The words sting all these years later.
They came earlier in Alan Rudnick’s pastorate when a congregant called to chastise him for not visiting another member in the hospital.
“You’re not doing your job,” the caller said. “You’re not being a good pastor.”
The fact that Rudnick hadn’t been notified about the hospitalization didn’t matter to the complaining member.
“In the caller’s mind, I was responsible for information that I didn’t know about.”
Rudnick, a Baptist minister, author and speaker tells that story to open his Aug.1 Church Leadership blog titled “When to contact your minister.”
He makes the case that seems obvious on the surface but isn’t so clear to many Christians in times of hardship or grief: pastors don’t just automatically know when their presence is needed. They must be notified.
Rudnick isn’t alone in that frustration.
“Alan’s story is pretty common,” said Tony Lankford, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in St. Simons Island, Ga.
He recalled a similar experience earlier in his career.
“A gentleman had surgery and I simply didn’t know about it until he was out of the hospital,” Lankford said. “I sensed a disconnect between us after that.”
Lankford said he believes the communications breakdown often occurs when church members tell friends or school classes about an ailing loved one or pending surgery, and then assume someone will notify clergy.
“And when there’s no response they may see that as a lack of caring when it is really a lack of communication,” he said.
What can ministers do about that? One is to direct Sunday school teachers, deacons and other leaders to contact the pastor or church office when they learn someone is hospitalized, he said.
“Over-communication is more beneficial than under-communication in these situations.”
It’s also important to empower lay ministries charged with making hospital and other pastoral visits, Lankford said.
“We need to do a better job of validating that ministry.”
But Stacy Cochran Nowell has seen that approach as a difficult sell in some congregations.
“To a certain segment…if you’re not spending all your time visiting, what kind of pastor are you?” said Nowell, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntersville, N.C.
Lay pastoral ministers are certainly not viewed as valid by some, but either are deacons and associate pastors in some places.
“Five deacons can visit them, but until the pastor arrives, the church hasn’t been there,” she said.
“Even associate pastors,” she said. “Those aren’t considered legitimate visits.”
Nowell said the complaints have sometimes come in the form of direct statements. In other cases, a church member will tell a story about a previous pastor who visited people daily.
The message is clear: “That’s how a pastor is supposed to act.”
Theologically, the answer to these views is in the notion of the priesthood of all believers. The doctrine doesn’t imply an elite, special few who possess the spiritual power that others do not, she said.
“Some say they believe that but have a problem with its application,” Nowell said.
But in some cases, citing Scripture isn’t going to help at all, Rudnick told Baptist News Global.
“Some want to play games or put the pastor in an embarrassing situation before the congregation,” he said.
“They aren’t looking to get any kind of care or ministry out of the experience,” Rudnick added. “But they are trying to get attention and sometimes they thrive on negative attention.”
In any case, there are few excuses anymore for failing to contact the church or pastor about illnesses and death.
“Pastors are more accessible now than ever thanks to the cell phone,” he said. They can be reached by calling or through Facebook and by text.
“Now that communication is so easy it’s just shocking sometimes to hear these stories … about people who just haven’t picked up the phone.”