Practicing the ministry of absence is not as simple as refusing to be present. Especially for those who have made their constant and immediate presence a hallmark of their ministry, there will be a murky season of change.


For parishioner as well as pastor, practicing the ministry of absence will require expectations to change. People need to be weaned from our perpetual presence, and pastors will need to be released from the often fulfilling and unholy need to be needed.


Over the years, as I have practiced this ministry I often have made errors. People have sometimes been offended, and I have often been misunderstood. On many occasions, in hindsight, I should have been there. And many more times when I shouldn’t have been there, I was.


Like many aspects of pastoring, the ministry of absence is more art than science and requires a great deal of discernment. While I would refrain from offering any sort of definitive formula, I do carry with me a set of principles which have often guided my decisions.


First, I am always present when it is an emergency. Not necessarily a perceived emergency to the person (we all tend to think our personal tragedies are emergencies), but a true emergency like a sudden death or a tragic accident.


Moments like the night I spent in the ICU holding the hand of a student whose skateboarding accident without a helmet cracked his skull and left him with a 50-percent chance of making it through the night. Moments in life that the morning light simply cannot change.


Second, I am also present when allowing someone to be alone would be dangerous. People with a history of suicidal tendencies or those struggling with addictions to drugs or alcohol often need the physical presence of someone they know and trust in moments of desperation. If someone is in the care of medical professionals, I am rarely necessary, but leaving such a person alone could have dire consequences.


Third, this leads to the overarching principle of knowing the people you pastor. When confronted with a request to be immediately present, pastors need to ask, “Is this someone who considers everything urgent?” Or, “Is this someone that I rarely hear from?” Knowing our people will help us to discern in the moment whether the person on the other line is in need of my presence specifically or the person is merely seeking out the presence of someone they believe is paid to always say yes.


Fourth, and most importantly, I constantly ask myself, What is best for this person? Will my presence distract or enhance from God’s place in this moment? Within this question lies the need for pastors to search their own hearts and motivations for going. Temptations to seek the approval of others or merely avoid conflict or disappointment are poor justifications for denying those we serve the necessary opportunity to experience the unfiltered ministry of Christ.


In this way, the ministry of absence is as much a gift for pastors as it is to the members they serve. Amidst the constant busyness of pastoral ministry, who among us does not need to be reminded frequently that our job, like that of John the Baptist, is not to be the Savior, but to continually point people towards him?





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