Speaking recently at a church in the process of pastoral transition, David affectionately related to the congregation that while pastors may journey to new assignments, their hearts always stay with those they have served. Though elected as general superintendent in 2009 at the 27th General Assembly held in Orlando, Florida, Graves still thinks of himself as a shepherd—he just has a larger flock. Recently, Grace and Peace Magazine asked Graves to share his thoughts on pastoral care, as well as some of the lessons he has acquired over several pastoral assignments in Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.
G&P: What early influences shaped your understanding of pastoral care, and what were keys to your effectiveness?
David W. Graves: Much of what I learned about pastoral ministry came by watching my dad minister. He was a great pastor to his people as well as a great preacher. I remember one time we were all in the car ready to leave on a vacation when Dad stopped at the hospital and said, “I will be right back. I just have a couple hospital calls to make.” When I was a freshman in college, I was home for a few days. My dad had to leave town for something and received word that a lady was in the hospital. She was not really part of our congregation but had visited a few times. He said to me, “You’re going to be a pastor. Why don’t you go and visit her for me?” He didn’t realize that she had delivered a stillborn baby. But he had prepared me well. I walked into the hospital room and found this woman crying and saying that her baby had gone to hell because of her sins. “No, no, no,” I was able to tell her. “God is a merciful God, a loving God. He’s not going to judgean innocent baby by your sins.” I shared with her how God could help her, forgive her, and change her life for the future. So, from an early age I learned some things to say and some things not to say.
When I began pastoral ministry, one of the important things for me was getting to know the people. At the time, one of the best ways to do that was to visit in their homes. That was many years ago. Today people live busy lives and aren’t as excited about the pastor visiting in their homes. Yet, they still want to know that the pastor cares about them and has an interest in their lives. One of the things I really worked at was learning the names of people, finding out where they worked, what their interests were. I believe that opened the door for them to hear what I had to say from God’s Word on Sunday. Another important aspect was to follow up whenever there was a crisis or problem in someone’s life.
G&P: As a pastor, what does pastoral care mean to you?
DWG: What a great honor and privilege pastors have. Think about this: we are invited to be a part of the most intimate, personal moments in people’s lives. When they are in the hospital, you get to pray for them and be there with the family. When they come out of surgery, you get to visit them and pray for them. They open up their hearts and lives to you. Weddings are another incredible opportunity to minister to people. In a wedding, the pastor is the closest person to that couple. The pastor gets to see their smiles, hear the words they might be whispering to one another—to be part of that special occasion. Death and the loss of loved ones is another opportunity to be there with your people. Recently, a member of one of my former churches wrote on Facebook about how, some 20 years ago, they lost twin boys—their firstborn children. He wrote, “I’ll never forget that the first people to the hospital were my pastor and his wife, David and Sharon Graves, and how thankful I am for them.” We were there to hold them, to let them cry, to let them vent. That he would treasure that all these years later speaks of the importance of pastoral care.
At another church I pastored, one woman was a great prayer warrior and a special friend to me. I officiated at her funeral service, and her daughter told me recently, “You know, Mom loved you more than anything, and she prayed for you every day.” I recall something the daughter said to me at the funeral home and that has made a significant impact on my life, “You can’t develop those kinds of bonds outside of being there for people.”
Learning how to be a good pastor really started with watching my dad love his people. I developed that in my own life—watching the impact of how people open up their hearts and lives to the pastor. If we are not there for them, then we miss some marvelous opportunities to minister and develop close and lasting relationships with people.
G&P: How do you understand the relationship between preaching and pastoral care?
DWG: I tried to plan my preaching calendar weeks and even months in advance. The Word of God speaks to people where they are. It is amazing how God gives you opportunities in a sermon prepared months earlier to speak to people—to say, “Now, I know that some of you are going through a hard time financially. I want you to know that God is faithful and will be with you. Some of you have had bad news about your physical health, but I want you to know that God is our healer, and you can have faith and trust in him.”
When you know your people, even a brief comment can mean the world to them. It will give them faith to keep on going. If you don’t know these details about your people, then it’s really hard to incorporate that into your preaching. I think that is what helped me in my preaching—to know where people were and to know what they were going through.
G&P: Sometimes, caring for people involves confrontation. What wisdom can you share about this?
DWG: Part of pastoral care is confronting people. As the spiritual leaders, we care not only about loving and affirming people but seeing them grow and develop. And when there is sin present in their lives, when there are problems, you want to confront them in love—because you love them. When you know your people, and when they know that you care about them, you have an open door to confront them in Christian love when necessary.
One night, a woman in our congregation found out that her husband had returned early from a business trip, but instead of going home, he had gone off with another woman. She called a friend who came and got me. I took two board members, and we went to the house. We prayed a long time then went to the door. When the man realized his infidelity was out, he wanted no part of reconciliation with his wife. But we didn’t give up on him, and neither did his wife. It took a long time, but God brought that marriage back together. I will never forget the day he knelt at the altar, prayed, asked God to forgive him, and asked his wife to forgive him. Today, 26 years later, their marriage is still going strong. If we had just let him go, they would probably have divorced.
It’s not easy to confront people, maybe even remove them from positions in the church. You have to let them know, “We love you, we care about you, but you cannot be in a place of leadership right now. And we are praying that one day you will be restored.” Prayer is the key. Have others—spiritual leaders in the church—pray with you and be there as witnesses. That spiritual support can give you insight and wisdom in the situation. Of course, you must not gossip about what’s going on. I had someone confess they had been embezzling money from their workplace. I said, “I want you to know I am disappointed, but I still believe in you. What you’ve done is wrong and is sin, and I am hurting for you because you did not use wisdom. But I am still with you, and I am going to walk through this situation with you. Anytime you need me, I’m here to pray or talk with you.” Walking with people through their spiritual failures and letting them know you haven’t turned your back, nor has God turned his back on them, is important. God is a God of second chances.
In one of my churches, I learned that a new attender had a history of affairs with women at another church he had attended. When I learned about his past, I met with him and let him know I was glad he was coming to church. But I also let him know I knew something about his past. I said, “I want you to know I’m going to hold you accountable for your behavior. You’re here to find healing for you and your wife, not to destroy marriages in this church.” He handled it well, and kept coming, but I did keep an eye on him. As a pastor, I was protecting the flock. I was not going to let a wolf come in and take away some of my lambs.
G&P: As a caregiver, how did you stay renewed and keep yourself from burning out?
DWG: Pastors need to keep renewed spiritually, emotionally, and physically. As a pastor, as much as possible, I blocked off the morning hours for prayer, devotions, and sermon preparation. My secretary would tell people, “If it’s an emergency, we can interrupt him, but if not, may he call you back?” I was also very faithful in taking a day off. I took Fridays off, and it was a time for me just to chill out, to relax, to do whatever I wanted to do that would refresh me. Sometimes that meant mowing the yard, washing the car, or playing golf. When our four children were young, we would schedule Friday night family times. Each Friday, one of the children would decide what we would do or what we would eat. Those times of investing in my family were so much fun and were important. Of course, I couldn’t always keep the day free. Sometimes there would be funerals or wedding rehearsals. Even if there was a wedding rehearsal, I made sure I would be finished in time to be at my kids’ school activities. I never wanted them to think the church took me away from them. Being with my family helped me to renew myself. I also tried to stay in shape physically. I worked out at a gym or at home on a regular basis. Now that I am traveling so much, it is more of a challenge, but as a pastor, I tried to do things that would renew me physically and help me stay strong and healthy. I tried to prioritize and schedule my life, instead of letting life schedule me. I think this makes a big difference.
G&P: Did you have pastoral care dissappointments, and how did you deal with them?
DWG: As you look back over your pastoral ministry, you would love to be able to say, “Man, I batted a thousand! I was always there when people needed me, I never disappointed people.” The reality is that you will disappoint people, and sometimes you cannot be there when they need you. You will not hear about someone having surgery. You will not know about someone’s mom dying. The best thing to do when you drop the ball is look them in the eye and say, “I’m sorry. I wish I had known. I wish I had been there for you. Please forgive me.” No excuses, just I’m sorry.
Down through the years, I have tended to minimize my role or the importance I might have to someone else. One time, one of our business owners was nominated for “Small Business of the Year” in our city. He asked me to come, so I checked my calendar and saw I had a conflict with another commitment. I didn’t realize what a “big deal” my presence would be to him. I thought his employees and family would be there, so I didn’t change my commitment. His business won the award, and it made the newspapers. The next week I invited him to lunch to congratulate him. I said, “Man that’s a great honor. I’m so proud of you!” And he said, “You know it was a great night. It was wonderful. I was so honored. There was only one thing missing in the whole night.” I said, “What was that?” He said, “I didn’t get to share the evening with my pastor.” And I was thinking to myself, “Are you serious? I mean, you just won an award for small business of the year! Why would it matter if I was there?” But for him, my presence would have made the night complete. I had underestimated how he felt about his pastor.
Do not underestimate your role as a pastor. Don’t underestimate the importance of what you mean to people by being there, by just showing up. I know it’s impossible for you to be everywhere and touch every person, but look for opportunities to make contact with people. For example, if a Sunday school class is having a party, try to drop by even for an hour. The senior adults at a church where I pastored had a monthly food and fellowship time. I would stay at the office until it was time for them to eat and then I’d stop in. I would go around the tables and greet each person. While they were in line for food, I’d stand in the line and talk to them as they went by. You don’t have to be the center of attention; just be there to share the love of Christ.
G&P: How have you dealt with the complexities of need in pastoral care?
DWG: One of the mistakes we make is thinking we must have all the answers for people’s problems. We live in such a complex society now, where there are so many different issues. How can one person—even with theological training—have all the answers? Being a good pastor is not having all the answers. Often, it is having trusted professionals whom you can refer people to. If someone is going through financial difficulties, direct them to someone in the church or community who can help them. If it’s physical problems, or marital problems, or whatever, point them to someone with the expertise to help them, someone with the proper training to really work with them. A pastor needs to develop a network of resource people in his/her community.
G&P: As a pastor, how did you extend pastoral care into your community?
DWG: When my kids were young, I was their coach for little league baseball. It was a great opportunity for me to get to know other young families in our community. Being their child’s coach often opened up doors to become pastor to the parents. I was involved in my children’s lives all through their school years. My wife, Sharon, and I were always there at their games, yelling, cheering, and videotaping—and developing relationships with the other parents. When my sons invited their friends to church, I could invite their parents, too. For many of the parents, I became their pastor before they walked in our front door.
If we can begin to view ourselves as pastors to our communities, not just to those who come in our doors on Sunday, I think we’d find more people coming in our doors on Sunday. I view people outside the church the same as the Wal-Mart greeter does. They are part of my congregation. When I see them, I say, “Hey, how are you doing?” No matter where I meet people—at the health club, especially through my children and their sports activities—I enjoy getting to know them. If they have lost a loved one, or have been laid off, I can reach out and give pastoral care just like I would for someone sitting in the pew every Sunday. I say, “May I pray for you about anything?” It lays the groundwork so that you can minister to these people whether or not they ever come to your church.
The hope is that, eventually, you’ll be able to introduce them to Jesus if they don’t already know him. Maybe one day, they will become a part of your church. Many times the people we ministered to were involved in other congregations. We were not interested in stealing them from another church, but we were able to minister to them. You know what’s amazing about that? The word gets around, and they’ll tell their friends, “Hey, you know David Graves? He pastors that Nazarene church; he prayed for me! He knew, he asked about it! Can you believe that?” The word spreads, and you become pastor of a community as well as a church. That is so rewarding and really a lot of fun. Some of our dear friends are folks who never came to our church, but we ministered to them, and they’re living the faith today.
Recently, when I was visiting a former church, a man came up to me and said, “You remember coming by my house? I didn’t want anything to do with you.” He would slip in the back door of the church and get out before I could greet him, but someone got his name so I went to visit him. He told me, “The thing I appreciate is that you took the time to become my friend before you became my pastor. Because you became my friend, I came to the Lord, and then you became my pastor.” I don’t know if I became his friend before becoming his pastor. Maybe it all happened at the same time because I think I would have tried to pastor him even if he never came to our church. The point is, getting outside our walls and sharing Jesus with our world is what we are called to do..