Detoxing the pastor

Over breakfast in a Cracker Barrel a few miles west of Nashville, Frank and I talked about his new job. After a quarter century of pastoring Southern Baptist churches, he had become a chaplain in industry. When we talked, he had just gone full-time.

“Basically, we walk the plant and talk to the workers, four or five minutes each. We’re not promoting a church or a denomination, but trying to get to know them.”

“Our object,” he said, “is to gain their confidence by showing them we aren’t selling anything or promoting anyone but Jesus.”

He works with everyone, he says, from Muslims to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Baptists to atheists.

“When we first start inside a plant or company, the workers are suspicious. They think we are a part of management.”

“Gradually, they learn we’re not. In fact, we cannot tell the boss anything they tell us without their permission.”

“Confidentiality is the rule,” Frank said.

You get your chaplains from the pastorate? I asked.

“We do. But first we have to train them, to detox them.”

That’s when I grabbed my notebook–usually along for the ride just so I can sketch someone or jot down something–and started writing.

“Detoxing the pastor,” I said. “What does that mean?”

“Pastors live in clean worlds,” Frank said.

“Typically, they don’t see a lot of the harsher realities of life. They deal with committees and church staffs and worship services. The worst they see is someone dying in a hospital room or nursing home.”

“But in the plant, once they have gained the trust of the workers, the chaplain will hear it all. They will tell him things they would never tell their preachers–if they have one at all–in a hundred years.”

I didn’t feel like arguing. Over the years, I recall members of other churches coming to me with problems they couldn’t tell their pastors. Made me wonder if some of my flock were running to their preachers. Probably.

“Pastors promote their own churches and denominations,” Frank continued. “We don’t do that. We’re promoting Jesus, but in a non-confrontive and non-threatening way.”

“Pastors are pushing their own personal agenda, even preaching their personal convictions. We are there to listen and to befriend, and then as trust is established to help the person come to Christ and to the kind of healing and wholeness He alone gives.”

I said, “The company pays for this?”

“What our leadership shows management is that if we can help their workers, it cuts down on absenteeism and other distractions and makes them more productive. We can back this up with numbers from other companies where our people have served.”

“Right now,” he said, “I’m on my way to visit an employee of one of my companies who is having a knee replacement this morning. I can’t even tell his boss without his permission.”

I said, “Are you preaching any?”

“I can’t pastor while I’m doing this because we have to be on call over the weekends. I can fill in for a preacher from time to time, so I still get opportunities to preach.”

I said, “My big question then is this: what happens when you run across the story-of-the-century in dealing with some of these plant workers and you know it would make the greatest sermon illustration ever? Do you just ignore it and go on?”

“You see if you can get their permission to tell it,” Frank said. “Maybe by changing details in order to camouflage it. Help them see how their story could minister to others.”

“Confidentiality,” he repeated. “That’s another thing some pastors have a problem with.”

“Mostly,” Frank said, “in this ministry you just listen to people.”

Ah. There’s the rub. I knew there had to be a catch.

That’s the toxin I’d have to deal with in order to become an industrial (or corporate) chaplain. Listening is as foreign to me as sitting across the table from a Muslim or Jehovah’s Witness and sharing a bagel. Or whatever they eat.

I work at listening, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. Years ago I asked the Lord to grant me the gift of silence so I can listen to others and not try to outtalk them. Immediately He replied to my spirit, “Silence is not a gift; it’s a work.”

That was a disappointment. I’d far rather ask-and-receive than have to work for it.  Guess I’d wanted to take a pill and be done with it rather than have to strive.

“A person has to be called to this kind of work,” Frank said.  I believe it.

He said, “I’ve led a number of people to faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve conducted weddings and funerals and done more pastoral work in a week than I did in a month when I was serving a church.”

He said, “The biggest headache to a pastor–and the greatest distraction to doing his real work for the Lord–is the administrative overload.”

That sounds familiar.

I once asked a young pastor in his first church what had been his biggest surprise. “The administrative stuff,” he said. “It takes hours and hours I’d rather spend on more important things.”

Laypeople reading this will probably want to know what kind of administrative details we’re talking about. Here’s a partial list….

–meeting with the office staff, the ministerial staff, and the custodial staff on a regular basis to make sure everyone is on the same page and all the work is being done; doing the same with key lay leaders in the congregation–the committee chairmen, program heads, the deacon leadership, etc; writing letters, answering questions, returning phone calls, sending birthday cards to all the senior adult members (don’t laugh; a lot of pastors spend an hour a month signing all those cards); preparing bulletin material; solving disputes. Planning future events on the calendar. Arranging for denominational meetings, planning events he is chairing, attending meetings chaired by someone else. On and on and on…. It never stops.

The larger the church, the more a pastor is able to bring in associates to share the administrative load. Pity the pastors of small congregations who have to do it all. In my seminary pastorate, in addition to mowing the lawn, I typed and printed the Sunday bulletin!

All this stuff cocoons the pastor. It wraps him in layers of mind-deadening duties and details which insulate him from the needy people of his community.

Then one day, someone walks into his office and says, “Pastor, do you have a minute? My wife and I have just found out our son was drinking last night and may have hit someone in his car and driven away, and we need your help.”

Or her husband has left her. Or, he just found he has terminal cancer. Or, they’re getting a divorce.

They need you and they need you right now.

That sort of thing.

And, here’s what happens: you almost resent the intrusion.

They have interrupted your administrative work.

That’s when you know you are in big trouble. You’ve forgotten what pastoring–the word means to shepherd–is all about.

Quick, someone call 911. The pastor needs detoxing.

4 thoughts on “Detoxing the pastor

  1. How true, and most of the members of the church seem to believe you only work on Sunday morning! Why would you need to take a vacation?

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