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.
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For Further Reading
Divine Absence and the Light Inaccessible, by Fleming Rutledge