This week I had my last day on pastoral call as I prepare to leave our church and take a new position as seminary president. My schedule called for visiting a woman in ICU, visiting a man in hospice dying of brain cancer, visiting a younger woman who had a stroke, and visiting someone who had double knee surgery.
At our church, we have a rotation of pastors who are involved in providing 24/7 pastoral emergency care. There is always a pastor on duty. After hours, emergency calls are routed through our answering service, who then contact the pastor-on-duty. For those of us on-call at that time, our phone is on through the night. It’s not that we get many late night calls, but there are occasions when we do.
When I was a planting pastor and our church was small, I was the only pastor-on-call. That’s just the way it is in a tiny congregation. We did not have the luxury of a large team, or of having on-days and off-days. The church office was in my basement, and I was it!
It is an enormous privilege to work with a pastoral team in a larger church. We meet on Tuesday for a Pastoral Care Briefing where we get updates on those with critical needs. We make assignments for follow up, and then we pray over them.
Occasionally, over the years, I have had people, usually non-churched people jump to the conclusion that pastors are out of touch with the world. But as anyone who has been a pastor-on-call knows, we are more in touch with the world. Because we are constantly immersed into the crises and emergencies of people’s lives.
A returning soldier from Iraq who is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder wants to meet. A father wants to meet for spiritual direction. A woman gives birth to a Downs baby with heart trouble. A husband leaves his wife for another woman. A neighbor threatens suicide. These are just some of the situations we are called into.
I understand that some pastors, especially senior and preaching pastors, opt out of on-call duties. While preaching and preparation for the ministry of the Word certainly carries unique pressures and takes a lot of time, I have chosen to stay involved on the on-call team. In fact, I think that those preaching pastors who decline to be involved in pastoral care, actually lose the blessings of this kind of ministry. What are those blessings? Three come to mind.
First, serving on a pastoral care team helps put you in touch with the realities of a broken world. It reminds you that even in the best of times, there is a lot of hurt. It forcefully reinforces in me the conviction that this world desperately needs a redeemer like Jesus.
Second, serving on-call provides extra ordinary ministry opportunities. Like the business man who was going into a very serious heart surgery. There was doubt whether or not he would survive it. He knew the risks. So he wanted to meet with me beforehand to make sure he had eternal life in Christ. When someone is in a hospital room, many of the props of our lives have been kicked out from underneath us. People know they need God. They are open to prayer like never before.
And third, serving on-call actually helps, not hinders one’s preaching. Preaching can so easily become disconnected from real life. But if you spend a late Saturday night in an emergency room with a family, it will sharpen you like nothing else in the pulpit on Sunday morning, bringing a deep urgency to your message.
Is there a downside to this kind of pastoral ministry? Yes. People’s emergencies come when you least expect them! Their crises always interrupts something. However, if you are part of an on call team, you share the load, and know what is expected ahead of time. Most nights are call free. But sometimes they’re not. And of course, every once in a while someone calls and it is not as urgent as they think it is. Like the one night I got a call at 2.00 AM. A husband and wife were arguing. He told me his marriage was falling apart and he had to see me right away. I felt the liberty to ask him exactly how long it took them to get to this point. “Oh pastor,” he said, “this has been brewing for years.” To which I responded: “are you both safe?” “Yes,” he said. “Okay,” I replied. “Then if it took you this long to get to this point and you are both safe, you can both wait till the morning when I’ll be glad to meet with you. I’m going back to sleep!”
But sometimes it is not that easy. I remember having to spend a very early Sunday morning visiting a family whose new son-in-law had been killed in a tragic, post midnight car crash. Thankfully, my sermon was finished. But preaching on that particular Sunday brought a riveting sobriety to everyone in that sanctuary. Issues of life, death and eternity were clearly at stake.
What a privilege it’s been to have a role in the on-call pastoral ministry of our church. God has taught me so much through this. As I move toward a new role as seminary president, I know that many of my responsibilities will change. A seminary is not a church. Nevertheless, its leadership still involves somewhat of a pastoral role. I look forward to letting the things God has taught me in the past, shape and inform this new position in Christ’s kingdom.