If we don’t know each other, I’m just a random stranger you’ve called for life advice

I periodically get phone calls from people wanting to talk about the church. That’s fine. I am happy to speak to anyone who wants to know some details of how to find our church, or for a church nearer where they live, or some reassurance because they are interested in coming to a service and have never set foot in a church before. All of those things are relatively easy to address and I have no problem helping people with any of them.

But occasionally, I get phone calls from people who want a ‘pastoral chat’. What’s the problem with that? I am a pastor after all, isn’t that my job? Well, when it’s one of my church members, yes. It doesn’t necessarily mean we drop everything for it (though, depending on the nature of the pastoral chat, I might). But I’m not talking about when my members ring me up and want that sort of thing. No, I’m talking about non-members. More often than not, total strangers to me.

They’ve often found my number and decided that I am the pastor they want to talk to (yes, I know, but that’s the story). Sometimes it is people who have taken the hump with their own pastor and are looking for someone who will listen to their story and (potentially) tell them what they want to hear because they haven’t heard it from their own pastor. At other times, it is someone who doesn’t belong to any church at all but they think that a pastor will sit and listen to all their problems, without the specific problem of having to belong to a church to get it.

These sorts of conversations always go the same way. Before I can say anything at all, the person launches into whatever it is they decide I particularly need to hear from them. I inevitably tell them that I cannot really do a vast amount because I don’t know them or their situation but if they want to come down to the church we can get to know them and link them up to the appropriate help and support as necessary. That usually leads to me getting the story all over again, as if being told all the same things a second time will change the fact that I don’t know them and can’t really speak into their situation. I then, gently, try to explain that I am not their pastor. If they have one already, they are the person to call. If they don’t have one, I don’t become your pastor on the phone – you need to come down to the church, where we can get to know you and vice versa, and we can help as best we are able then and link you up with whatever things may or may not be appropriate. This message sometimes take a long time to sink in.

I am not saying there are absolutely no circumstances under which a pastor from another church might be able to give you some advice. But generally speaking, you have your own elders to whom you have chosen to submit. They are the ones charged with your pastoral care, who have welcomed you into membership. They are the people who know you and your situation. Regardless of how well you think they do know those things, they certainly know you much better than a stranger at the end of a phone or a random pastor you have found on the internet. If you have decided you can no longer submit to them (for whatever reason), that is still a conversation you first need to have with them, before having it with another pastor from a different church. Pastors from other churches will only become your pastor when you have actually turned up at their church and have been welcomed into membership there.

This is equally the case for those who have not committed to any church in membership at all. If you don’t belong anywhere, you have not submitted yourself to any pastoral care and oversight. If you haven’t even submitted to the elders of the church you regularly attend, what is a pastor from another church that you’ve never so much as been to going to add? Just as my pastoral care to those who are not in membership of my church has necessary and particular limits, how much more will it be limited towards those I have never met and whose situations I do not know the first things about except what they tell me over a phone?

If you want the spiritual oversight and support from a pastor, you will find it by joining the local church. Apart from doing that, he is not your pastor. He is, ultimately, just a stranger you rang up asking for spiritual advice. And when you put it like that, it starts to sound a bit weird.