The rumor is that two women were talking on the telephone about how they were coping with their isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their conversation turned in earnest to the way they were being affected by the long-term shutdown of services of worship and other gatherings of their local congregation. They even wondered what pastors of congregations were doing, and both of them said that they had not received any communication from their pastor during the months of shutdown–not a social distancing, masked visit at the door; not a brief telephone call; not a letter in the mail; not even a personal email. At that very moment, one of them looked out a window and saw their pastor jogging past in the middle of the day.
There are places where pastors mourn the loss of their usual personal engagement with the members of their congregation. These pastors yearn to make visits at hospitals and in homes in times of illness, grief, and personal crisis. They miss the freedom to spend some of their time in normal pastoral conversation and visitation. Nonetheless, they have been busy over the past six months writing notes and making telephone calls to the members of their congregation.
In other places, and I suspect there are many, pastors have been conspicuous by their absence. These are the pastors who do not consider what is known as the “pastoral call” to be an important and integral part of their ministry. Besides their public role in leading worship and providing administrative leadership of the congregation, they have minimum personal engagement with most of the members of their congregation. They do become familiar with the leaders and most active participants in the congregation’s worship, church school, and programs. Sometimes their social contacts lead to pastoral meetings in the church office. Yet there is no intentional, routine effort by the pastor to initiate pastoral calls with all the members of the congregation.
I suspect that when this pandemic of 2020 subsides, and congregational life resumes normally, all congregations will suffer some loss of participation. Those congregations whose pastors seriously practice pastoral calls will suffer less loss than those whose pastors who are negligent in making pastoral calls to their members. I have no scientific evidence to back up this expectation. I am not aware of any research or polling that has been conducted so far. I am relying simply upon the wisdom of the pastoral tradition that the pastoral call is a primary factor in the authority, influence, and effectiveness of a pastor. While this tradition has a positive effect upon congregational health in normal times, it is crucial in the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic when congregations have suspended or circumscribed services of worship and other activities for a long time.
The effects of the pandemic on the spiritual and institutional wellbeing of the church will require serious stocktaking. Included in this should be efforts by Christian leaders and local laity to recover the tradition of the pastoral call. Judicatory leaders can give direction and inspiration to their clergy, and local lay leaders can make pastoral calling a priority in their consultation with their pastors.
As Thomas C. Oden explained in his splendid handbook for pastors, Pastoral Theology: https://books.google.com/books/about/Pastoral_Theology.html?id=xw542VC9vZYCEssentials of Ministry (Harper & Row, 1983), the tradition of pastoral visitation is grounded in Jesus’ own ministry of visiting communities and individuals and in the practice of the apostles.
The tradition of the pastoral call in the history of the church engendered a relatively unique privilege for pastors compared to other professions. Pastors have been given the freedom to take the initiative to visit persons in hospital, at home, at work, and in other settings. Social workers and family therapists have recognized the value that pastoral visitation has, and they have imitated Christian pastors by also making home visits.
In his article on pastoral calling and visitation in the Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (Abingdon, 1990), Edgar N. Jackson pointed out how important it is to visit in homes. There the pastor comes to understand persons better by observing them in interaction with other members of their family. These relationships are numerous and complex. As Jackson states, “a home with two parents, one grandparent and four children creates forty-nine possible relationships.”
A pastoral call is not a mere social visit. An effective pastor will know how to enjoy social interaction with the persons he or she visits, but the pastor’s role entails accomplishing purposes of the church and especially enabling persons to experience and to grow in their faith in God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Pastoral calling is a demanding discipline. It is far more comfortable to spend time in one’s office than to go out among the people. Moreover, as Oden rightly observed, “Visitation is difficult and character building. Every experienced pastor knows that. It exposes the pastor to risks that could be otherwise avoided. It puts the pastor in direct touch at times with mean tempers, explosive conflicts, and compulsive fears. It requires a wide repertoire of insights and interpersonal skills, instantly accessible. But it puts a seal of authenticity upon all other pastoral endeavors in a way that nothing else can.”
I would add that pastoral calling also plunges a pastor personally into the existential depths of human existence with other persons. It is far easier to preach a sermon on repentance and forgiveness than to deal directly with a person who is destroying his or her life because of sinful behavior or who is in despair because of guilt over sin committed against God, loved ones, and one’s own true self. It is less demanding of the preacher personally to preach the gospel from a lofty pulpit than to confess Jesus Christ and his salvation to another human being in person. We may study theodicy in our office with philosophical enjoyment, but there is no hiding from the reality of suffering when we come face to face with it by accompanying a mother whose infant has died or a man whose wife has been murdered. It is important to teach the importance of spiritual disciplines, but it takes courage to ask someone to discuss his or her rule for daily devotion, searching the scriptures, spiritual reading, contemplation and prayer.
While pastoral calling is very demanding in various ways, it is also a source of tremendous meaning for the pastor. It provides the privilege of living the Christian faith with others at the very heart of the human experience with all its woes and joys. It builds personal relationships which are uniquely satisfying. And the faith of God’s people who live in gratitude to God in the midst of the worst that we can experience is deeply inspiring to the pastor who walks with them. A pastor is ordained to communicate faith to others, but the reality is that the faith of others is one of the greatest sources of a pastor’s own spiritual sustenance and growth.
There is drudgery in pastoral calling just as there is in any kind of real work. Arrangements must be made to visit, and travel must be done in all kinds of weather regardless of how a pastor happens to feel. But what motivates a pastor to energetically exercise a ministry of pastoral calling is a true love of people. This love is grounded in an awareness that every person is created in the image of God and is redeemed by Jesus Christ. Part of Christian love for people is a fascination with each human person as a unique miracle. The father of Clinical Pastoral Education, Anton Boisen, used to speak of persons who are in mental hospitals as “living human documents.” Boisen meant that pastors should seriously study the lives and stories of individuals as much as they study the scriptures and the Christian tradition. The term sounds too clinical, but every pastor who truly cares about people also carries the conviction that there is nothing in the universe more fascinating than the unique experience of an individual person whose own story can be fully understood only in light of the Story of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why is it, then, that in many places there has been a decline in the tradition of the pastoral call?
I do not know, but I assume that the rise of the programmatic congregation caused a shift in the life of the pastor from a shepherd of souls to a role as an administrative leader and guide of a congregation. The increase in the number of large membership congregations contributed to the pastor exercising a role that is more administrative than pastoral. Many younger clergy have absorbed the advice of church consultants who promote administrative leadership of congregations and sometimes even advocate pushing aside some persons for the sake of implementing change in the life of the congregation–running roughshod over persons who are alleged to stand in the way of the pastor’s objectives of “mission.”
In my experience, the most effective pastors of very large congregations have a strong pastoral sensibility and manage to incorporate pastoral calls into their own ministry. Of course, they must also help develop strong patterns of pastoral care by lay persons and members of the church staff if the pastoral needs of the people are to be satisfied. Nevertheless, they lead with pastoral sensitivity and learn how to use their time effectively to carry on their own ministry of pastoral calls because they see their congregation as a genuine community of persons, and they care about people.
As the church lives into the era of post-Christendom, it needs to vigorously recover proclamation of the apostolic gospel and catechesis of orthodox doctrine and discipline. It also needs to reclaim the traditions of the pastoral office, particularly the pastoral call. In one of the readings about “The Minister as Pastor” in The Minister’s Prayer Book: An Order of Prayers and Readings by John W. Doberstein, Editor (Fortress Press, fifth printing undated), the ancient form of the congregational “call” of the Church of Scotland is cited. It could be the call of God’s people to every pastor today: “We do heartily invite, call and entreat you to undertake the office of a pastor among us and the charge of our souls.”