I have a friend, a crusty old bishop, who snorts that in many of today’s congregations the de facto job description for “pastor”—that is, what people seem to expect and therefore what pastors, anxiously, try to provide—is “presence.” Mere presence, he says. Pastors are to “be there,” in other words, wherever there is and for whatever the reason. Today’s pastor, he says shaking his head, is “a quivering mass of availability.” But, he concludes, “the pastor who is always available brings nothing with her when she comes.”
A pastor’s days are filled with important things, the bishop says, and in truth there are plenty of important things pastors are expected to do: there are meetings to attend, visits and calls to make, favor to curry and fires to put out. But, says the bishop, if pastors are always available (quivering or otherwise), and always do only the important things, they will never have time for, nor will they do, the crucial things. The crucial things are prayer and study—those first, of course—and only after that visits and counsel; only after that sermon and Bible Study preparation. The important things come only after the crucial things. Why?
To have anything worth a Sunday morning saying or hearing, pastors themselves have to take time to listen. They have to ask, “What is God saying to me?” before they ask “What am I going to say to my people.” That kind of listening is hard and time-consuming work. Moreover, to be “present” to a situation, really present and not merely present to people and circumstances—bringing something more than clichés and quivering—requires time apart with Jesus. As precedent, remember how often Jesus himself went away alone in order to pray.
In sum, to shepherd the faithful, the faithful pastor must spend time with the Shepherd, must tend to his or her own faith. And so next week, if God allows, I will be in the mountains praying, studying and writing. We have friends who are gracious enough to leave a key under the mat of their beautiful vacation home and every year (with the approval and blessing of our Staff-Parish Relations committee), I go away alone for a week or so—not for vacation, though the setting is pristine enough for one—but to slow down, to focus, to do the hard and intentional work of listening to God. I read God’s Word and I ponder what I read. I write down what I think I may hear and reflect on pastoral moments and circumstances. It is a spiritual exercise and absolutely necessary for me if I am going to be an effective pastor (or at least as effective as I can be).
It is hard to leave home—and it is sometimes harder to come back—for there is lots of important stuff I could be doing here every day. But crucial work awaits me there—the work that by grace will allow me to come back with ears more keen to hear, a heart more ready to serve, with a word that, I hope, is worth the saying.