Must I shepherd all the flock?

When was the first time you received a pastoral visit? Do you ignore some members because they are harder to visit?

Jack Drumm is a pseudonym.

We drove my Pinto through the July heat from Michigan to southern California to participate in a field school of evangelism. My companion was one of the bright boys at the seminary.

I considered him a prize catch for the student church I pastored. He had begun attending toward the end of the spring term. Our mission as a church was to reclaim college and graduate students who, despite their enrollment in a church-run university, were losing their connection with the church. Surely our fledgling group would benefit greatly from Dave's vision and energy. He read books and spoke passionately about the need for creativity and compassion in church life—a model pastor in the making.

Dave's brilliance and wide reading intimidated me. I was not quite in his class; however, I really looked forward to spending a couple of days driving and talking together.

Our "driving talk" confirmed my impressions: Dave was well read, articulate, and visionary. But the conflict between his vision of what the church should be and his view of what it was so disheartened and wearied him that for months before he began attending our irregular student church he had not attended church anywhere. I had pursued him for the great contributions I was certain he would make. I never dreamed that he needed gentle care, that he was a bruised dreamer struggling with faith.

He told me he had declined my repeated invitations to our church from fear of further disillusionment. The reports about our church couldn't be true. Even to visit would be to risk again the bitter dashing of his hopes.

Finally he had come. The next week he brought Jim, a friend equally disillusioned, who after that first visit traveled unbelievable distances to be in church on Sabbath morning. Dave began again to indulge hope that their vision of the church was more than idle fancy. Some how that hope was tied to my role as the pastor of an unofficial, almost make-believe church. Never mind that he was smarter than I or had read more books or was more sophisticated. I was Dave's pastor.

As we drove west on the interstate through the hot hours and into the night, he talked of his doubts and of his dreams for heroic and effective ministry, doubts and dreams born during his internship in "the real world" of a small church—a world to which I was an alien. Certain of a divine call to the pastorate, he found himself unable to harmonize the lifestyle he craved with the lifestyle required by his vocation. He had married a woman with whom he could share his vacations but not his vocation. He drove a Scirocco but wanted a Porsche. They spent two weeks sailing the Caribbean; he dreamed of his own boat in the harbor—an Alejuela 38 fit for sailing to Tahiti or New Zealand. He needed to share all this with his pastor. He counted himself part of my flock.

Unvisited members

During field school we spent our mornings in class, our afternoons and evenings in actual fieldwork. Since most of us would never be full-time evangelists, we focused on methods for pastoral evangelism. The cardinal principle of pastoral care and pastoral evangelism was visitation.

"Visit your people!" our teacher emphasized. "Many of our members never receive a pastoral visit in their entire lives." No pastor had ever visited him!

The teacher recalled an incident when he visited the wife of a well-known church leader who was a member of his church. The woman cried with pain and gratitude: the pain of vainly longing for years for someone to be concerned about her personal spiritual health, and over flowing gratitude that a pastor—her pastor—had finally visited. At last some one had not assumed that she needed no pastoral care because her husband was a clergyman. "Visit your members. Visit all of them."

That afternoon while we were driving between visits to interests from the evangelistic meetings, Dave turned to me. "Jack, we have got to give Prof a pastoral visit. What do you say?"

We had Fridays off. Prof was sure to be home. We found his house, parked, and rang his doorbell. I felt a little foolish making a pastoral call on the evangelist who was teaching us pastoral visitation. The door opened, not widely. I don't know what we were interrupting—sermon preparation? letter writing? balancing the checkbook? He greeted us, but his voice, his posture, and the way he held the door, close, himself filling the opening—everything said he was not looking forward to having his day interrupted by a couple of students who were not the most productive in the class. I could see him wondering, how much of my time are you going to require?

We hastily explained our mission: "In class you mentioned that you had never had a pastoral visit in all your life. We decided that you should have at least one before you die. We are here to pay you a brief pastoral call."

He barely held back the tears. The door opened all the way against the wall. He almost pulled us inside. What did we want to drink? Would we like to see his study? He explained the great value of his favorite commentary set, discussed how to make time for adequate study in a crowded schedule. Finally, embarrassed at how much of his time we had taken, we interrupted, "Since this is a pastoral call, would you like us to have prayer for you and your family before we go?" We knelt on the carpet in his magnificent study. Again tears pooled just short of spilling over, and 1 carried away a new vision of who my flock is.

Visiting the hostile

My first official pastoral assignment was a war-torn church in the suburbs. When I arrived, the hostilities were in a temporary lull as the armies waited to see which side I'd join. Before too long I was thoroughly embroiled. As the first year blurred into the second the tension between Dr. Jackson, the church school principal, and myself became so great I finally told the board that I could no longer work with that man. Either they found another principal or they found another school board chairman. One of the more levelheaded board members rebuked my failure to keep personality separated from business; however, the principal and I continued our contest at every meeting.

I rejoiced on the Sabbaths the Jacksons went elsewhere for church. When they did attend, he carefully avoided approaching the door as long as I greeted people. With great reluctance I would force myself to find him and shake his hand. Finally they began to attend a church that was closer to their home. Sabbath was more pleasant for me and, I hoped, for Dr. Jackson and his family. With undue eagerness I awaited his request for transfer of membership.

Months later I heard through the grapevine that Mrs. Jackson had entered the hospital for surgery. I considered visiting her but thought better of it. Probably the mere sight of my face would cause fresh bleeding from her ulcer. And I could imagine her choking with cynicism when I prayed for her. They never came to my church anymore. The people from the other church would probably visit her.

I was busy with pastoral visitation. The Smiths' teenage daughter was considering baptism. When I came to their house to study with her daughter, Mrs. Smith made over me like her own son. She hoped out loud that somehow my visits and my wonderful personality would influence her husband to join the church.

I visited the Breens. Mr. Breen, a Ph.D. in math, a professor, was slowly recovering from deep wounds incurred in conflict with a pastor in another town. He often attended services Sabbath morning with his family, but refused to accept any office or attend church socials or business meetings or any other functions. My frequent visits seemed to make a difference. He drew closer to the church, slowly lowering his guard. Surely this was real pastoral visitation—ministry to my flock. There were other families, widows, and invalids who appreciated my visits and said so.

With so many people to serve, it seemed an unwise use of time to go chasing off to the hospital to see Mrs. Jackson, who did not like me anyway.

When I answered the phone, my mouth went dry. It always did when Dr. Jackson called. He did not call unless he had a complaint. And his complaints were never mild. Nor did he ever intentionally give me time to think about something before answering him. But his complaint this time not only left me momentarily speechless, but ever since has shaped my ministry.

"Have you dropped our names from your church list? My wife was in the hospital for two and a half weeks. You never visited. You never called. You sent no card. We haven't been in church for three months. You have never been to visit us; you have never inquired why. Aren't we still members of the church? Aren't you still our pastor?"

I wanted to explain that I would have been glad to visit his wife if I had thought I was wanted. I would have visited their home if I had not thought that the major reason for their going to another church was to avoid having to look at me on Sabbath morning. I would have loved to put in a dig: If you so highly value my role as pastor, why don't you cooperate with me in the management of the school?

My natural cynicism suggested that his complaint about my failure to give pastoral care was just another skillful stratagem—an unanswerable charge of professional misconduct that could be turned to good purpose when arguing about policy matters. But whether the hurt in his voice was feigned or real, I had failed. In fact, I had not cared if they left our congregation. I had hoped they would. I did not wish illness on his wife, but I had so distanced myself from them that I was not pained to hear that she was in pain. I did not feel that one of my sheep was sick. At best, the Jacksons appeared to me as someone else's unruly sheep dogs (if not actually wolves in sheep's clothing). I had not considered them part of my flock. But they were.

The Jacksons were not natives of the United States. I felt that their view of the significance of pastoral care was conditioned by the different cultural expectations of their homeland. Certainly middle-class and professional people who have grown up in America do not feel the same need for pastoral care. If Dr. Jackson had grown up in America, he wouldn't have wanted visits from a preacher with whom he was in such profound conflict. At least that is what I wanted to think.

Pastors need care

My cousin Jean was on the phone. Bill, her older brother, was having trouble at home. It looked as if he and Sally were going to divorce. Could I call him?

Bill had pastored for several years. His churches seemed to greatly appreciate his ministry. He was bright, articulate, forceful. His wife and two sons contributed to his image of a successful pastor. Leaving the pastorate, he began graduate study in another field, but theology remained his first love. After a period of time he also left his wife.

At the same time he developed a conflict with his pastor. They disputed about the relation between law and grace, God's sovereignty and human responsibility. Bill's favorite theologian was Calvin. The pastor was decidedly Arminian in belief. Bill had utter disdain for the pastor's lesser scholarship and for what Bill saw as shoddy, careless reasoning. He made no great effort to hide his impatience with the pastor's performance from the pulpit.

The pastor stopped asking him to preach and removed him from teaching his Sabbath school class. He also opposed a Sabbath afternoon Bible study group that others had asked Bill to conduct. Bill's attendance at the church became less frequent. It took a while before the church members knew that he and Sally were in serious marital trouble.

Naturally the pastor did not want to antagonize Bill. Bill had not committed adultery, so no church discipline was required. So the pastor did the prudent thing—let things ride. He did not want to appear to have a holier-than-thou attitude. He did not want to cross swords with Bill in argument. What do you say to an ex-pastor who knows the Bible backward and forward, loves to debate, is clever and sharp—and is having marriage difficulties?

When I called, Bill was not his usual cocky self. The hurt in his voice seemed utterly out of place. It was a note of neediness and dependence I had never heard from him before. "When I began to miss church, no one called. Not even the pastor. When Sally and I separated, no one cared. The pastor did not even call."

Bill had never needed anyone. He had been self-sufficient, strong, a leader, a preacher, a born troublemaker. If he had been a member of my church, I am sure that I too would have left him to fend for himself. I would not have seen his hurting as the pain of a sheep under my charge. Yet he too longs for a shepherd's care. He too is part of the flock.

The appreciation of pastoral attention is not limited to the hurting and discouraged. Phillip and Susan moved into a church-owned apartment and became members of our church. Despite the fact that his position in a denominationally owned business took them away sometimes two or three Sabbaths a month, the strength of their commitment to God and to our church added something special to our congregational life. Everyone liked them. Within a year of their arrival, despite Phillip's academic lack, I strongly recommended him to the conference leadership for a pastoral position. I could easily envision him as my successor in the church I served.

A couple of months after they had moved in, I stopped by their apartment to ask Phillip about something—I don't remember what. Something mundane. Our conversation drifted to spiritual matters without any particular direction on my part. Suddenly I was brought up short. Susan was telling me something with obvious emotion: "No pastor ever visited us before. You are the first ever to make a pastoral call in our home."

Suddenly I was listening to myself. What had I been saying? Had I really addressed their spiritual needs? Her remark gets full credit for my offering to have prayer with them before I left. Even those who are whole enjoy the personal attention of their physician. Even healthy sheep profit from the care of their shepherd.

My hero

When I entered the pastoral ministry, I already knew who my hero was among the ministers of our conference. I had met him while working in a parachurch organization and was immediately captivated. Thomas Bromden was the kind of person I dreamed of being. He was a model of the pastor I hoped to become.

Watching him at workers' meetings and camp meeting did nothing to tarnish his halo. He was rugged, informal, indefatigable. My wife and I attended a parenting seminar he conducted with his wife. He gave me copies of articles that would help me in my own work with families.

As I got over being awestruck and began to have the courage to relate to him familiarly, he shut me out. He was not rude, just cold, aloof. He responded with bare civility to my greetings. It hurt. But then there are people seeking my company who drive me up the wall—life is full of unrequited love. I did my best to be reserved around him. I had the feeling that I annoyed him in much the same way a little brother annoys an older brother.

After wondering for two years whether there was any way I could change myself to be more acceptable to the pastor I most admired, I finally called him up.

"Tom, this may sound crazy, but I have long admired you. It seems to me that you have been under some unusual pressure lately. You look harried. I don't intend to be nosy, but I thought it might encourage you to know that you have at least one fan."

"Thanks, Jack. Yes, things have been a little rough lately. I'll manage, but I appreciate your concern." I pressed ahead, determined to open a relationship with this man if there was any way possible.

"In recent months I have gotten the distinct impression that my efforts to be friendly are not really welcome. If my impressions are correct, then I don't want to be a pest. We all have more people clamoring for our attention and friendship than we can possibly satisfy. On the other hand, if I have misread you, I want to be corrected. I would hate to fail to cultivate a friendship simply because I misunderstood your cues. In any case, I'll remain a fan."

"I have been distant, Jack, but not because I have anything against you. I've had some personal difficulties that have made me distracted lately."

The next month Tom's wife left him for one of the doctors she worked with, a man 15 years her junior. Tom left the pastorate under pressure ("pushed out" would probably describe his feelings) and continued to work on a Ph.D. in adolescent psychology. I invited him to establish a tutoring/counseling service in my church. He welcomed the opportunity. The practice never really got started, but the joint effort gave me an excuse to cultivate his acquaintance. I continued to call him every week or two. At first I invented "business" to discuss. But when I noticed I wasn't the one prolonging the conversation, I eventually admitted I was calling just to see how he was doing.

Recently a conference official who had been a close friend of Tom's asked me how he was doing.

"Please, Stan," I replied, "don't ask me anything about Tom. I consider Tom my parishioner if not my friend. It would be unethical for me to talk about him at all. I will say that I think you should call" him. I think he especially appreciates attention from old friends."

Just this past week, after being away for a couple of weeks, I called Tom again. We talked about the relative merits of using hardwood versus softwoods in a home heating stove. Since I hate cleaning the stovepipe and chimney, I asked what kind of damage a chimney fire could do (and decided to clean mine this week). In previous conversation Tom had mentioned his appreciation of my persistence in staying in touch with him. This time his words were especially revealing:

"I really appreciate your calls. Nobody else calls. The ministerial secretary never—Oh, yes, Bob [another pastor with whom he had been quite close] called. He sounded as though he was scolding me for not staying in touch."

I do not feel that Tom's complaint is entirely justified. Surely, as a former pastor and member of conference committees, he knows that administrators who have had to make hard decisions about a person's fitness for ministry are not going to know what to say to a pastor whom they have urged to quit. If he really desires the attention of fellow believers and other pastors, why doesn't he attend church—my church, any church? Why does he persist in behavior contrary to the gospel he preached— behavior that I have worked hard to cover lest he experience even greater rejection? Why does he do these things? I don't know. But he is part of my flock. And I must not let the storm or the dark or the 99 models of decency and propriety safe in the fold deter my stubborn care for the hurt and head strong one outside.

I need a pastor

Recently I was at the conference office for an evaluation that I had requested. I am doing a specialized ministry that my congregation supports from a distance. For a long time I had felt the need for a critical evaluation of my ministry by someone acquainted with its unique circumstances.

I sat down with the ministerial secretary and a pastor whom I respect so highly that it borders on envy. They spent two hours discussing my prepared outlines along with the current crisis at the conference academy, possible personnel for a vacancy at the conference office, the most essential elements in good preaching, the current best book on exegesis, the role of preaching in city evangelism, and the value of Solzhenitsyn's writing for a doubting believer. After all this and more, we ended our meeting because I had to leave for another appointment.

The ministerial secretary asked, "What is our conclusion?"

"I hear you guys saying full speed ahead," I replied. "And that is what I plan to do."

I called the ministerial secretary later that day. "Jack, I want to thank you for today's session. Obviously nothing much in my plans was changed by our time together, but I feel as high as a kite. Do you know what it means to have two fellows whom you appreciate make your plans and dreams and frustrations the center of their attention for two hours? You didn't give me any marvelous new ideas or great new directions for my work, but you have given me new vision and energy as nothing else has in months. Thanks."

I guess I too need a shepherd's care. I too am part of the flock.


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Jack Drumm is a pseudonym.

July 1987

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