One of the first things I do upon arriving at a church for pulpit supply (after searching out the bathroom) is read the bulletin cover-to-cover. I’m looking for the person who is “on call” for pastoral care while the regular minister is away. I love when there is a name and a phone number listed. It makes those whispered conversations in the hallways and the narthex so much easier to navigate.
I was surprised at the amount of questions regarding pastoral care that come up with pulpit supply. Congregants in need come to the person in the pulpit whether they know them or not. I’ve handled everything from simple prayer requests, to someone dealing with a crisis of faith, a stressed out young mother who hadn’t slept in days, to two grieving daughters looking for someone to preside at their mother’s funeral.
Some of these pastoral care issues can be handled by the supply preacher – a comforting word, a listening ear, and inclusion on a prayer list are some of the ways the simpler pastoral care band-aids can be applied until the regular minister comes back. If a church itself is in crisis, because their minister is off on a long-term sick leave or has left the pastoral charge, things become a little trickier and it is ideal if the supply preacher either knows who is on call for pastoral care or knows who in the congregation knows.
It breaks my heart to see people in need and not know where to send them for help. I was filling in for a minister over Christmas at a church where I regularly supply. A woman came up to me before service and wanted to know about arranging a funeral for her mother, who had been a long time member of the congregation before moving to a nursing home several years before. In spite of my somewhat loose connection to the church I was not familiar with this woman or her mother. Luckily, I knew an elder and suggested she speak with him. I certainly didn’t know the procedures for funerals at the church.
After the service I was chatting with the organist when the woman came up to me again. She asked if I could do the funeral since she didn’t know anyone else as she and her sister were not church-goers and were not local to the community anymore. This made me sad on a number of levels. I called the elder over. He didn’t know what to do either. I was reluctant to do the funeral as I had never done one before. I explained my situation to them and that I had no experience. They were adamant that they had no other options. I didn’t either, since there were no pastoral care instructions left with me.
I did the funeral. Two non-churched woman, an inexperienced preacher, and an organist planned it. The family seemed happy. My Christmas break from my day job was over and I returned to work. The family was upset that I could not preside at the interment as I had returned to work. They called and emailed with questions and concerns about a number of things that I did not have the answers to due to lack of information and experience. The family had a real need for pastoral care that I could not provide – but were reluctant to engage the regular minister as they were not church-goers and felt an attachment to me. I’m not sure this was the best situation for any of us. Information for an on-call pastoral care provider would have helped us all.
As you are preparing for a supply preacher, engage someone to be on-call for pastoral care, and make sure that information is shared with your supply preacher and your congregation.
Next week I’ll be talking about the importance of assigning a point person for Sundays when your church has supply.