A five-minute phone call completely changed the way I think as a pastor.
Every Monday in our church staff meeting, one of our team members leads a devotional before our collective time of prayer. On this particular Monday, one pastor asked us to pray for his mom as she was having another flare-up of her chronic medical condition.
She lives in another state and is part of a different church, but I asked if I could call and check on her; he said yes and sent me her contact info. I dialed the number, she picked up, we talked for a few minutes, and then I prayed with her before moving on to my next task.
But after we finished, she texted her son and said I was the first pastor to call and pray over her since she was diagnosed five years ago. The first and only call in five years. That’s more than 1,800 days of chronic illness that she experienced void of pastoral care, much of that spent in isolation due to concerns with her immune system during the pandemic.
She is not some fringe attender, either. Even if she were, it wouldn’t justify a half-decade of neglect, but this woman has been a committed and serving church member her entire adult life.
It’s true that pastors sometimes don’t know of need in their congregations. Depending on the size and structure of a church, things can fall through the cracks. But it’s also true that many pastors, myself included, hear about a need and prioritize other parts of their jobs over pastoral care.
Pastors, I say this as someone who believes deeply in the role of shepherd and the potential of healthy churches: If we “don’t have time” for the most basic pastoral functions, like praying with someone who is sick, then what the hell are we doing?
We might be writing great sermons, running meetings, planning strategy, managing donors, leading staff and casting vision, but if we’re neglecting the people God has asked us to care for, then we are no longer pastors. We might be CEOs, speakers and strategists, but we aren’t pastors. There is a cost to doing “ministry” this way, and our congregants are the casualties.
When Peter, the person who led the very first church, gave instructions on how to be a pastor, he said: “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly — not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care but lead them by your own good example” (1 Peter 5:1-3).
“Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you.”
This is our calling, fellow pastors:
- Care for the folks in the church.
- Support people with enthusiasm, not reluctance.
- Lead with humility, not arrogance.
- Lead by example, not decree.
- Be eager to serve, because it’s ultimately God you’re serving.
I posted this story in a thread on Twitter and received hundreds of responses from folks who felt neglected by their pastors and churches in times of need.
One woman said, “I called six churches during the darkest days of my infertility journey and not a single care pastor responded to my voicemail requests to be prayed with. Only one church called me back at all and that was to say, ‘We don’t have infertility in our church so we can’t help.’”
Another person told me about her grandparents who volunteered at their church for decades, including cleaning the whole building for free every week. After her grandmother got dementia and her grandparents no longer could attend, they were ignored. After her grandmother passed away, not one single person called or came to visit her grandfather.
“One man shared that the only correspondence he received from his church after his mother’s death was a request for offerings.”
One man shared that the only correspondence he received from his church after his mother’s death was a request for offerings.
But people also shared beautiful stories, ones where pastors and churches came through in difficult times. Stories of phone calls, visits, prayer letters, hot meals and shoulders to cry on.
I was so moved that I added a new tweet to the end of the thread. It simply said: “If you’d like to be prayed for over the phone, and you don’t have a pastor who is willing or able to do so, I’d love to do that for you. My DMs are open. Message me with your number and I’ll call asap.”
Over the next couple of days, I talked and prayed with dozens of people — from Canada to Kentucky, from Nigeria to Nashville, and everywhere in between.
And here’s the thing: I think I was more blessed by it than they were. What a privilege it is to listen to someone’s story and pray with them.
Simply put, this experience has completely changed the way I think as a pastor. I now look for opportunities to ask deeper questions, listen and ask if the person I’m talking to would like me to pray — not just at some indeterminate time in the future (when most of us will forget and not pray at all), but right then and there, together.
They almost always say yes. And I am always grateful.
Zach Lambert serves as lead pastor of Restore Austin, a congregation in Austin, Texas.
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