"And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know." (I Corinthians 8:2)
I may forget where I left my cell phone (which happens often) or where I put my car keys or my wallet, but I will often vividly remember something from many years ago. That happened one morning this week as I was in the shower (of all places). The incident I remembered was from the 1980s- I'd guess 1984. At that time, I was on the pastoral staff of Christian Life Center, which was then a fairly large Assemblies of God church in Walpole, Massachusetts. I was the "Assistant Pastor responsible for Pastoral Care". The receptionist answered a telephone call and transferred it to me. It was from a man I'd never met and who lived several hundred miles away. He asked me if I would visit a man who was a patient at a nearby hospital. As I recall the situation, the patient was much older than the caller, but was someone that the caller very much cared about. I don't believe the patient was the caller's father or grandfather. I'm not even sure if he was a relative, although perhaps he was an uncle. The gentleman on the phone was very concerned that this older man who meant quite a lot to him had only a few weeks to live, at best, and that he was not right with God. The caller was insistent that I visit the sick man soon and attempt to lead him to a commitment to receive Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior before he died. I assured the caller I would visit the older man. I wrote down the patient's name and the hospital's name and laid the slip of paper with that information in a prominent place on my desk. I figured I'd go visit the guy within the next day or two. Certainly there was no guarantee that I would "lead him to Christ". That is, to highlight a term often used by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a "decision" he'd have to choose to make or not make, but I'd be happy to see the man, talk with him, share some Scripture, pray for him and attempt to lead him into committing his life to Christ. One thing I'll add at this point is that things were very different in the 1980s regarding visiting a patient you didn't know. Today, there is a very serious privacy law in place regarding patients and their rights. Were a pastor to receive such a phone call now, he'd have to explain to the caller that first he'd need to talk to the patient and ask if he'd like to have a visit from "Pastor So-in-So". Then, the patient would have to make that information clear to the hospital staff or the pastor would never be able to make such a visit.
The very next morning after I'd received that telephone call, I awoke with a cold. I had a scratchy throat, nasal congestion, and I was coughing and sneezing. One of the first things I learned from the Rev. Terry Lewis in his "Pastor and His Ministry" class at Central Bible College is that you never do any hospital visiting when you have a cold! Some patients, particularly elderly people, can be in such fragile condition that your simple cold can literally lead to their death! Yes, my cold was a problem. I couldn't go visiting in the hospital. The cold was a particularly bad one, too. I thought it would last for three or four days, but it actually lasted well over a week. As I recall, I was so sick that I took a couple of days off and just stayed home resting, and I seldom did that! I wasn't "cold free" for about eight or nine days as I recall.
On the first day that I felt completely well, I called the hospital to find out what room the patient was in. (I suppose I was also calling to make sure he was still alive.) To my shock, I was told the patient had passed away several days earlier! That was sobering, to say the least. I had promised the man from several hundred miles away that I'd visit the older gentleman and attempt to lead him to Christ. Now the guy was dead. Was the deceased in Hell? Some of my readers won't understand this, but I'd say it was possible the person died and indeed went to a place of eternal torment. I'm a very verbal person and yet I'm finding it difficult to add anything to what I've just written!
That wasn't the worst part of this story for me, however. Sometime later, perhaps it was two or three weeks later, another call was transferred to me by the church receptionist. On the line was the man from several hundred miles away who had made the request for me to visit his loved one in the hospital. He eagerly asked me if I'd visited the man and what the visit had been like. I told the caller exactly what I've told my readers in this piece. Again, I'm a very verbal person, but I'm having a difficult time to describe exactly what the reaction of the caller was to what I'd said. I guess I expected him to yell and scream at me. He didn't. He didn't raise his voice, nor did he become hysterical. He was very civil, but it was possibly the worst phone conversation of my entire life. He berated me, telling me I could have and should have gotten someone to go and visit in my place. He never actually used these words, but it was obvious he considered me totally incompetent, totally insensitive, totally useless, responsible for his relative to plunge into eternal torment, and a catastrophic failure as a pastor.
I don't know why I thought about that call the other day. I know some may want to contact me saying things such as, "You've got to forgive yourself!" Honestly, I truly have forgiven myself. On the one hand, as the title says, This Pastor Didn't Keep His Promise. But it was not something I did deliberately or maliciously. You may wonder why I didn't send a substitute. I'm not sure. That was well over thirty years ago. I really thought I'd be well in just a few days and that I'd be able to make the visit. I was very wrong. I did determine that sort of thing would never happen again in my ministry! Ironically, on other occasions I was asked to make hospital visits of that type, but I was always very healthy and was always able to make the visits within forty-eight hours. I never had a cold or other sickness mess up a situation the way that cold had, and I mean I never had anything like that happen again over more than twenty-five more years of active pastoral ministry.
This month of October is recognized as Pastor Appreciation Month in most churches. Thankfully, most pastors do a wonderful jobs and deserve to be recognized and honored. Yet, one of the reasons I write this piece is to remind us, whether we're pastors or whether we're laypersons, that pastors are human and sometimes pastors innocently make major mistakes. I remember that back when I was a student at Central Bible College in the late 1970s, a dynamic young pastor named John Palmer was brought in to speak to the student body in a chapel service. The Rev. John Palmer was probably fewer than ten years older than I was, but he'd already planted a church in Ohio that was rapidly growing. He was a great speaker and had a charismatic personality. That's why I was shocked by the topic of his sermon. His sermon was about his failures in the ministry. He told four or five stories of his own (similar to the story I've shared here) about times he'd really "dropped the ball" as it were. I remember that one of them was about a funeral service he conducted for a young person. One relative angrily yelled out during the funeral service that Pastor Palmer, "...couldn't even get the kid's name right!" I appreciated that sermon so much and I never forgot it. I think his sermon helped me to get through many of my own failures. You see, the story I've told here is not my only one! All pastors have such stories to tell! Sadly, these incidents sometimes propel people to angrily leave churches, to form roots of bitterness against certain pastors, and even to walk away from God.
You see, pastors are very human and very fallible. They need forgiveness, understanding, prayer, and love like everybody else does. Today, near the end of this Pastor Appreciation Month, I wanted to share this painful story from my own ministry with you. I hope that somehow it was a blessing.
And, I do want to add a "P.S." : If you're thinking we can't assume that patient who died went to Hell, you're right! I'm mindful of what I wrote above about the person probably going to Hell. It's also possible, however, that some nurse or doctor or orderly, or even another patient or a person visiting another patient prayed with this man and led him to Christ before he died. We just don't know but I don't think we can rule that out.