Written by Daron Brown
From his column Pressing On
“Thank you, Pastor, for always being there.“
I have received these words countless times. They have been scrawled on the inside of cards and spoken in various situations. Sometimes parishioners introduce me to others, adding that I am “always there” for them. While grateful for the compliment, my thought is: “You know I’m not always there. I mean, seriously, do you really want me around all the time?”
I realize such words are not intended to be taken literally, but rather gracious and affirming. Sometimes people offer such adulation because they don’t know what else to say. It’s an attempt to articulate appreciation for good pastoral work. Certainly I’m grateful, but the problem with the mindset of “always there” is the pressure it heaps on those serving in a vocation where people-pleasing is pervasive and can be corrosive.
The people of Israel wanted to follow someone who was physically there. God was not sufficiently present, according to their standards. So they asked for a king. Having one calmed their anxiety, providing a tangible figure to see, touch, speak to, provide protection, and respond to their needs. But, as humans, kings had their own problems, which the people quickly learned. Perhaps the most serious consequence was that the Israelites began to look to their king, rather than God, as the source of their protection and help. It was an unhealthy situation for faith. In today’s world, similar dependence on the presence of the minister may distort pastoral work into personal chaplaincy or even idolatry.
The peril for many of us pastors is that we live into the expectation of always being there. Throughout my ministry, there have been times when I have embodied Stanley Hauerwas’s vivid description of the pastor as “a quivering mass of availability.” We all know stories, and some of us have lived through them, in which pastoral availability wreaked collateral damage. Pastors neglect their own families, their physical health, and their personal spiritual care to make themselves fully available to their people.
Being there is an essential part of Christian pastoral ministry. There are times in which there is nothing else we can or should do. There are times when nothing is more priestly or redemptive. Pastoral presence bears witness to the incarnate Christ and reflects the ongoing incarnation of Christ in our world. We must be there. Just not always.
Parishioners should understand that it is not an “always there” pastor they need; but rather, an “always there” God. Thankfully, our God is indeed always present. The book of Matthew punctuates this truth with a couple of bookends. In Matthew 1:23, Christ is identified as “Immanuel,” or God with us. Then, in the last words of the gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20 NIV). That sounds like someone who is always there.
Throughout the Apostle Paul’s letters, the sentiment he communicates essentially is “I wish I could be there with you. I cannot be there. But God is there.” Then he names and speaks God’s grace and peace and activity into the life of the church through his writings. There is pastoral wisdom in Paul’s example. Our work does not always require us to be present. Instead, it calls us to direct people to the One who is with us always. In doing so, we name and speak God’s constant, active presence into the lives of our parishioners.
Occasionally, I have the sacred privilege of leading the liturgy for the installation of a pastor. I have considered writing this promise into the installation: “I vow to not always be there for you, for my sake and yours. But I pledge to continually point you to the One who is always there for you.” There is freedom for both the pastor and the congregation when we unbind ourselves and one another from unhealthy expectations. We are then free to more appropriately bind ourselves to our very present God.
Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.