The Next Faithful Step

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Pastoral Presence

A Pastor's Reflection

Among the greatest tensions I feel in doing pastoral work is the tension of quiet. I don’t know how it happened, but I now realize that somewhere along the way I came to think of my job as pastor to be, at least in part, “professional problem solver”. I think this is where the tension I feel around quiet in my role as a pastor comes from. After all, who can solve a problem without doing something? And for the pastor, “doing something” often means saying exactly the right thing. Because of this, not feeling equipped with the perfect thing to say to resolve, diffuse, or somehow make okay the situation conjures up that accusing voice in my head that alerts me to the clear reality that I am failing at my job. What good is an unspeaking pastor?

A good portion of ordained ministry for me has been sitting with strangers in the middle of the night. Aside from doing local parish ministry, I have worked for several years as a hospice chaplain and my particular job has been working midnight to 8 am shifts in order to care for families whose loved ones die in the middle of the night. Because I generally only work in these crisis situations, I do not know the families I meet at night. The day staff works with families and patients throughout their time on hospice care. I am only called in to work with families when the inevitable tragedy has finally occurred.

What do you say to grieving strangers? There really is nothing to say that will make anything okay. Of course, there are a variety of approaches depending on what you learn about the family from the first few moments. There are plenty of things to say and a number of ways of facilitating both grief and celebration of life, where appropriate. But there seems to be little accessible wisdom—nothing particularly profound to say that might make much of a difference. And this lack of accessible wise-talk—for me as a pastor—most often feels like quiet and borderline failure. To be honest, I can often feel such pressure (I’m not sure from where) to say something significant enough to “fix” things that finding myself saying anything less feels as if I’m basically saying nothing at all.

The truth is, however, that there are times when there is nothing to say—at least when it comes to any sort of “fixing” wisdom. But as uncomfortable as this makes me, I have also come to believe this does not mean that there is no accessible significance.

We can never discount the powerful importance of presence. Often the role of the pastor is highly symbolic. This may be hard to accept for those of us who want to be able to point to something tangible and say to ourselves, “I did that.” But the truth is that the pastor stands as a symbol of the Church’s presence in people’s lives and as a reminder of the presence of God. It took the more dramatic experience of sitting with grieving strangers in the middle of the night for me to realize this to a point where I could actually believe it. People are often incredulous that someone would actually come to be with them at three o’clock in the morning. Among the most common things I hear as I leave people’s homes is, “Thank you for being here.” The symbolic role of the pastor makes that “being” different. It is a sign that the Church is there—readily available to and for people in their need. And it works to point to the reality that God is present in the difficult realities of people’s lives (something that some people may not remember quite as well without a pastor present). This is one of those things that cannot be said nearly as well and effectively as it is done. The pastor has to be. And as difficult it may be for me to accept this sometimes as a pastor, the truth is that there are times where I want a Christian brother or sister to shut up and just sit next to me.

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