The Ministry of Absence
Stephen L. Woodworth
[Reprinted in part from CHRISTIANITY TODAY, September 2018]
The phone call came in well past my normal office hours. My children were already in bed, and the house was quiet. I didn’t recognize the number, but pastors know from experience that late-night calls should almost always be taken. The voice on the other line was urgent. A distraught mother had discovered that her teenage daughter had become sexually active with her boyfriend.
“Will you come over and meet with us?” she asked. “In the morning,” I replied, “I can meet you tomorrow morning.” Dissatisfied, the mother doubled-down on her request, reiterating the severity of her daughter’s revelation and the imperativeness of my presence. “I need you to come tonight,” she pressed. “If you would still like to meet tomorrow, please give me a call,” I responded, and politely ended the call.
“Pastor, I need to meet with you.” For those of us in pastoral ministry, a week seldom passes when those words are not uttered to us. In the opinion of many, this is the central aspect of our calling: to be present when they need us. To be there when tragedy strikes, or conflict erupts, when illness descends, or heartbreak occurs. We meet with them in our offices, at hospitals, around dining room tables, or over coffee. We meet with them at all hours and on any given day. Especially for solo pastors who don’t have the luxury of sharing the pastoral load, even vacation time is interruptible as the pastor is forced to rush home in time to deal with a sudden emergency. This is an unquestionable part of the job description for many pastors, an aspect of our calling we agreed to when we first signed up for duty. But is it healthy? Or more importantly, is it biblical? I am concerned that these calls for our constant presence are often intimately connected with two inordinate needs that deserve honest questioning: our parishioners’ desire to be in the presence of a surrogate Jesus, and the desire for pastors to be one.