I have been reflecting recently about how some key changes in our culture have affected pastoral work over the 30 years. Particularly, I have been documenting lately the decreasing number of natural connection points for a pastor with the families in the community surrounding the church. Many different cultural trends have joined together to have one giant cumulative effect.
When I first started as a parish minister, there were three sources of contact with folks living around the church that were very reliable, that is these dynamics consistently connected me as a the pastor with people I would otherwise not have had communication with.
1. The most frequent dynamic was hospital visitation. Whenever a friend or neighbor was in the hospital, someone in the extended family would usually request that the pastor visit the sick one. Since hospital stays were then several days long, often this grew into several contacts with the family of the sick person as well, since I would meet them at the bedside in the hospital. Now hospital stays are comparatively rare as even major surgeries are performed as day surgeries at in/out facilities away from the central hospital. If the person is from our church and I find out ahead, I frequently pray with them on the phone ahead.
2. Secondly, there were many weddings that I performed for people in the community. Between required pre-marital discussions, rehearsals, and conversations at the reception, I would meet many people in the community. Now, many fewer people get married, opting to live together instead. Of those, that do marry, some use destination weddings which are often performed by a cooperating minister there. Also, it is more popular to ask family members to perform the ceremony. The overall result is that the local pastor meets many fewer people through wedding ministry than before.
3. The third avenue for connecting with the community was by officiating at funerals. When I first became a pastor, I performed many funerals for people I did not know and for whom I did not even know someone in the family. Then I was new in the community and if the family had never attended the church, often their request to the funeral director would be the only inkling I would have that they felt any connection to our church. In those days, also, nearly everyone had a minister of some kind officiate at their burial. Now many are buried without services, a trend that I find very unhealthy for the grieving process. Because of cremations, there are fewer burials too. Again, the by-product is less contact with the community for the pastor.
It is no wonder that many pastors and parishes are feeling more isolated and insulated from their communities. The conclusion is that I as pastor and we as churches have to be very intentional about replacing these contacts with new avenues of connection. What are they? How effective are they? Who do they reach?