June 16, 2010

How available is too available?

John Marshall Crowe sent this article by Tom Steagald in North Carolina.

Here’s a description of pastors you won’t hear every day: “A quivering mass of availability.”

Sound right? Maybe not. Could be you can’t always find your pastor when you try.

The description rings true to me, however. The phrase was coined by Will Willimon, a United Methodist bishop and one of the most acerbic wits you would ever care to meet. Willimon contends that most pastors are in fact too available, running here and there doing all sorts of stuff for all sorts of people — and most often at the expense of the prior and more important work of prayer and study.

For his part, John Wesley expected Methodist pastors to read for four hours every day — he believed that such prayerful study was the underpinning of all lasting ministry. If the pastor complained that he did not like to read, that she had more important things to do in caring for the flock, Wesley suggested they go back to their previous jobs. Sadly, a recent study suggests that most Methodist ministers do not read even one book a year! Why? They are too busy, too distracted — too available.

Now, study and prayer are not all pastors are called to do. Of course a minister is going to be at the hospital when a member has heart surgery. That does not mean we leave our sermon preparations or cancel Bible Study when someone is having an ingrown toenail removed.

Of course a minister is going to care for the home bound — but that does not mean the pastor should — as I did for almost two years — do all the errand-running and grocery-shopping and trash-removing for an elderly member (that, when others could have take a turn).

John Baillie, a Scotch Presbyterian scholar and pastor, offers a powerful cautionary word for ministers and other servants. He confesses in one of his prayers that often “my affection for my friends is only a refined form of caring for myself.” In short, Baillie says that our service to others is often, in truth, an expression of deep selfishness. His confession begs the question: How often do I do what I do, not just for the sake of the one I serve, but also in quivering dread of the anger that will come if I don’t? Or in quivering hope of the blessing that will come if I do: “Oh, preacher, you are so wonderful!”

Like everyone else, pastors enjoy the immediate gratification and emotional pay-off that come from services rendered. Unlike others, a pastor’s quivering may just be the shakes — a sign we need a quick fix to soothe our often unconfessed fear of irrelevance. But like all fixes, it is addictive.

Harder to delay gratification, to read and study. Hardest of all to pray — where there is almost never an emotional pay-off. Still, I seem to remember that Jesus was not always available. Got him in a bit of trouble now and then, but at least when he arrived he came prepared. After all, as Bill Hinson has said, “The person who is always available brings nothing with him when he comes.”

Dr. Tom Steagald is pastor of Lafayette Street United Methodist Church

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