Just recently, in my eighth year as a pastor, serving my fourth congregation, for the first time, I found myself in one of the most stereotyped pastoral circumstances: the middle of the night phone call to tell me that a congregation member had died. Truthfully, I was grateful to the member’s daughter who called me. Usually when someone dies, I am an afterthought. This is generally true regardless of how active a church member the deceased was, or how involved in a church the surviving family members are. I have often learned of someone’s death days later; in one case, it was nearly six months after the death. Frequently I am relegated to the role of one more service provider in the bereavement industry, awaiting the much more common “Can you do this Friday at 11” call from the local funeral home—and I have learned not to take even that little for granted.
None of this is personal. It reflects various cultural shifts over the last few decades: changes in both secular society and congregational life concerning everything from how people grieve to how they view faith to how they find help in times of crisis. The social role of the pastor has been displaced by the celebration of life director (formerly known as the funeral director, formerly known as the undertaker), the personal growth coach (or YouTube, etc.), and the therapist. Why go to a pastor when there are so many professionals, specialists, who are trained to offer customizable, individualized care? What use is a pastor these days?
I wouldn’t dream of offering a thorough apology for pastoral ministry here, but two key points can be summarized. The first and most important point is that the decline of the traditional social role of the pastor is an opportunity for the renewal of the ecclesial role of the pastor. More and more, pastoral work makes less and less sense outside the church, and maybe that’s how things should be. The proclamation of the gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, the curacy of souls—all of this is work that presumes the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In communities where that truth is not affirmed or is regarded as one possible truth among many options, the pastor will always be something of an outsider. Rather than worrying too much about where we are seen as outsiders, pastors can intensify our efforts in the place where our work makes the most sense.
If the border between this place (the church) and other communities was clear, then this first point would also be the only one worth making, but that is not the case. Martin Luther famously said that the line dividing saint from sinner passes through every heart; similarly, the boundary between ecclesial and secular communities crosses through every life. So a second point in defense of contemporary pastoral ministry is that pastors provide an essential social good that is otherwise disappearing. And the nature of that social good can be found in that middle of the night phone call.
Professionals, from nurses and doctors to funeral home workers and therapists, do excellent work in providing care, but none of these professionals is expected to represent or provide a bridge to the wider community, or even have a presence in that community. Occasionally it happens. I have seen hospice nurses and in-home caregivers at visitations and services. Most professionals most of the time, however, cannot get involved in that way, and, for many professionals, to become too socially intertwined with care recipients could be a breach of ethics. Meanwhile, members of the wider community are generally absent from hospitals, hospice centers, nursing homes, etc. Visits are rare, and covid has only exacerbated the situation.
When the daughter called me during peak sleeping hours, she was not just reaching out for care in a time of loss. She was, consciously or unconsciously, grabbing a lifeline that connected her father, and by extension her family, to a wider community of people who knew and loved him. As her dad’s pastor, I belonged to that wider community and represented it; I was also a bridge to the rest of that community. At the same time, I could offer the comfort and support the community has in Jesus Christ. In other words, as a pastor I could unite what is increasingly divided: care and communal belonging. And in many cases, if I or another pastor am not providing that social good, no one is.
Death, as well as life crises and major health issues, not only kills; it isolates. And our society’s ways of handling, or, really, avoiding, death and suffering exacerbate this isolation. Pastors combat this isolation because it is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in so doing we build up the church, while offering an essential good to the world.