Reaching out

I go to the church early on Sundays. I spend some time alone in the sanctuary preparing for worship. I organize my thoughts for the day. I read and answer a few emails. I set out coffee for early arrivers. I turn on the monitors that show church announcements. I check the building, turn on the lights and unlock the doors. I like being the first to arrive and it helps me to get my mind wrapped around the tasks that lie ahead.

One morning, not long ago, as I unlocked the front doors, I noticed someone sitting on the benches outside of the door. I greeted the person and asked if I there was anything that was needed. “Can I talk to a pastor?” was the question. As I answered that I am one of the pastors of the church, I admit that I was steeling myself. That question is usually followed up by a request for money. There are quite a few people who see churches as social service agencies and turn to them for assistance with rent, gas, utilities, groceries and a host of other needs. We try to help where we can, but we don’t have the resources to solve many of their problems. It isn’t at all uncommon for someone to make a request that is hundreds of dollars more than we have available to help. There are a lot of problems that come to us that we are not able to solve.

This person, however, did not ask for financial support. Instead, I began to hear an entire life story. I invited the person to my office and we sat and talked for more than an hour. It is really hard for me to give up an hour of my time on a Sunday morning. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do and I have a particular pace that helps me be ready for my sermon. And this particular Sunday I had a complex sermon with quite a few specific elements that had to be memorized. I finally had to draw our conversation to a close because people were arriving for choir and I needed to rehearse with the choir. I invited the person to worship with us, which happened and the person disappeared shortly after worship. I didn’t get a follow up conversation.

Being a pastor involves a community that is larger than the membership of the church. I am called to serve the folks who belong to the church. We have quite a few members who have belonged to the church for a long time and were very regular in attendance before a health issue forced a change in their lives. They miss church and they want the pastor to come and visit them. I make a lot of that kind of visits, but never enough to satisfy my own sense of what I should be doing and never enough to satisfy the lonely ones who miss their church. I could spend eight hours every day visiting people and there would remain those who need to be visiting. I understand that my job involves a lot of listening to people. So it would be easy for someone who is feeling a bit undeserved to question my priorities when I spend a very valuable hour not long before worship listening to a stranger who will likely not ever join the church and will not become a contributor.

My call and my professional code of ethics demands that I remain impartial when giving respect and concern to others. Length of membership, size of pledge, status or other factors should not influence my giving of care and concern.All people deserve care and respect.

In every situation in which I have served as a minister, I have seen it as part of my calling to serve the community. I have been involved in community activities and participate in a lot of things outside of the church. I serve on boards of nonprofits, participate in ecumenical activities, and work hard to raise the visibility of the church that I serve in the wider community.

From time to time I get a bit of criticism from members of the church who think that I spend too much time out in the community and not enough time providing direct service to members of the church. It is a fair criticism, at least it is important that I work towards balance and am open to considering making changes. I am only one person and there are only so many hours in a day and how I prioritize my time is worthy of careful consideration.

Still, there are times, like that recent Sunday morning, when I feel as if I have been swept up by the events and circumstances of that particular day and am not always in charge of my time.

I can make some hospital calls in ten minutes. I stop by, check on the patient, share a prayer and am out of the door and on to the next task. I have also had situations where it takes more than two hours to make a hospital call. Not long ago there was a member of our congregation in the hospital with whom I spend more than an hour a day for a week, including days that are my day off. Then a day came when I wasn’t able to visit in person and I spent at least 15 minutes on the telephone. Every situation is unique. It is one of the joys of the ministry. It also demands that I bring flexibility and the ability to respond to the needs of other to my work every day.

Even after 40 years as an ordained minister, I struggle with how to best serve the people of my congregation. I try to listen to what they have to say and to respond to their concerns as well as paying attention to the wider community. We exist to serve others as well as ourselves. Real Christian service occurs outside of the church. A church that fails to recognize this cannot grow. A church that is faithful to its call must learn to discern the complexity of that call and to develop new responses to new situations.

I am glad I took the time to speak with the person who interrupted the flow of my Sunday morning. I may never now if I was a help, but I know that the person didn’t experience being brushed off or turned aside at the door of the church. For that I am grateful.

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!