Being a minister

A random conversation with a near stranger: “What work did you do before you retired?” I was a pastor - a minister serving congregations.” “Oh. You must have seen this coronavirus coming.” I didn’t know how to respond to that comment. Actually, being a minister gives one no special insight on the future. Prediction is not one of the special skills taught in theological seminary. I don’t even know wha that person thinks about the church or the job of a minister that prompted the comment.

There are some infectious disease doctors who did predict that a major pandemic was coming. There was real concern over bird flue, SARS and MERS all of which posed significant threats, but didn’t turn out to be the global pandemic that Covid-19 has become. Medical experts know that viruses mutate very quickly and that the world is so interconnected that they can spread at alarming speeds. They also know that public health and health education have not been priorities for governmental funding and action and that many countries, the United States included, are especially vulnerable.

Had I spent my career as an infectious disease specialist it might have made sense to assume that I had some inside information on the current pandemic. As a minister, however, I have never had information about infection, illness or treatment that others lack.

The Bible contains many stories fo Jesus healing those who were sick. Some readers of the bible assume that he had some kind of magical healing powers that were passed on to leaders of churches. As a pastor I did spend significant time praying with and for those who were ill. I still do have many sick people on my prayer list. Over the centuries the church as invested significantly in hospitals, medical colleges and other health care ministries. We see the art and science of healing as a path of service - a vocation - to which people are called by God. We understand that caring for those who are injured or ill is an important function. Many hospitals around the world were started by Christian people and Christian organizations. Hospitals and those who work at them, however, don’t have magical healing powers. And they don’t have magical powers to see and predict the future.

One of the realities of being a minister is that there are a lot of people who don’t understand the nature of the job. They see ministers in our public functions of leading worship, officiating at weddings and funerals, and the like and assume that those functions are the only things that ministers do. They see it as a kind of easy job that mostly involves public speaking. Others get a glimpse of us at work when we visit those who are sick and think that we are a kind of counselor who can be summoned when no one else knows what to say or how to comfort another person. Being a minister does involve spending time with those who are ill and with those who are grieving.

I suspect, however, that there are some people, even those who are active church members, who don’t fully understand the nature of the job. A minister has responsibilities for the institutional health of a complex organization. We spend significant time working with budgets, raising funds, and managing an institution. We have to understand how buildings function and how to arrange repairs when things are broken. We have to be responsible with record keeping and make sure that reports are filed correctly. Ministers have to keep up with technology and manage communications in a changing world. We were using email before most of the members of our congregations and we had to learn how to use social media effectively.

The coming of the pandemic meant that we had to reinvent the way we did work. After generations of face-to-face ministry and practicing the ministry of presence, we had to step up our use of the telephone and social media to keep in touch with people. With the closing of public worship spaces, we needed to find ways to bring worship to those we serve. I broadcast daily prayers, turning something that had been private into a public experience in order to provide a connection with the people I served.

The bottom line is that my vocation is one that is not understood by some of the people.

We are currently visiting a niece and her family. They are forging a meaningful life with three lovely children whose care is balanced between a mother who is a nurse who works 12-hour shifts, a father who is now working remotely from home, and a woman who is paid to provide some child care. The parents are hard workers and have invested a lot in fixing up their house and providing a loving home for their children. Both parents are comfortable with their caregiving responsibilities and are good with the children. They are not involved in a church and have formed a community of friends who support one another. Visiting them it is clear that they don’t really understand the work that we did or the nature of our retirement. Both of them can imagine not having to go to work so many hours and they can think of lots of things that they would do if they didn’t have to work for a living. Neither understands how we miss the work that was the center of our lives and how we are reinventing our lives in this new phase.

That is no problem. They don’t have to understand us. That is one of the benefits of family. We love and accept each other even though we don’t understand. It is good to be with them. I know that they will never fully understand the work we did and that they will have some misconceptions about what ministers believe and what we do.

I won’t be starting a campaign for people to understand ministers. For now I am content to try to be a loving and caring person to each one I meet. Like the work I did when I was active in my career, my presence is stronger than my words. A minister is who I am more than what I say.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!