In January of 2010, I started attending Doxology, a program for the pastoral care of pastors. Coming face-to-face with my own need for pastoral care was strange. I have always had a “father confessor” going back to my vicarage. Nevertheless, one falls out of good habits and many times over the years I simply failed to see my own need for the care of a fellow pastor.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not we, in both the LCMS and American Christianity in general, are totally missing the value of pastoral care. I was told recently that one of the mega-churches in our area openly admits that the pastors of said church do not have a strong personal relationship with their people. (“Drive-thru” Christianity at its best, shallow and impersonal, uncommitted and convenient, an inch wide and deep). They don’t make hospital visits. They outsource a lot of the personal side of ministry.
(Don’t get me wrong. Christians should visit each other and show mercy toward each other too. Nevertheless, sometimes a person needs the care of a pastor. If their pastor doesn’t visit them…or even if it’s just obvious that he values executive tasks over against pastoral care…)?
So if pastoral care isn’t the church’s main emphasis, what fills the void? More often than not, the void gets filled with endless talk about “leadership.” The line between secular leadership and Heb. 13:7 is pretty blurry in this situation. As a former circuit counselor and current vice-president of an LCMS District, I know how easy it is to counsel call committees by totally emphasizing leadership (and secular notions of it at that). (I’ve had the privilege of counseling a significant number of calls. That being said, I hate to think how much leadership trumps pastoral care in such meetings–both on the call committee and by the District representative). Much leadership talk leads to much program talk leads to much failure, in my opinion. Looking at the LCMS over the past almost 40 years, I would argue that too many of us have been suckers for the latest program. “Sooner or later, one of these programs has to work” has been the thinking. But they rarely do. Maybe for a short while…if you’re one of those who is glued to numbers and statistics. “Whatever works” has led to 40 years of failure.
People don’t need programs. They need proclamation. They don’t need many words about how to grow a church, structure an organization, or have a purpose-driven life. They need a word of comfort, forgiveness, freedom, and strength. They need a word of life. They don’t need a quasi-religious, mostly secular “guru” telling them how to live (the pattern, by the way, of the non-denominational mega-churches is often driven by the personality of the “pastor” and not by Christ, witness Joel Osteen). They need a real pastor, a servant (slave), nurturing them with a word not his own. It’s all about Christ, not Pastor X’s personality, leadership skills, preaching style, or anything else. People need pastoral care. They need Word and Sacrament guiding them through a life of repentance and renewal. They need new life, not principles for daily living.
Does this mean that a pastor does not lead? Absolutely not. Pastoral “leadership,” if one should call it that, is an extension of pastoral care. It’s an extension of the primary tasks to which the pastor is called. Can a pastor lead? Sure. But that question/answer needs tempering with the more critical question: Should a pastor lead? What’s best for the pastoral care of the congregation is the only barometer for answering that question well. To put leadership above pastoral care, whether it’s done by a pastor, a call committee, a District official, a Synodical official, is to put the cart before the horse. In many ways, it puts the Law before the Gospel.
To follow up my last point, the emphasis on “leadership,” because it often cannot be distinguished from secular notions of leadership, is centered de facto on the Law. Systems are laws unto themselves. One really has to stretch it to get a system to be rationalized in any way by the Gospel.
I still like to think of myself as a young pastor, (there are many pastors with much more experience than I), but I have been around long enough that I have seen countless examples now of how troubled congregations were strengthened through consistent pastoral care. The pastor didn’t bring in program-after-program to fix things. He simply shepherded them as a good and faithful undershepherd of Christ…which was what the congregation needed all along.
My encouragement to my brothers in the ministry is this. Prioritize pastoral care. In so doing, Christ comes first. When you have to lead, then lead in Christ. Understand that one (pastoral care) is definitely more important than the other (“leadership”). A congregation as a group may require leadership. But each of those individuals who make it up require pastoral care. And if they get it, that pastoral care will make leadership a whole lot easier and more credible.
If any brothers in the ministry should happen to read this post, do know that you have my prayers for faithful ministry, thoughtful exercise of pastoral care, and wise (Scriptural) leadership.
Sincerely in Christ,