"Why hasn't the pastor contacted me?" inquired the sick parishioner in the hospital.
After more than 30 years in ministry, I have heard these questions thousands of times. We know that a solitary pastor in a church, or even a staff of pastors in a large church, cannot be everywhere and meet each person's expectations. However, as pastoral leaders, we must understand that "being there" carries more anointing and weight of glory than most anything else we can say or do in ministry.
Sheep love hearing other shepherds, occasionally. Sheep need to be visited by laity released in ministry, often. But "practiced presence" in ministry must be an intentional priority of every pastor.
Brother Lawrence wrote the classic The Practice of the Presence of God. Our ministries should be examples of bringing God's presence into the lives of our people as we visit, call, write and simply notice them. To practice presence is to work at "being there" and setting a standard of excellence for others to "be present" to the needs of the sheep.
Always sending someone else in one's place communicates a lack of interest, love and relationship by a pastor. Tasks can be delegated but relationships can't. So what's the balance? Here are seven pointers for practiced presence.
1. Motivate yourself to 'be there.' In other words, proactively decide that whenever possible you will be there to pray with the sick before surgery, to phone the sick or shut-in members, and to be at important meetings.
No one can speak your vision as well as you. No one can replace your presence in the midst of pain and bereavement. Of course, you cannot always be there. But your absence needs to be the exception, not the rule.
2. Phone when you cannot come. Phone calls are practiced presence. It's not always possible to be at the bedside of a pre-surgical parishioner. So, call. I have had the privilege of praying on the phone with scores of people right before they were wheeled into their surgeries. They commented later that the phone visits helped dispel the fear and dread surrounding their surgeries.
3. Write notes and e-mails. Sending birthday cards, anniversary cards, congratulations upon noted achievements and encouragement notes to the people in your congregation will bring them into God's presence as they read your notes. Never underestimate the spiritual power of a few words written in a few moments to encourage and uplift people.
4. Meet them on their turf. Find ways to meet people where they live and work. A pastoral friend of mine had his own ministry transformed by scheduling home and office visits with his core members throughout the course of a year. He came to new insights for preaching and counseling by being "with them."
5. Pay for lunch. When a member has a meal with you, pick up the check. Remind him that being with him was intentional on your part. You asked him and wanted to serve him.
6. Be on time, and turn off your cell phone. Nothing communicates lack of honor and caring to a person more than to be late or to talk to others on your cell phone while he or she sits there waiting for your attention.
7. Be slow to speak. Sheep have to listen to shepherds all the time preach and teach, usually without any dialogue. So, when you are practicing presence with a parishioner, intentionally listen. One of the greatest pastoral gifts we ever give is listening.
Regrettably I am still practicing these pointers. Knowing better, I'm still late on occasion. Rudely, I still forget and leave my cell phone on and even answer it. Sadly, I miss too many special occasions in the lives of those around me.
My excuse is "practiced pretense"--I'm too busy. Perhaps you'll join me in some mutual confession, repentance and renewed "practiced presence."