I've been writing some lengthy and heavily weighted posts that few people, it seems, are willing to wade through and discuss in public. Posts that generate more emails than comments. But I DO think about many things other than suicide and pirate prosecutions, most especially things related to ministry. So I thought I'd try some short posts reflecting on some of the challenges I'm facing as a pastor of not quite one year. No more than ten minutes of writing each, starting . . . now!
Geographic distance is much on my mind. I live one and one-half hours from the church I serve. I make the drive a couple of times a week, staying overnight there anywhere from zero to three or sometimes four consecutive nights, depending on what's going on.
Didn't consider: Although I commuted nearly twice that far to seminary, I was always home on week-ends, meaning that when my family was around, so was I. Now, I can usually - but not always! -- be home on Saturday, and if I come home late Sunday afternoon, I generally fall asleep. Not the best of circumstances.
Didn't realize: How much of rural, small church ministry depends on a pastor's physical presence in the community. My adult life involvement has been in two large suburban and one downtown church. The suburban churches are program churches; the members live nearby, but seldom within walking distance, and they form connections with one another and the pastors through programs, service on boards and committees, and fairly structured social groups. The members of the downtown church mostly live at a distance, and are seldom visible except on Sundays.
The structure of community life in a rural church is far less visible and relationships with the pstor depend far more on physical presence in both mundane and significant parishoner life experiences. My church cannot afford a fulltime pastor, but actually needs a pastor 24/7 to meet its hopes and expectations.
The situation reminds me of the debate over "quality time" when our children were little. Even though the grand total of your direct and immediate interaction with a child may amount to no more than a couple of hours a day, you cannot say to a child, "I'll be available to you between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m; please plan your crises and be prepared to discuss your issues during that time slot." Similarly, parishoners do no arrange their family deaths or personal injuries to accommodate your pastoral schedule.
A couple of weeks ago, I counted the number of times pastors have come to our home in thirty years of church membership, and came up with about eight, all of them in immediate response to major life transitions: membership, baptisms, an adolescent life disaster, and death. Our pastor visited me in the hospital (ten minutes from his home) when our sons were born and I was there for a week, but I have never encountered either a pastor of mine or a chaplain in any other hospitalization experience of my own. Not that I've always mentioned anticipated hospital procedures ~ most of the time it never occurred to me that someone might show up.
I don't want to imply that I never spent time hanging out with my home church pastors. I did, but usually in a public place and at least ostensibly for program reasons or, in later years, for seminary-related discussions.
In my ministry, however, I am frequently in members' homes "just for a visit," and I have made appearances, sometimes several, at almost every hospital admission I've known about, whether for an afternoon in the ER that amounted to nothing or for a lengthy stay for specialized care as much as an hour and a half away. It matters to them to see me "around" ~ not for leadership roles at public events, but just "around," present when and where they are.
I had no idea that people would want me to make those "just for a visit" stops or how much of our relationships would depend on my having spent time sitting in their family rooms. If I'm at someone's home and the phone rings, I'll hear her tell the caller that she can't talk because (said with pride) "the pastor's here." And once I've been there, our interactions in church on Sunday are completely transformed.
All of which is to say, I tend to think that my church would be much better served by someone who lives right there in town all the time and can be available, whether to "stop by" or for a major crisis, at the drop of a hat.
There's a lot more to this particular conundrum than just the physical geography, but I'll leave it at that for now.