Before you begin reading this column, I want you to know that I’m assuming we’re all clear on the fact that the pastor is a human being.
This might sound like a strange way to start off. I mean, we all know the pastor is a human being, because the pastor needs to eat and sleep, sometimes the pastor has children, and drives a car, and worries about saving for retirement. Of course the pastor is a human being.
But the whole pastor as a human being reality, I find, gets tested a bit when the pastor gets sick. Like, go to the hospital and have to stay home recovering for awhile kind of sick.
I’ve been sitting on my couch recently binge-watching Netflix and trying to feel better after surgery of late, and I have to say that my congregation has done a stellar job of managing the discomfort of their constant reminder that this pastor is human.
So, I tried to think of some of the things they’ve done for me these last few weeks, ways they’ve engaged that I’ve found supportive, loving and conducive to healing. Maybe they’ll work for you, if you ever have to confront the difficult reality that your pastor is human, too.
First, remember that a lot of good care and love and compassion can happen from a distance. When you get the news that your pastor is sick, you might immediately remember that time the pastor came to see you in the hospital when you had your baby. And you might want to reciprocate, because that visit was so nice! Stop right there and remember this: though your pastor is probably a really nice person and would have come to see you after you had your baby anyway, it’s actually his job to come see you when you have a baby.
It’s not, however, your job to visit the pastor when she’s sick.
Wait for an invitation to visit, and remember that you can help and support in powerful and wonderful ways from a distance just as well as you can in person. I promise. And, if you do drop by, please don’t drop by unannounced, and please, please, please stay for a very short time. Like, five minutes. Not to imply that I’m speaking from any recent experience, but please, just trust me on this.
Second, do not underestimate the comfort and care of a handwritten note. During this bout of recovery, for example, I have received some of the most beautiful handwritten notes I have ever received in my whole entire life.
I will save them forever.
My children will find them when they have to clean out my attic after I die. That’s just how much those notes have meant to me.
I know handwritten notes are largely a lost art, but seriously, just sit down with a pen and a notecard and write something. It doesn’t matter much what you write, though I’d venture to say you should probably steer clear of topics like your ongoing dissatisfaction with the color of the new choir robes. Pretty much any kind wish or prayer that comes from your heart will do just fine. You can send flowers and meals, too, but just make sure delivery of food or flowers is easy and coordinated with others so your pastor and/or her family doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
Third, pray for your pastor. Pray for her, but don’t keep it to yourself. Tell your pastor you’re praying for him when you do. Pastors often are asked to pray for others, to keep hurting folks in our own prayers, to compose pastoral prayers that address the needs of the congregation every Sunday. It’s very rare for someone to say to a pastor: I am praying for you. Tell your pastor you’re praying for her, and then really, really do it. Really.
Fourth, understand that there is a strange public/private tension with which pastors live all the time. How much of my life is open for public consumption? How much is private? How do I decide?
These constant questions inform every part of a pastor’s life, but they become especially prominent during times of serious illness because whatever personal decision-making power a pastor has — to reveal personal information or to keep details of personal matters private — is often out of her hands. I mean, if the pastor doesn’t show up to preach on Sunday morning, somebody is bound to notice, if you know what I mean.
Let the pastor take the lead on how to communicate about his illness. When you do, you’re giving him a small shred of control in a big and scary situation over which he likely feels he has very little control.
Finally, keep the big picture in mind. Taking time away from our work at church does not come naturally to most of us pastors. Part of the reason for that is a sense of call that infuses every part of our lives. And part of it is a strange yet powerful conviction that the bulletin probably just can’t get done without our participation in the process.
Both of these are matters for the pastor to take up in therapy, of course, but my point is that even when we’re sick we will want to know what’s going on at church. Sometimes the best support you can give your pastor, though, is distance.
It’s good for us to remember that the world can rotate on its axis without us and the bulletin will get done even though we haven’t approved the final draft. We’re human, don’t forget, and we need time away to rest and recover and heal and deal with all the very human things that happen to any of us when we get sick.
You can really help your pastor when you insist that she takes some time to rest — think of it as taking the long view, because you want your pastor to get better and stay healthy and stick around for a good long time to lead your church into God’s best expression of who you can be together.
Thanks, good church people, for all your care for us. We pastors need it, and we appreciate it so much. Because we’re human, too.
Originally Posted at Baptist News Global