Unscheduled conversations

Sometimes it begins with the question, “Can we talk?” Sometimes it is more direct: “We need to talk.” Sometimes it is just an inquiry, “Do you think you might have some time?” There are lots of ways that the conversations begin. What we know, from experience, is that these conversations are important and that we need to make time to listen and to talk, even if we are busy with other tasks. There have been a lot of these conversations in the past few weeks as we return from sabbatical. People have been waiting for our return and need to talk.

Occasionally one of these conversations will take place over the phone. When it does, we know that we are probably in for 45 minutes or an hour. When possible, we try to arrange for face-to-face meetings. Increasingly, we find ourselves meeting people for lunch or coffee.

Such conversations have always been part of the pastoral ministry. In generations past, most of these took place either in the church office or in the homes of people who belong to the church, but as the years go by, we discover that more and more of these conversations take place outside of the church or someone’s home.

Often it takes a little while to discover the real reason for the conversation. There will be a bit of small talk about the weather, a question about how our work is going or about our children or grandchildren or a generic question about life in the church. Soon enough, however, when we make time to really listen, a deeper and more important reason for the conversation emerges. It might be that the person has received a medical diagnosis that changes their outlook on life. It might be that there is a family problem that is causing anxiety. It might be that there are issues at work. These conversations rarely begin as formal counseling sessions and people usually don’t want advice as much as they want a sympathetic ear.

Providing pastoral care to a congregation is not, in my experience, a process of going through the list of church members and making visits to their homes. Home and hospital visits are important. People who are living in nursing homes need to be visited. I don’t mean to downplay these important aspects of ministry. But the care of the congregation comes more from being able to respond to needs as they arise than from trying to get people to meet on our schedule.

I once had a colleague who was very systematic in his work. He would go to the office each morning. The first thing he would do would be to deal with his mail. Each piece of mail was dealt with before he went on to the next. If a letter required an answer, it was answered before he even read the next piece of mail. He couldn’t understand the clutter on my desk and it would have driven him crazy if such clutter had been on his. He made hospital rounds at an appointed time. He visited in the nursing home on selected days. He paid home visits to the members of his congregation between 3 and 5 pm Tuesday through Friday. As far as I know he was a very effective pastor. I could never be like him. I allow the members of my congregation to interrupt my office time. I take phone calls from home and speak to people when they call. I have a schedule that rarely follows my plans, even though I make appointments and plans and keep a calendar of meetings and appointments. When a crisis occurs in the life of one of the people in my church they get more of my time than those who are in more stable situations. Some hospital visits take 5 minutes. Some take 2 hours. I never know for sure how long a particular conversation will take.

Part of what made my colleague successful is that he served a rural congregation at a time when most farm families were at home during the day. He knew that if he dropped in on a family, work may be going on in the field or the shop, but he was likely to be able to find the people he was visiting and they were likely to drop what they were doing to offer him a cup of coffee. The world has changed. If I make cold calls to members of the church, I’m likely to find no one at home. It can be a real inconvenience to member of my church for me to drop by unannounced. Even in rural communities the times have changed. People lead busy lives. Sometimes the best way to connect with a church member is to take a phone call at 8:30 pm that you know will last an hour, even when you are tired from a long day and wish that you could fit such conversations into a schedule.

At an ordination in our denomination, there is a specific question about keeping confidences. It is the expectation of the congregation and that pastors provide safe listening. We engage in many conversations that must be kept confident. That means, among other things, that there is always a part of my job that is hidden from other members of the church. The person who is calling me on the phone doesn’t know how many phone calls I’ve taken that day. The person with whom I’m having lunch doesn’t know how long it has been since I’ve had lunch with my wife. The longer I serve as a pastor the more aware I become that there are a lot of people in the church who really don’t know what I do with my time. I have tended to make a joke of it, saying, “You know, I only work one hour a week.” The truth is quite different. Most of the members of my congregation don’t know how many hours a week I work and they don’t know how often I need to be on call and ready to respond to interruptions of my schedule. And there is no good way to teach them about this.

So there is a pile of clutter on my desk that needs my attention. And some of it will have to wait. Because my real work is connecting with people and that occurs best when I am able to respond to their schedule and not my own.

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!