“I just called to say I love you…” –Stevie Wonder
This week I received a note from a pastor friend. “When you were here three years ago, you encouraged me to send hand-written notes to my church members. I have done that–not as much as I should have–and it has been a very beneficial part of my ministry, even if performed imperfectly.”
I replied that he may be the first pastor who has ever done something I suggested. And that it will take a little getting-used to.
I was smiling. I love to see a pastor–any pastor–making a discovery that works for him.
My journal for the 1990s records something I never want to forget.
Our other ministers and I were trying to line up 15 freezers of homemade ice cream for a church fellowship the following Sunday evening. My assistant always had trouble getting enough freezers because he tried to do it simply by promotion from the pulpit. A mass appeal like that makes it far too easy for people to ignore.
The best way to do this is by asking the people personally.
Profound, huh? (Another smile.)
So, in order to prove the point to my assistant, I made the phone calls. I was going to line up fifteen freezers of ice cream. And I did, I’m happy to say. But in the process, I ended up making a huge discovery. Or possibly a re-discovery.
Here is the Journal notation from a couple of days later, awkward syntax and all.
This week, as I’ve called church members to line up 15 ice cream freezers for the fellowship August 15, was struck by how many pastoring conversations resulted. People told me of coming surgeries, coming marriages, even a divorce, etc. I prayed with lots of people. And came away from the phone with this odd exhilaration from having rendered pastoral ministry. And so, today, Thursday, I’m making a few more calls and having the same experience, when I decided to take the church directory printout and just start calling church members, particularly those I’ve not talked to lately.
I’d say, “Hi Bob…this is Brother Joe…. As you know I’ve been gone so much this summer (the church had given me a six weeks sabbatical) and I’ve been so out of touch, I was just wondering how things are with you?” And I let them talk. I gave this maybe 90 minutes tonight and have struck the mother lode. Such response. And such a strong inner feeling that this is it!
I recall my friend and mentor James Richardson saying once, “Isn’t the telephone wonderful?” meaning it’s not necessary to always be running by to visit someone. Just call them.
And then, Monday, after my return from the six weeks sabbatical, Don Henderson (age 80+) took me to task for not even phoning him to inquire about his health following his surgery in January. And this was August!! Yikes.
In those days, my friend Dr. Bill Baker was pastoring the First Baptist Church of Clinton, Mississippi. At one point, we were talking on the phone and I learned he’d made the same discovery. “I’m without a minister of education right now,” he said, “so in order to line up people to attend the Sunday School week at Gulfshore Assembly, I got on the telephone. I now have 25 people signed up to go.”
He paused and said, “The guy who just left would have called no one, but would have pushed it from the pulpit and might have had 3 or 4 to go.”
Get the church directory down, pastor, and start looking. Who have you not seen in church lately? (Call them and say, “I’ve missed seeing you. Are you okay?”) Who needs a thank-you from you? A personal touch? Why not call someone and say, “I was just thinking about you. How are things?” Believe me, they will never forget this.
I know the main objections to this…
–“I don’t have time.” Answer: Rubbish. You have as much time as everyone else in the world. You have time for whatever you choose to do. The only reason you don’t have time to reach out and touch your people is that it’s low priority with you, and that should give you pause. Are you a shepherd or a hireling?
–“I have too many members to call?” Answer: That’s not true either. You may have too many to call all at once, but no one is suggesting that. If you call five a day, that’s 25 a week. And we’re talking family units. So 25 families might touch a hundred people. Stay with that program for a few months, and you have basically covered your entire church.
And even if you never get to everyone, you are sending out a signal that you love your folks and you are available to them.
–“I have staff members to do the calling.” Answer: No, you don’t. Just as no one else can chew your food, do your praying, or love your family in your stead, you are the only one who is you. And we’re talking about you picking up the phone and calling people to ask how they are doing, to thank them, to pray with them. I will tell you for a fact that if you have a secretary make a phone call to a member who is having surgery to say, “The pastor wants you to know he’s praying for you,” instead of ministering to them, you will probably enrage them. They will wonder what you are so cotton-picking busy doing that you can’t pick up the phone and call them personally. They will probably conclude you don’t love them enough to do that. And they will probably be right.
Now, no one is saying…
–No one is saying that pulpit promotions aren’t effective. They can be, if limited to a few, and if done right. But they should reinforce the personal appeals, not replace them.
–No one is saying you can pastor a church by the phone instead of making hospital visits and calling in the homes of church members as needed. This is over and above your regular pastoral work.
–No one is saying this is the program for everyone. The pastor of a small church will laugh at this, since he does this all the time, even visiting in his people’s homes regularly. This little encouragement is mostly directed to pastors of medium to large churches.
Final note: In this post-pandemic age it appears that wholesale church visitation will not be happening any more. Here and there you might find some pastor who visits door-to-door (as we used to!), but that also is a rarity. But the telephone still works. And phone calls are still welcome.
Take advantage of that, preacher!
Over these years, I’ve seen many a minister terminated because the congregation decided he was not a pastor. He wanted to lead the church from his office, through layers of assistants, with him limiting himself to his pulpit utterances. And that will not get it. Never has, never will.