Friday, October 29, 2010

Not a Family Chaplain

A number of years ago, an extended family was having a multitude of troubles.  Everytime trouble knocked at their door, somebody from the family called up Pastor.  It was a plea for Pastor to fix it, to guide them to fix it, or to listen as they unburdened themselves of the problems associated with it.  So I got the call.  And, to be honest, I was flattered that I was so needed.  It did not take long for word to spread about my involvement with this family and the multitude of problems they were facing.  I thought I was making a real difference.  I thought I was solving their problems for them and helping them out of the holes they had dug themselves into.

In the midst of my feelings of importance and accomplishment, a member thought it was time to remind me that I was not called to that congregation to be a family counselor to one family but to be the Pastor of the whole congregation.  At first I was offended by the thought that I was not doing my job, fulfilling my vocation faithfully... Why, who do they think they are questioning what I was doing and why I was doing it???

Then I realized that they were right.  For a while I had begun  feeling that what I was doing as Pastor through the ministry of Word and Sacrament was not enough or not fruitful enough.  I began to realize that I had sought out the position of family therapist because it was there I thought I was making more of a difference for the kingdom of God than by the work of preaching and teaching His Word and administering His sacraments.  I was so wrong for all the right reasons...

I believe that many Pastors find themselves in much the same position I was in -- we come to discount or diminish the value of the work we do as preachers, teachers, and presiders and to emphasize the work we do as counselors.  For me it became easy to think that if I was helping a couple to salvage their failed marriage or help a family repair their screwed up relationships, I was being more fruitful that if I were teaching and preaching God's Word, baptizing, hearing confessions, and presiding at the Table of the Lord.

The hard truth for us is that we want to be liked, we want to make a difference, we want to be respected, we want people to see the value of what we do as Pastors, and so we gravitate toward those areas of our service which show us the bigger fruits (mistakenly believing that bigger fruits are better fruits).

Now, don't get me wrong.  I am not advocating that Pastors stick to pulpits and altars in the chancel or podiums in the classroom.  We can and must be counselors in our work as Pastors.  But we dare not confusing the counsel which comes from applying the Word of God to the issues at hand with the therapist's work of probing feelings and turning over the moss covered stones of our lives.  Speaking the whole counsel of God's Word, teaching that full truth, and applying that Gospel truth to the people in whatever place they find themselves is not therapeutic but it is being faithful to Jesus and doing the work of His kingdom.

We as Pastors sometimes impose the burden of our own weaknesses upon the work we do as Pastors of the Church.  We sometimes act as if the bulk of our work is to do what the Holy Spirit does not seem to be inclined to do for the Lord -- sort of a clean up crew for the deity.  The truth we do not want to admit is that the work of the Kingdom through Word and Sacrament is the most fruitful work of all.  We seem intent to demonstrate that we are the reason for and have contributed to the extent of all our success.  And the place where making a difference seems most possible is when we adopt the problems of the people as our own and act as family chaplains to repair and heal what is broken or wounded. 

So, despite the temptation, we must resist the impulse to act as family chaplains and counselors and remain as Pastors charged with the responsibility of Word and Sacrament.  I was once associated with a large congrgation in which the sole Pastor saw himself as family chaplain and therapist.  There was great need for one and the people lined up at his door.  He seemed to be pretty good at it.  He was new to this congregation and this was an urgent need and an area he could distinguish himself from his predecessor who did no counseling.  In the end, his role as private chaplain and therapist led to an implosion in this congregation and the Ministry of Word and Sacrament was neglected to the point that the attendance dropped by half, a hugely successful Sunday school fell by the way side, and the school developed its own identity so separate from the congregation that the two merely shared a building instead of a ministry.  It has stuck with me even when I do not always follow the lesson this experience taught me.  Family chaplain, individual therapist, counselor to the troubled... no, but I will hear your confession, counsel you from God's Word, baptize, teach, confirm, preside, preach, bury, and exhort the erring - my primary responsibilities.  And if I do this job, then God's people will be equipped to fulfill their vocation of witness, service, prayer, and love to the family close, the neighbor nearby, and the stranger on the street corner.


Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Excellent post Pastor. I understand that temptation very well.

Anonymous said...

I personally believe that the Pastor has a role to play in counselling.I believe our Lord Jesus Christ had a ministry of reconcilliation.Not only reconcilling us to God but also reconcilling human relationships to one another.

A Church is made up of redeemed and forgiven people who are a family.Brother and sisters in Christ we are called.Therefore ,we as Christians should love one another so much that most or all mature Christians should be able to advice,counsell the weaker members in our church whether it be about marriage issues,sickness etc,etc.

I come from a Mediterranean culture where family is everything to us.We as a congregation are ALL grieved if an individual or a couple have problems.ALL want to chip in and help out etc etc.I am interested to hear what others might have to say on this.

Pr. Kenneth Elkin said...

The training offered in the Stephen Ministry program may be helpful in this regard. One of the emphases is that Stephen Ministers, whether lay or clergy, are first listeners, not fixers. We are care-givers; God is the cure-giver.

ErnestO said...

The pastor is our ordained first responder - he first seeks to stabilize the soul. (Puns intended.)

WM Cwirla said...

Well said.

Anthony Voltattorni said...

Well said, aptly timed, very needed... thank you!

Ted Badje said...

I believe in the 'first responder' concept. I also believe more pastors need to learn to delegate duties, and explain that to parishioners as well. There are so many needs and programs in churches that no one person could address them all.