Thursday, August 2, 2012

Geographic Distance (Conundrums of Ministry I)

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.


  1. Those for whom church-from-the-1950's love to have the pastor visit. The young 20-35's, in this community, not really.

    I do some community things but do not show up at all the events. Some wish I it makes "them" look good and is somewhat a status symbol. One member would "love" to have me in Rotary...for the same reason.

    I just got back from a week with 700 people...and my introvert is still recovering. LOL!!!

  2. I've always lived near the congregation I've served. The hospital thing may be more a small church-large church thing. Even in Memphis, I was always at the hospital when a parishioner went in. And always there before surgery (even at 7 in the morning). Hmmm, it may not be a large church thing. At Idlewild, pastors do go visit at the hospital (just not always the head of staff). At Fairmount, deacons visited in the hospital. I suppose if it were a big giver, Hank would visit. (OK, that was snarky.) In Homer, I visited everyone in the congregation. Not so much in Memphis.

    I'm making progress in projects necessary to put my house on the market. I'm longing to be involved with people who want guidance on a spiritual path.

  3. I second this -- about the proximity and the "dropping in" thing -- currently in a half-time interim position 45 minutes from home... and some changing of gears has been necessary (not altogether successfully accomplished)-- It's important to show up as "the minister from St. Swithun's" at all sorts of community hoop-la...

  4. As you are discovering in ministry, one size does not fit all. Each community has different needs and expectations but the important and yet difficult thing is to determine what God is asking you to do and to follow God's lead no matter what the people think that they need. The Holy Spirit will guide you. God bless you.

  5. I am married to a man who has been a priest for the last 16 years. We have always lived in the parish, yet issues of time and how to spend it are always there. The day-to-day home visits are important. Looking back I also think that certainly in some of the parishes we have had contact with ministry becomes very focused on what the priest is doing. With friends we are now looking at setting up a community within a parish that is based on Benedictine principles. As a result I am looking at teaching about the early church and about monastic communities and at modern communities that are doing what we want to do. I have been struck by the way in which life becomes corporate, so that everything is shared- prayer, meals, Eucharist, material resources, skills and time. Each member fulfills a vocation and contributes to the wider mission of the specific community as well as that of the wider church. In my experience too much of these things that were intended to be corporate have become pushed onto individuals. It's a tricky one.

  6. Bless you as you discern about the distance, the being available for church members for home or hospital visits, and your family.

    Also know that I have read and taken in all of your previous posts of the heavier variety. I was moved, I prayed, I listened. But words failed me so no comments. As I've said before, I'll read whatever you write and be grateful for your truth telling and wisdom. God's blessings to you and yours.