I grew up in a small rural community where everyone seemed to know each other. It was not Andy Griffith’s Mayberry but there was a certain connectedness which could be truly felt, such as when it came to the local minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. In many ways everyone knew him, as he preached on Sundays, visited the sick and shut-ins, and gave families, at the end of a life, words of faith.
So I was taken aback at the start of this year to learn that a lady connected with the church for decades, a former board member, and one who always tithed was not able to warrant a visit from the minister for months on end when unable to attend services. Granted, I had been out of the community since 1982, but surely the foundations of what constitutes the role of a minister, in relation to a flock of parishioners, could not possibly have changed from what I knew as a child. Certain foundations should always exist, right?
Clearly I was wrong. The current minister has larger interests with his musical pursuits in places far afield from the bedside of a sick older woman. Why care for those who once had cared for him? There are dollars to be harvested in those churches that dot the landscape of the country.
Which brings me to the story in my local newspaper today. And which made me think of Pastor Eric Hambrock in Hancock, my hometown.
It was reported based on a new survey that a large majority of Americans make important decisions without calling on religious leaders for advice. The poll finds three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time.
The poll finds that the lack of personal connection with ministers even includes people who identify with a specific religious faith, though those who are most engaged with their faith are more likely to have relationships with clergy. Among religious adults who attend services at least twice a month, about half say they sometimes or often consult with a religious leader.
My concern is the role change that some ministers have implemented in their career. With the decline in the ‘Mayberry’ way of acting, as an example when no pastoral visits are made to the sick, provides a visual clue as why the rank-and-file feel less connected to their pastor on day-to-day issues. When a pastor is seen and heard in a wide array of local settings it seems more natural to turn to that person when seeking advice about life’s concerns.
I recall a very old sweet woman–who was a contemporary of my grandmother–who sat in a car near the church door on Sunday mornings. I would tend to be early for Sunday School and talk with Mrs. Fowler through an open car window. But our conversations would always be joined when the pastor came by to greet her. Just off the side of the church, even when she would be later sitting in a far back pew, still warranted attention from the pastor and his friendly smile. (Jerry and his wife were the epitome of what a minister and his partner in the profession should be all about.)
Being a pastor of a small town is not about bells and whistles. It is about the sermons and the late night calls to a home out in the country. That is how it once was, and where the role morphed into needing to be larger than where the county line ends is something I can not explain.
And so it goes.