Thursday, April 7, 2011
Who Cares for the Pastor?
Several times in classes where new people join our congregation and as often as I can remember, I remind people that Pastors provide pastoral care but not the only care. If somebody from the parish drops by a tuna casserole, calls on the phone to see how they are doing, and prays for them, they have not been without the care of the Church. Pastors are not the exclusive agents through which this care is provided although they are uniquely situated to provide the pastoral care of the Word and Sacrament. Some congregations have made use of programs such as the Stephen Ministry to provide somewhat trained care givers to formally extend the care and concern of their fellow members of the Church. Some congregations use their elders to do much the same thing in a less formal way. It is not all a bad thing. As long as the distinction between the Pastoral Care of the Word and Sacrament remains the domain of the Pastor we may expand the definition of care to include what Christians provide to their fellow Christians.
But who pastors the Pastor? Or his family? I well recall the loving care and kindness provided to us when the Episcopal priest where I was serving came to the hospital and did the "Churching of Women" when our first child was born. It is not that my fellow Lutheran clergy were unkind or uncaring but they did not attend us in moments of great need. This was compounded by the fact that I was nearly an hour away from my closest LCMS brother and served as Circuit Counselor during several of those urgent times of need.
I visited a Lutheran Pastor and his family once some years ago and found that they were facing very serious medical treatment but fairly far from home and were, indeed, alone. I came though I barely knew them and yet they were ever so grateful for my presence as a Pastor in their hour of need. I visited another retired Lutheran Pastor who admitted that even though he had faced several serious health issues during his active career, he could count on one hand the number of Lutheran Pastors who were there to sit, pray, and encourage him and his family in their need. I visited another retired Lutheran Pastor who admitted that he had gone through the death of two spouses and personal health issues with nary a word or phone call from other Lutheran clergy to inquire, support, and console him with the Word of God. When I gave him Holy Communion he broke down in tears because it was the first time ever a Lutheran Pastor had brought him the Sacrament.
There is not a little loneliness for those who serve as Lutheran Pastors. Some of it is self-imposed, some due to geographic isolation, but much of it is due to the fact that Lutheran Pastors and their families often are on their own in time of trouble. Sometimes they cannot share the circumstances of their need with the people of the parish and sometimes they choose not to -- but the net effect is that this isolation is felt on an even deeper level when the wound is there and not one comes to bring the counsel and comfort of God's Word or to bring to them the Sacrament of the Altar. There are times when Pastors can address their own families with God's Word and care but for the most part it is impossible for Pastors to provide pastoral care to their own family members. Ask almost any Lutheran Pastor's family and they will tell you that generally they are the only ones in the congregation without a Pastor.
It can be helpful when the parish leaders and elders are supportive, caring, and concerned and in most parishes this is indeed the case. Yet this is not the care I am talking about. Who brings the sacrament to the Pastor and his family when they need its comfort? Who speaks to them the consoling Word of absolution and addresses them with the encouragement of God's Word? Who is able to speak to them a word of warning when they wander from the path of faith? While I do not diminish the care and concern of a good board of elders and other parish leaders, this is not the same as having a Pastor. While it might be nice if the District President carried out this episcopal responsibility, the sad truth is that many DPs are geographically far removed and administratively unprepared for this pastoral role -- one that may require removing the typical district "CEO" hat in favor of the vestments of a Pastor. I am not disparaging them or circuit counselors and yet I am not sure that these structures were even meant to function in the way that Pastors need or require when troubles, trials, sickness, and struggle overcome him and his family. In one sense, it is often left to "Physician, heal thyself."
While this need may be exacerbated by distance where Lutherans are few or far between, I have heard from many who live in Lutherland that they often face the same loneliness and isolation. Just a thought that perhaps we assume too much in this regard and as Lutheran Pastors need to be more deliberate in making sure that those who bear the responsibility for the Pastoral Office are not left to tend their wounds or the wounds of their families all by themselves... Who pastors the Pastor and his family is a question worthy of an ongoing discussion.