November 18, 2014
It’s a well-known truism: first impressions are lasting impressions. That conclusion was certainly not lost on our 244 pastors.
As part of our interview protocol, we asked each pastor what he felt were the strengths of his parish. Often, the pastors mentioned a vibrant culture of hospitality and welcome in their parishes. We discovered, further, that these pastors had their own personal sense of hospitality. These pastors were visible, available, purposefully present in parishioners’ special and difficult moments, and involved—all entirely consistent with an overarching concept of meeting people where they are.
First, these pastors were visible. As one pastor said, there is no substitute for presence. Though his parish has an excellent school, run by an excellent, highly competent faculty and staff, he still insists on being present. Frequently, he walks over to the school—even without an agenda. He observes, he greets, he learns. This ministry of presence is, for him, the heart of everything.
Second, these pastors were largely accessible to parishioners. Perhaps it seems like a given that pastors would be consistently accessible to parishioners, but pastor availability at larger parishes can be quite a challenge. Many larger parishes, in fact, are run more like small corporations—an idea advanced by management guru Peter Drucker—and the CEO would not typically be walking the hallways. Nonetheless, the pastors we interviewed were quite often deliberate about exactly that type of leadership. Said one pastor from a Southern parish, “My ministry certainly is servantly. I’m available to anyone who comes[….]People are good and need help and support. Every day, for me, it’s [about] how can I serve? How can I help? I go to their homes, I eat with them, I spend hours with them[…]I am very immersed in their lives.” To be successful as a priest, another pastor said, “you have to be joyful in the presence of others.”
Third, these pastors appreciated the weight that life’s significant milestones (birth, marriage, death) hold—and they worked to be present for parishioners in those important moments. We also got the sense that the pastors wanted to observe these occasions with the parishioners. As one East coast pastor said of his parishioners, “I feel very much like a father, and very close to the people.” Said another Midwestern pastor, “I minister a lot by presence. Anybody in the parish who has a loved one die…if I’ve not done the funeral or had a face-to-face, I will call every single one of those families to listen to them, ask them about their loved one, pray with them, and offer them the loving community and support of our parish.” In a similar vein, a California pastor said his entire approach is presence: “The ministry of presence to the people, especially in crucial moments of their life, the moments when they lose a family member or there’s grave illness [I use] to try to bring a spirit of openness and acceptance to people here[….]My effort has always been to try to know my people and know their stories as fully as possible.” As another pastor said, “It is a blessing to be able to walk with someone right up to the edge of life.”
Finally, the majority of these pastors remained integrally involved with the goings-on of the parish. There is no program, no ministry that they don’t know about. We were surprised to discover that very, very few pastors had organizational charts—sometimes, this absence was a deliberate choice and sometimes not—but this just made keeping up with all the moving parts that much more challenging. Many reported making a conscious effort not to micromanage—they wanted to be hands on in a general way but hands off with the particulars.