SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 3:15 (NIV) Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.
STORY a letter written to “Dear Abby” from a Wisconsin Pastor:
I am a pastor and just received word that a parishioner died yesterday. “Harold” had been hospitalized for a week in another city, and I wasn’t notified. A member of his family said, “We didn’t know if we should bother you or not.” The saddest part is, I was in that city the night before he died, seeing another parishioner. It would have been easy to visit Harold.
Abby, permit me to share three reasons why I want to be “bothered” in the future:
First: The one who is ill is entitled to the care and support of his or her faith community. I have sat at the side of persons who appear nonresponsive, taken their hands and told them who I am. Their hand frequently tightens around mine. When I say familiar prayers, their lips move in concert with mine. Spiritual leaders of other faiths report similar experiences.
Second: My presence may be physically and spiritually helpful to the family and friends of the patient. Many congregations provide networks of contacts for social agencies, additional medical specialists and even respite care groups within the congregation.
Third: The ill person may have confided his or her wishes regarding maintenance of life, burial and funeral arrangements to his or her spiritual leader. When people come to me to discuss their wishes, I file that information in a secure place. (I also encourage them to share their desires with family and formalize them with an attorney or funeral director.) In at least one instance, the family purchased a burial plot through the funeral home, unaware that one had already been purchased in another cemetery of the person’s own choosing.
I urge adult children and others in charge of another’s affairs. Please contact the faith community of the dying person – for the sake of the patient, the faith community and yourself.
OBSERVATION: Two personal stories from my years as a pastor:
I was driving around the pastor, “John”, who had been appointed to follow me. As we passed several of the nursing homes in which the church had members living “John” turned to me, and in all seriousness, stated: “They don’t expect me to be their personal chaplain do they?” When I inquired about the meaning of his statement he went on to share that he does not visit – period … not in the hospital, not in nursing homes and definitely not in the homes. This, I understand, he also shared with the congregation on his first Sunday. He missed out on sharing a special journey with a number of great people as they struggled with serious illnesses, faced life threatening surgeries and failed miserably as he wasn’t in a position to respond to the personal needs of his people. In my opinion he wasn’t their shepherd. For “John” being a pastor was just just a job to him.
The second story deals with an associate, “Mary”, I had at one church. She came late to the ministry and was older than me. She took great pride in the pastoral care she would show to the members. When I shared with her my approach to visiting with individuals facing surgery, sitting with families during surgery and general visitation for those in nursing home or at home shut-ins she listened respectfully and then added: “Sitting with a family during surgery is just a huge waste of time and I won’t do it.” After explaining to her that as the senior pastor it was my responsibility to “set” the style of pastoral care she agreed to follow my instructions, but continued to fight the process.
“Mary” eventually received her own congregation. There was a young teenage girl in that congregation going in for the simple procedure of having her tonsils removed. “Mary” felt that it was such a simple surgery that she would just phone the family before the operation and then follow back up after the surgery with another phone call to make sure everything went well. It was at this point “Mary” discovered the wisdom of my approach. During the operation complications developed and the young teenager didn’t make it through the surgery. “Mary” later confided in me that she should have been at the hospital with the family. She had failed to be their shepherd at the point of their greatest need.
The world and the church are crying for shepherds, individuals who will take the time to provide pastoral care for those entrusted into their care. I fully understand that not everyone individual is good at everything that a man or a woman is asked to do in the role as pastor, but that doesn’t excuse them from at least trying.
Not wanting to “bother” the pastor or feeling that the pastor has too much on his/her plate already or thinking that the individual is not important enough to take the pastor way from others or what the individual is facing is just a “minor” procedure … are heard often in the church. How sad that the time has come when the pastor is too busy to care for the members.
I started my ministry in rural Georgia where it was expected that when you, as a minister, visited in the hospital you were expected to visit and pray with every individual on the floor or in the wing of the hospital. They were small hospitals and didn’t have paid or volunteer chaplains. It was just expected. Once that “training” became a part of the mindset it just became a part of the general ministry provided to ones congregation. A lesson learned is a lesson practiced.
Lord, help our shepherds. Help them care for the people entrusted into their care. Give to each a pastoral heart for others.