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.
I served ten years as senior/lead pastor of Palm West Community Church in Sun City West, AZ, a congregation in an age restricted community. That was a church plant and at the start I too made all the pastoral calls. As that church grew we added staff but did exactly what you write about and it proved to be a tremendous blessing and keep us in touch with real life. As I read your comments I reflect back to my last day as their pastor; brings back many memories. After a brief rest, God led me to Green Lake Conference Center in Green Lake, WI where I now serve as Program Director. Our home is in the PHX area and we live in PHX six months (I work out of my home office) and live at the conference grounds May through October. One of your associates, Bruce Finfrock, is a long time dear friend. I’m a Moody grad and had your dad speak at our mortgatge burning service some years ago. Blessings upon you my friend –
So good to hear from you. Of course I remember you. I’ve had the privilege of having Bruce on me team for quite a while now. He often speaks of the huge part you had in his life, mentoring him and giving him a vision for ministry. So thanks. We are blessed because your investment is still paying dividends. And blessings on your work at Green Lake. We used to have high school youth group retreats there. Don’t think I’ve been back since. It will be sad to leave a great staff at Cherry Creek, but we are also excited about my new assignment at RTS Orlando.
Your sermons have been such an inpiration to me and my fairly recent Coming to Christ. It is with deep sorrow to see you leave CCPC and overwhelming joy to see you go forth and influence younger minds at RTS Orlando. Will you maintain your BLOG in the future?
My prayers go with you and your family and all the good works that you do.
Robert, Thanks for your encouragement. Yes I will maintain the blog. Blessings, Don.
Don- thanks for helping me to find Christ. What a gift. My life and my family’s life changed at CCPC. All our best to you, Christina and the family as you move on to the next stage of this wonderful journey.
Marc, Kathy, Cassidy, Callum and Shelby Neely.
Marc, thanks for your encouraging note. Wishing God’s blessing on you and your family. Don
Dear Pastor Don,
My family and myself have been members of the CCPC family for as long as I can remember going to church! The glue that has held us to going to church and folling in the light of Christ, has not only been the beyond amazing youth group leaders that have kept us on track but you. You have that amazing ability to relate ANY sermon to a part of your life, mainly because of these “on-duty calls” and of course baseball! Even as a little kid, your sermons were opened to target the entire family and not just those that could see over the pew in front of us! It has been a great honor and pleasure to hear your sermons and connect to god through you profound messages. We will all be sure to miss you when you and your family go on your ways.
Happy trails, Skylar Ely.