The Pastoral Ministry of Absence

September Creek (2018)

The Pastoral Ministry of Absence

There is a fine and thought-provoking article at CT by Stephen L. Woodworth called, “The Ministry of Absence.” In it, Pastor Woodworth uses personal anecdotes from his ministry along with insights from Henri Nouwen to encourage pastors to remember that, in the final analysis, people need God and not the minister, and that sometimes pastors should make that clear by not being as available as others might think we should be.

“Pastor, I need to meet with you.” For those of us in pastoral ministry, a week seldom passes when those words are not uttered to us. In the opinion of many, this is the central aspect of our calling: to be present when they need us. To be there when tragedy strikes, or conflict erupts, when illness descends, or heartbreak occurs. We meet with them in our offices, at hospitals, around dining room tables, or over coffee. We meet with them at all hours and on any given day. Especially for solo pastors who don’t have the luxury of sharing the pastoral load, even vacation time is interruptible as the pastor is forced to rush home in time to deal with a sudden emergency. This is an unquestionable part of the job description for many pastors, an aspect of our calling we agreed to when we first signed up for duty. But is it healthy? Or more importantly, is it biblical? I am concerned that these calls for our constant presence are often intimately connected with two inordinate needs that deserve honest questioning: our parishioners’ desire to be in the presence of a surrogate Jesus, and the desire for pastors to be one.

Woodworth quotes Nouwen from his book, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ: “We minsters may have become so available that there is too much presence and too little absence … too much of us and too little of God and his Spirit.”

In my mind I see Jesus sleeping in the boat, while the disciples fear for their lives in the storm. “Don’t you care that we perish?” they ask him. It’s the one question I have feared more than any other as a pastor. The last thing I ever want to portray to someone — especially to someone who is hurting or afraid — is that I don’t care. But is it possible that this fear of my own has led me at times to allow others to completely define what it means to care? Have I too often merely succumbed to certain expectations without asking God for guidance in the best way to truly “help” someone? And, for my part, is it possible that I have wanted to be the Messiah, the fixer, the “surrogate Jesus,” and that my knee-jerk availability has been more about boosting my own ego than about discerning what a person might really need from God in a given situation?

The classic narrative of our time about this is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.

In the context of the years following World War II and the Holocaust, The Chosen tells the intriguing story of the remarkably gifted Danny Saunders, son of an ultra-orthodox rabbi. Danny and his father only speak when studying the Talmud together. Otherwise, his father is strangely, completely silent toward his son. The story unfolds during an important time in the young man’s development, as he and his friend Reuven decide what they are going to do with the rest of their lives.

In the course of the novel, we come to learn why Reb Saunders decided to raise his son in this unusual and seemingly cruel way, withholding conversation and affection from him. And we discover that it was an ongoing act of fatherly love, designed to help the boy develop in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.

“Ministers do not fulfill their whole task when they witness only to God’s presence and do not tolerate the experience of his absence,” said Henri Nouwen.

Of course, Stephen Woodworth reminds us, figuring out how to best serve people is never simple and requires an immense amount of discernment. We can just as easily choose to practice absence out of bad motives and personal weakness. So he recommends that the focus always be on love — asking what will truly benefit the other person.

I constantly ask myself, What is best for this person? Will my presence distract or enhance from God’s place in this moment? Within this question lies the need for pastors to search their own hearts and motivations for going. Temptations to seek the approval of others or merely avoid conflict or disappointment are poor justifications for denying those we serve the necessary opportunity to experience the unfiltered ministry of Christ.

I am well aware of my own tendencies to be a fixer and a people-pleaser, which means I probably make myself too available at times. On the other hand, I know that I can be lazy, self-centered, and unwilling to get too involved if a situation might demand hard work or sacrifice. I can easily avoid necessary engagement.

Thanks to Stephen Woodworth for reminding me that the love I give and the way I give it must always be rooted in receiving the love and wisdom of God, who cares for me by both presence and absence.

• • •

For Further Reading

Divine Absence and the Light Inaccessible, by Fleming Rutledge

28 thoughts on “The Pastoral Ministry of Absence

  1. Yes.
    thank you for responding . . . . . we have something similar in my own Church which is a prohibition against participating in what we call ‘the occasions of sin’, where we know we will be tempted to sin AND we may not involve anyone else by leading them into an ‘occasion of sin’ where they might be tempted. Both are considered sinful as Our Lord Himself taught us to pray for deliverance from evil, so being ‘led into temptation’ is something much to be avoided.

    Glad I commented because I had misunderstood your words. Thanks for helping me out here.


  2. thank you, Stephen

    wow, there IS a lot of controversy since the days of the early Church as to who the author is (Church tradition has held that Paul was the ‘author’)

    maybe I’ll end up deciding that Hebrews was written by Priscilla who was a follower of St. Paul . . .

    in any case, Hebrews seems to agree theologically with the other teachings of the early Church and is an accepted part of the ‘deposit of faith’ handed down to us from the Apostles.

    Thank you for your link . . . . I will take a look into it, yes.


  3. I was thinking more along the lines of elders being responsible for the consequences of the guidance they provide to the members of the congregation. If that results in the member sinning, then the elders are at least partly to blame, and will be held accountable. This also fits in with what Jesus says about “whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble” (not an exact quote).


  4. I’m suddenly reaching the same conclusion reading Isaiah. Jesus’ coming, death and resurrection were specifically done to avoid a total global reset once again.

    I think I’m done with the pissed off God, too.


  5. Yep. Just show up.

    Another thing I’ve witnessed as I’ve seen friends get upset at various pastors for various reasons: Otentimes, all pastors need to do is just throw people a bone. Pastors don’t need to bend over backward to appease people, but they do need to throw them a bone. Too often I’ve seen pastors just not get that, and people have gotten offended and left, leaving me scratching my head and asking, “Why couldn’t he have just tossed them a nugget?”


  6. I’m not a theologian, but even my untrained eye (and ear) says No way Paul wrote Hebrews. Doesn’t sound like him, not even the same phrasing and themes.


  7. I had a Pastor once who, when a member of a church family died, the Pastor didn’t show at the visitation (not his gift he said). Then another member of another family died, and once again the Pastor didn’t show.

    Enough people were upset that they were able to gather enough signatures to have a non-confidence vote.

    I think the Pastor received 60% in favour of him staying, which meant that 40% of the congregation no longer wanted him there.

    He resigned.

    Earlier another Pastor had given me this wise counsel. “You have to show up. Even if just for 15 minutes. It doesn’t have to be the whole evening. But showing up says ‘The Pastor came. The Pastor cares.’ “.


  8. If he’s waiting for us to do better as a whole race of beings, he’s going to be waiting a long time. On the individual level, there have been some, maybe more than we know, who have responded to his first coming. How many does he demand before he shows himself? Is there a minimum number that he demands before he ushers in the new heavens and earth?


  9. To my thinking, the day of the Lord that Amos is talking about took place at Jesus’ crucifixion. I don’t anticipate that Jesus will be pissed off at his parousia, whatever else that parousia may entail. I’m finished with the pissed off God.


  10. Christiane, if you’re interested in a deep dive the Anchor Yale Bible commentary is really good but pricey. For a general article here is the Bible Gateway encyclopedia site.

    The main objections to Pauline authorship are that the book has a completely different prose style than Paul and the fact it’s audience is Hellenized Jewish converts to Christianity rather than gentiles. Of course the value of a book is the content rather than just the author.


  11. Having a Augistinian/Calvinistic perspective on the sovereignty of God…



  12. Somebody needs to hammer that Amos into the heads of all the Rapture Ready types.
    (All glib and joyful about their catered Superbowl suites on Armageddon’s 50-yard line…)


  13. Pellicano Solitudinus,

    that verse, Hebrews 13:17

    I’m don’t think it means ‘blind’ following. It may be that some interpret it that way, but I can’t see St. Paul over-riding a person’s conscience if a ‘leader’ asked them to do something that violated conscience.


  14. Some of the stuff in Isaiah has me thinking the same way. If some of those prophecies come true, who wants to live through them, just in order to rejoice?


  15. How do you square that with Hebrews 13:17?

    “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.“


  16. Pastoral absence? – the comforting sovereignty of God

    Having a Augistinian/Calvinistic perspective on the sovereignty of God, has enabled me to not be in terror if I did not at all times act correctly, respond perfectly or continue to provide care without failure.

    In judgment, I’m accountable for my sins; not for the sins of others. And as a believer, the blood sacrifice of Christ upon the cross covers my sins – so my judgment will be that of one who’s sins have already been paid for.

    I pray for my friends and family; that is my responsibility.


  17. Good Morning, Robert F.

    you wrote: “I wonder, along with the most skeptical nonbeliever, “If he exists, what, exactly, is God/Christ waiting for?”

    I was thinking it might be more like He is waiting for us to respond to His First Coming:
    the Incarnation/Nativity/Good News/Crucifixion/Resurrection . . . . I mean it’s only been 2 millenia and we don’t seem to be doing very well so far, so maybe a while longer , a while longer

    We have the Paraclete with us. We are not left alone.


  18. I often wonder that myself. But Amos 5 keeps haunting me in reply…

    Woe to you who long

    for the day of the Lord!

    Why do you long for the day of the Lord?

    That day will be darkness, not light.

    It will be as though a man fled from a lion

    only to meet a bear,

    as though he entered his house

    and rested his hand on the wall

    only to have a snake bite him.

    Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—

    pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?


  19. Regarding: Divine Absence and the Light Inaccessible: The widespread experience of the absence of God, in a world still so devastated by suffering and evil, despite the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, is the most difficult challenge to Christian faith for me. I wonder, along with the most skeptical nonbeliever, “If he exists, what, exactly, is God/Christ waiting for? How much more suffering does he require before he’s had his fill, and decides to finally show himself from behind his implacable silence?”


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