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.”

ヘンリ・ナウエン(写真:Frank Hamilton)


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.


In both situations, if I had been immediately present, the comfort of my sympathy and compassion would have only served as a temporary distraction. My friends didn’t need me and my feeble attempts to counsel them or offer impromptu advice, they needed to be in the presence of God to hear directly from the only one able to bring light into their darkness.


In this way, Nouwen calls pastors to purposeful moments of withdrawal which serve to disciple the body of Christ by constantly forcing members to increase their dependence on God. According to Nouwen, “If it is true that ministers are living memories of Jesus Christ, then they must search for ways in which not only their presence but also their absence reminds people of their Lord.”


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who participated in the Nazi resistance during WWII, shared Nouwen’s conviction when he wrote, “Before God and with God we live without God.” While frequently misunderstood and misapplied,


Bonhoeffer’s challenging observation points to the reality that our lived experience on this side of heaven is an existence among shadows. God is certainly present, but in a way very much unlike the totality of presence we will experience in the world to come. We live “before God and with God” as imperfect creations, marred by sin and limited by our ability to see only “in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12).


According to Nouwen, that is a reality rehearsed regularly in our weekly worship. Through the ministry of the Word and sacraments, we are simultaneously reminded of God’s presence as well as his absence. We study his revelation and allow his eternal voice to speak into our current lives, yet we grasp it imperfectly until we are able to see him face to face and “know even as we are known.”


We consume bread and wine with the conviction that Christ is spiritually present even as we acknowledge the explicit promise that we will do so “until the Lord returns.” Our entire lives of worship and ministry are practiced without the physical presence of our Lord. While spiritually present at all times, the impetus for our following lies in a future hope of our reunion. We anticipate the kind of unending presence of God that alludes us until we are glorified. Towards this end, Nouwen suggests, “Ministers do not fulfill their whole task when they witness only to God’s presence and do not tolerate the experience of his absence.”



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