Pastoral Perspective: Ministry of Presence

A Column by Keith Burden

One of the most helpful and practical classes I took during my undergraduate studies in college was a course titled Pastoral Internship. The instructor met with us each week and covered topics related to pastoral ministry. He explained how to prepare a sermon, perform a wedding ceremony, conduct a funeral service, make a hospital visit, administer the ordinances, and a variety of other ministry tasks.

Additionally, we were assigned to work under the watchful eye and supervision of an older, more experienced minister. We were required to meet with this mentor regularly and, when possible, assist him as he carried out his pastoral duties. It was a hands-on, on-the-job training experience that proved extremely valuable for a young minister.

One day early in my first pastorate, I recall receiving a phone call from a family in the church. Their elderly father was in the local hospital and near death. They requested I come to be with the family. I dropped what I was doing and left immediately for the hospital. During that ten-minute trip, I hurriedly rehearsed the advice I had received previously from my mentor.

When I arrived, I was met by the hospital chaplain and escorted to a waiting area where the family was gathered. The sad facial expressions and tears told me all I needed to know—the old patriarch had just passed away. There was dead silence. No one spoke a word. In that awkward moment my mind raced to retrieve some profound statement or appropriate Scripture verse for the occasion. I drew a blank.

Finally, I took a deep breath and asked the family to join me in prayer. At first, I stuttered and stammered, looking for just the right words to say. Thankfully, the Lord calmed my spirit and gave me the ability to comfort and empathize with the family in their time of grief. Without saying anything more, I quietly went around the room and gently embraced and consoled each grieving relative.

A few days later, I preached the funeral of that godly saint. That was my first solo memorial message. I went to great lengths to prepare that sermon. I made an honest effort to personalize the service and say just the right words for the occasion. As I recall, the family was not all that impressed by what I said. Instead, they remembered that I was there when they needed me.

Texts, tweets, and emails are fine and well, but when your folks are going through a crisis, there’s no substitute for your presence with them. If I’ve learned anything from more than 40 years of ministry experience, it is this: people don’t remember much of what you say, but they seldom forget that you were there when they needed you. Never underestimate the impact and power of your presence.

About the Writer: Keith Burden is executive Secretary of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.