Living in Fear of Dr. Seuss

            The other day my gastroenterologist called me up and asked me how my stomach was doing. About two weeks ago my GP called to check on me. The week before that I heard from my chiropractor and dentist. Can you believe that? Of course you can’t, because only salesmen make sales calls. Professionals don’t “reach out to you”; you do to them when you need them. Makes sense. Best use of their time, right? This is true for all the above but not pastors. For them the paradigm is upside-down.

            In the first decade or so of my ministry, there was a move to correct this. You regularly came across newsletter articles like this: RECALL NOTICE: It has come to our attention that we shipped a defective pastor to you. He does not have the ability to read your mind. He does not know when you could use a call, a visit, a consultation with him. Return him to the factory, so we can fix him.

            Why on earth, would members think the paradigm should be different for pastors than for doctors, lawyers, dentists, and even plumbers for that matter? It’s not this way among all Lutherans. Those coming out of a pietistic background have a lower view of the office. The pastor was expected to make the first move. Those with a higher view of the office held that a pastor should not go unless he is requested by the person needing care or if on their deathbed by a spouse or child. In fact, they viewed it as poor pastoral practice to visit without being asked to.

            The LCMS, from a pietistic background, made the pastor responsible for making calls rather than the member who needed the care. However, in 1855 it was decided that “making house calls the chief means of exercising pastoral care cannot be recognized by the Synod as the correct procedure” (Moving Frontiers, 245). But read the fine print. Within the resolution it said when it came to the pastor’s knowledge that you need a visit he was to go. Here the expectation of pastor as mind reader was born. The convention tried to temper this by going on to say that the proper setting for pastoral care is when the person comes to see the pastor to announce for communion or for private confession, i.e. when the person is there to ask for his care. Well, by the time I reached seminary (1979), those two things had disappeared from LCMS churches. For the most part, they’re still gone. So, there is no regularized event where sheep come to shepherds for care.

            How do you think conversations go where either the pastor or a friend determines a person needs pastoral care? You know how. You have all experienced someone calling you on the phone and then acting like you’re the one who called them. I know when someone needs pastoral care, counsel, advice when they tell me. I can’t read minds, and I can’t go by yours because you can’t either. Furthermore, the only way you can convince someone that they need pastoral care is to preach the law to them. How would you like me to call you up and say: “Friend, you aren’t in Bible Class. Why are you spiritually dieting?” “Friend, I think you have need of my ministrations. How about we start with a general confession, or if you like a specific one, of your sins?”

            So where’s the Dr. Seuss angle? In the most famous Dr. Seuss book not authored by him, Are You My Mother?, a baby bird having fallen from its nest wanders the countryside pathetically asking a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and finally a steam shovel, “Are you my mother?”. My fear is of becoming the pastor who wanders around pathetically asking, “Do you need my ministry?” If any of the professionals, I mentioned above did that, they would take a step down in most people’s eyes. So why would people want their pastor to do that? Hmmm.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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