I visited a beloved member of my church at her assisted-living residence. She’d had a stroke, and while it did nothing to hamper her vivacity, she suffered a dent to her memory. I found her in the cafeteria having lunch with other residents. She happily recognized me as someone familiar when I showed up, but she struggled to recall my name.
The resident seated next to her inquired whether I was her grandson. She responded not as she intended but in a way that surprised both me and her table companion. A huge grin on her face and a gleam in her eye, she excitedly announced while pointing at me, “This is the Lord!” Naturally, the other resident, a bit taken aback, gave me a good looking over before exuding simultaneous disbelief and disdain. My friend gathered as much, so she repeated her introduction with gusto: “This is the Lord!”
At first I was too startled and amused to correct her, but regaining my composure, I quickly admitted that no, I actually wasn’t the Lord but only a minister from her church. My admission failed to wipe the disdain from the other resident’s face. Apparently I was as unimpressive as a pastor as I had been as the Lord. She returned to her tapioca, quite underwhelmed.
While pastoral care can coax out the messiah complex in us, it can also create irritation. Pastoral care often comes as a disruption. The phone predictably dings in those moments when we feel least available, with sermons to prepare, Bible studies to lead, staff to coach, programs to organize, and emails to answer. Must I stop all that needs doing to go to the hospital to pray? Can I not intercede from my desk? (I feel guilty even typing this.)
I’m reminded of a pastor of a large church who quipped that if he ever showed up in a hospital room, then the person he visited must be seriously sick. On the other hand, I interned with a pastor who visited the sick every afternoon. For him, this priority derived from Jesus’ identification with the infirm (Matt. 25:36). In those days, hospitals kept lists of which patients attended which churches, making it possible for pastors to show up unannounced to the wonder of their ill congregants. (Nothing impresses folks like a hint of omniscience!)
Care is a cornerstone of our calling. So why must we be cajoled to do it? It could be because pastoral care requires spiritual muscles we don’t flex as often. The majority of our work tends in other directions, leaving pastoral care to operate as something of a sidecar to what seems like more important ministry. Larger churches will relegate care to associate staff, and smaller churches to hospital chaplains, hospice services, and other agencies. Realizing as much, our congregants resort to these services, as well as to therapists, counselors, and a host of DIY self-care methods, so as not to bother the pastor.
There’s also an aversion, endemic to healthy humans, to inhabiting the world of the sick, the hurting, and the dying. We pastors may preach death as the pathway to resurrection, but we’d rather spend time among the living than the dying.
Ministers have long been tasked with the care of souls, a calling that must include—even as it finally surpasses—sick bodies. The ill people Jesus healed all went on to die. In this way, healing pointed to heaven; it wasn’t yet heaven itself. Our church prayer requests are packed with those suffering physical distress, but we must pray and attend to spiritual ailments too.
Not that all hardship will find healing. Jesus was clear that following him would bring trouble. We must each carry our own cross and experience suffering as a kind of awful grace from God. As Lutheran pastor Harold L. Senkbeil reminds us in The Care of Souls, “We have nothing to give to others that we ourselves have not first received.”
This includes taking care of ourselves since pastors—even those with messiah complexes—can no more pull off omnipotence than we can pretend to be omniscient. We need to set aside time to read Scripture and pray, to make friends and lean on support systems, to take our vacations and pace ourselves, and to rehearse over and over the words of John the Baptist, “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20).
Self-care includes boundaries. We forget in these days of clergy scandal and institutional mistrust that people still put their pastors on pedestals, and pedestals grow higher sometimes due to the disappointment elsewhere. Boundaries protect pastors from misplaced hero worship. And boundaries protect our people from our own temptations toward heroics.
As pastoral caregivers, we do so as sinners in need of the same grace. We are not the Lord, but we have access to his Spirit—the ultimate Comforter who will help and be with us forever.
Daniel Harrell recently served as CT's editor in chief and has ministered as a pastor for over three decades.