Ministry of presence

Posted Aug 19, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Monica A. Coleman


I’m an ordained minister, but I’m not good at all that the life of ministry requires. I’m particularly embarrassed at how bad I am with hospital visitations. Early in my ministry career, I delighted when I put the clergy pass on my car’s dashboard and parked in the specially designated spot. Someone from the church was sick and asked, not for the pastor, but for me.

As I entered the congregant’s hospital room, I realized that I didn’t know what to pray. I had no soothing words of calm. I could make no assurances that things would improve. I listened helplessly to the events that led her to hospitalization. I silently hoped time would tick by faster to end the hospital visit and my discomfort. As I slinked out of the room leaving a hug and an anemic blessing, I was sure I had been of no consolation to my church member. I asked to be taken off the list of clergy available for hospital visitations.

The irony is that I desperately want to see my pastor when I’m in the hospital. I didn’t even know how important this was to me until my pastor drove through two counties at the crack of dawn to see me before surgery. I forget his prayer; I remember him being there.

I’ve since learned how important the “ministry of presence” really is. So much of ministry is not about saying or preaching or teaching the right thing. Some life events cannot be eased with prayers or scripture.

Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen describes this best:

"More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence."

The ministry of presence asserts that there is power—divine power—in just showing up and sticking around. It suggests that the incarnation is more important than the Word.

Recently, I’ve wondered if we lose this with online ministries. When I worship through a webcast, the ministers and parishioners do not know me nor my front stoop. They may be several states away. They could not visit me when sick.

Then I received an email from someone who reads my blog on depression and faith. She was reading my blog from an inpatient treatment center for severe depression. She told me that she is sometimes afraid, but that my blog posts make it seem like she is not alone.

I wept and smiled at the same time. Although I have avoided hospital visits since that first attempt, I found myself back in someone’s sick room. We weren’t walking, hugging or eating a meal together, but we had managed to be present with each other online.

Monica A. Coleman, a research fellow for the New Media Project, serves as Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in southern California.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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