sweet and pastorally to the point.
It is a little weird, I am sure. But it is certainly a near-sacramental act in a public place. It signals to the other person that clergy are ministers who carry around in us a reality that is true and also concurrent with the reality we all see. We represent an alternative worldview within the world we view.
So be true to your promise to pray. When you say you will…pray.
I am certain their many other ways we can reclaim the art of the ‘care of souls’. But beware of the devices and laptop, printers, mail-merges, and smartphones that make us so efficient; they may be making us far less effective. And they might stealing our pastoral ministry right from under our screen-illumined nose.