Reach out and touch someone

When the Bell Telephone system coined this catchy phrase, they probably didn't have pastors in mind. But you will discover, as did this pastor, that the telephone can be an indispensable aid to ministry.

James Coffin is associate pastor of the Spencerville, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist church.

A catchy commercial for the Bell Telephone system has been admonishing radio listeners and TV viewers throughout North America to "reach out and touch someone." The idea is to pick up the nearest telephone and call someone long neglected—preferably long distance. Bell's prime motivation is obviously the generation of greater revenues. But the suggestion has tremendous possibilities for pastoral ministry.

Some time ago a disgruntled parishioner (not of my parish, I am relieved to say) complained that it took all the faith he could muster to believe that his pastor actually cared about him as an individual. Certainly, the pastor gave him a cheery smile and a firm handshake each week. He likewise always asked a rhetorical, "How are things going?" But in the many months since the pastor had arrived at that church, he had never paid a personal visit to this member. For that matter, neither had his predecessor. Nor the pastor before him! In fact, aside from the handshake and greeting after church, the only pastoral interest seemed to be an occasional appeal for greater giving or a request for some type of help at the church.

This very disgruntled parishioner was concerned. While he tried to be appreciative of the pastor's heavy load and the congregational high expectations with which he had to contend, he could not ignore his own need to be treated as a person and not as a mere pawn.

"If the minister would just phone occasionally, just show a little personal interest, I wouldn't feel so taken for granted and used," he lamented. "Why can't he arrange his schedule so that he can phone two or three families each evening? In four to six months he would be able to phone the entire church." As I was then in transit to a new parish, I decided at least to attempt to implement his suggestion. Without doubt, it has proved one of the choicest bits of advice I've received in some time.

As a pastor I've always placed personal visitation as second only to preaching in my list of priorities. (My performance, unfortunately, has not always reflected my priorities.) But for the busy pastor, particularly in a fairly large church, it is nearly impossible to visit the parishioners with the kind of regularity one would prefer. Even visiting very diligently, it may well take a year to eighteen months or longer to make an initial visit to every member's home. Here is where the telephone comes into its own.

Within a week or two of arriving in my new parish, I sat down and began phoning every member on the roll. I introduced myself as the new pastor and told him or her that I was looking forward to getting acquainted. I learned the correct pronunciation of names, a bit of general information such as type of work, and fairly comprehensive information about children: birthday, year in school, et cetera. I told each to feel free to call upon me if I could ever be of service. And, finally, I encouraged each one to be sure to introduce himself to me at church on Sabbath.

It took me about fifteen evenings, working from five to nine o'clock, to make the three hundred calls necessary to contact all of the families. But the good will that it generated was phenomenal! Many people hadn't had any personalized attention from a pastor for years. To think that they had been contacted when the minister had been in the area less than six weeks was almost overwhelming! Since first impressions are usually lasting ones, the speedy contact generated a glow of good will that could only work to my advantage. The telephone introduction definitely made for a warmer reception when I visited the home later.

Having kept careful notes of our conversations, I had a wealth of information jotted down about each family. Many had been very forthright in letting me know that, due to a particular grievance, they had not attended church in weeks, months, or years. The feeling of anonymity provided by the phone seemed to make some feel less inhibited about lancing their boils of grievance. And the result was very therapeutic. With the problem at least verbalized, we could work toward a resolution more quickly when I visited person ally.

Of course, those calls had taken almost sixty hours. But during that time I had become fairly conversant with the church roll. I had memorized a significant proportion of the church members' names before ever meeting them. Putting names with faces was then relatively simple. A further benefit was that I could immediately begin sending birthday cards and other special-occasion cards to the church's young folks—cradle through college—even including little personal details gleaned from my initial phone contact. Many youth were amazed. "How can a minister, whom I have seen only once or twice, know that it is my birthday, let alone that I play the trumpet and love snow-skiing?"

I have begun to realize how starved people are for someone to care about them—not necessarily to do things for them, just care about them. So I have begun to jot down bits and pieces of information that I happen upon. If Mrs. Brown is going to have a wisdom tooth pulled in a week, I make a little note of the details and phone at the appropriate time just to see how she's getting along. If the Smiths are taking a trip somewhere, I note their date of return and phone to see how the trip went. If the Arnolds are going to be grandparents in three months, I check to see if the big event has transpired.

Of course, I don't keep up on all the comings and goings of my members. By far, the bulk of events goes by unnoticed. Yet almost every working day I spend at least an hour on the phone making five-minute calls to ten or twelve different people who I think might appreciate being remembered. Needless to say, the response has been encouraging. Further, I find it takes the sting out of "request calls" when I ask them to do something for the church. They know that they are not being taken for granted and that the pastor doesn't just call to "use" them.

With the initial phoning blitz proving so effective, I decided to have a rerun at least every six months. When Christmas and New Year's rolled around I spent another fifty or sixty hours on the telephone. The rewards were just as great as before. I learned about sicknesses, bereavements, upcoming surgeries, and a host of other things of which I had been totally unaware. But with scarcely an exception, the people took it as a great honor to know that a pastor would take the time to wish them a happy holiday and just say that he cared.

All of us as pastors love each member of our flocks. All of us wish them the very best and would be only too happy to assist them in any way possible. Unfortunately, many of us have not conveyed this love and concern to them. Undoubtedly, there are limitless ways whereby we can convince them of our interest in them and their lives. Different areas of the world will need different methods. But thanks to the suggestion of a disgruntled layman, my experience has shown me that one of the simplest ways to realize a maximum return for a minimum of effort is the telephone. The Bell Company is right! It isn't a bad idea to "reach out and touch someone"!

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James Coffin is associate pastor of the Spencerville, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist church.

July 1982

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