Have you got a minute?

“Pastor, have you got a minute?” Seasoned pastors know that the question never refers to a single minute. Sometimes it is the opening line in a conversation that can take hours - or an announcement that can mean a major shift in priorities and plans. It is all part of what we do. I have colleagues who have signs that say, “The interruption is my job,” or similar phrases to remind them that when you are in the business of serving people, you need to maintain a flexible attitude toward your management of time. I’ve learned to listen carefully to the next sentence after we’ve established that I am listening. There have been many.

“You won’t believe this, but . . .”
“I’ve got terrible news . . .”
“It’s cancer . . .”
“There’s this girl . . .”
“I always thought we had a good marriage, but . . .”
“I don’t know why I was the last to find out . . .”
“We went to the doctor. . .”
“I’m going to need to resign from my committee . . .”
“I’ve got a job offer in . . .”

These essential conversations about the lives of the people I serve are not always bad news. Big news can be good news. Life-changing news can be life-giving news. People share many different parts of their lives with their pastor.

It can often require that I dig deep for extra energy. I put a lot of myself into leading worship. I work hard on preparation and I try to be at a high energy level for the process. And it isn’t unusual for me to feel very tired after a worship service. Despite the wishes of many in my congregation, I try to avoid meetings right after worship. I know that they are convenient for those who attend church, but it is a challenge for me to be fully present and engaged after such a large outpouring of energy. I prefer to sit quietly, take a break, or engage in something less energetic for a little while.

It is at that point of low energy, however, when I’ve learned that I need to find reserves to respond to the people I serve. Last week was no different. Holy Week is very busy for me and I am usually quite tired after all of the extra services and activities. But there wee multiple important conversations that followed the special services. People who are undergoing major changes in their lives often find the services of Holy Week to be deeply meaningful and their worship experiences stir deep emotions within them and inspire the need for some follow-up. When I pause to think, it makes sense.

At the moment, I have to take a deep breath and will my brain to focus.

From experience, however, I have learned that serving people has as many life-giving moments as the moments that drain energy. I gain energy from talking about important topics with people. I am served by serving others. It is not uncommon for an interruption to make my day.

I get to be present at some pretty amazing points in other people’s lives. We’ve shared tears at the news of a devastating medical diagnosis, or a sudden and tragic loss of a loved one. We’ve been shocked by the behavior of others. We’ve tried to pick up the pieces after receiving life-shattering news. But I’ve also been among the first to be informed of a new love, or a longed-for pregnancy, or a well-deserved honor.

I served two intern years as a pastoral counselor in a health care center. At the time, I felt strongly called to health care ministry. I was in the process of receiving my full credentials as a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. My supervisor at the time suggested that I take a few years to gain some experience in a local parish as part of my preparation for specialized ministry. He knew, through his own wisdom and experience, how the general work of the parish can help broaden the perspective of a pastor and teach about how complex and wonderful the lives of people really are. My plan was to serve three or four years in the parish before returning to a health care position. It has now been 40 years since that conversation. Either it has taken me 40 years to gain 3 or 4 years of experience, or my place really has been in the parish not in specialized ministry. I enjoy a small amount of volunteer chaplain work on the side, but I know my life’s work is in the life of the congregation.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed a lot of change. There was a time when the Conference had a support structure for local church pastors. Conference ministers served as pastors to the pastors. There were colleagues and mentors available to give help when difficult problems arose. The national setting of the church was a source of programs for local churches. The world isn’t that way any more. Conference and national settings of the church are engaged in a struggle for survival. There have been so many staff cuts and consolidations and programs dropped that local church pastors frequently feel that we are out here by ourselves and need to develop our own sources of resources and support. Small and isolated congregations can no longer afford full time pastoral leadership. This means that the jobs that are available for pastors are really challenging and complex congregations. Part of my success as a pastor stems from the small congregations where we began our career. The jobs were small enough that we could stay on top of them and still have room for additional studies and starting a family. These days those congregations don’t have the ability to offer a full-time salary and benefits such as housing and health insurance.

I’ve been very fortunate in the timing of my active working career. I am grateful that it has turned out the way that it has. I am even more grateful to the people whose life stories are shared with me.

“Pastor, have you got a minute?”

Fortunately I have a minute and more . . .

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!