Why, Sometimes, Pastors Need to Engage in the Ministry of Absence

The phone call came in well past my normal office hours. My children were already in bed, and the house was quiet. I didn’t recognize the number, but pastors know from experience that late-night calls should almost always be taken. The voice on the other line was urgent. A distraught mother had discovered that her teenage daughter had become sexually active with her boyfriend.

“Will you come over and meet with us?” she asked. “In the morning,” I replied, “I can meet you tomorrow morning.” Dissatisfied, the mother doubled-down on her request, reiterating the severity of her daughter’s revelation and the imperativeness of my presence. “I need you to come tonight,” she pressed. “If you would still like to meet tomorrow, please give me a call,” I responded, and politely ended the call.

“Pastor, I need to meet with you.” For those of us in pastoral ministry, a week seldom passes when those words are not uttered to us. In the opinion of many, this is the central aspect of our calling: to be present when they need us. To be there when tragedy strikes, or conflict erupts, when illness descends, or heartbreak occurs. We meet with them in our offices, at hospitals, around dining room tables, or over coffee. We meet with them at all hours and on any given day. Especially for solo pastors who don’t have the luxury of sharing the pastoral load, even vacation time is interruptible as the pastor is forced to rush home in time to deal with a sudden emergency. This is an unquestionable part of the job description for many pastors, an aspect of our calling we agreed to when we first signed up for duty. But is it healthy? Or more importantly, is it biblical? I am concerned that these calls for our constant presence are often intimately connected with two inordinate needs that deserve honest questioning: our parishioners’ desire to be in the presence of a surrogate Jesus, and the desire for pastors to be one.

Absence
While the story from my opening illustration may appear callous or unsympathetic, it was an example of intentionally practicing a vital aspect of ministry which I discovered in the early years of my calling into the pastorate. Borrowing a phrase first coined by Henri Nouwen, my intentional lack of availability to this distraught mother was “the ministry of absence.” Though we catch glimpses of this practice throughout many of Nouwen’s writings, his book The Living Reminder contains his fullest treatment of the subject. In it he writes, “We minsters may have become so available that there is too much presence and too little absence … too much of us and too little of God and his Spirit.”

In its simplest form, the ministry of absence is the ministerial practice of creating physical space for God to minister to individuals directly, without the aid of pastoral mediators. According to Nouwen, the instinctive urge for parishioners to call us to their side can often obscure the reality that they are uncomfortable being alone with God. Our physical presence provides a comfortable alternative to interactions with the Divine whose touch and voice are far less tangible. As such Nouwen urges pastors to practice times of intentional absence whereby people are encouraged to cultivate their relationship with a God who speaks in ways quite different from his human creations. The ministry of absence, Nouwen writes, “calls for the art of leaving, for the ability to be articulately absent, and most of all for a creative withdrawal.”

I remember being contacted late one night with the news that one of my ministry leaders had attempted suicide. Friends and family members were heading to the hospital, but I declined. The next afternoon, I sat in a padded cell with my friend and talked with him about the bandages wrapped around his wrists and forearms. A long night in the solitude of the psychiatric ward had given him opportunities to sit in the presence of God alone to ask questions that only Jesus could answer for him.

On another occasion a sobbing wife called and asked me to pick her husband up at the bar. He had recently begun an extramarital affair and left the house with a threat to visit his mistress. I found him in a stupor and let him sleep it off in my living room. When I returned with him to his house the next day, his wife was visibly distraught yet more composed than I had expected. Through a night of tearful prayers, she had poured her heart out to God in solitude and emerged in the morning light with the ability to articulate a firm-yet-loving ultimatum to her husband.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Stephen L. Woodworth