Thursday, March 4, 2010

About being a Deacon: A Ministry of Presence & Absence

This is dedicated to 24-year old Sean, now with the Lord. Sean is the beloved son/grandson of my flock members (parents & grandmother). He passed away suddenly on Feb. 22, 2010. His sudden death has left a huge hole in the hearts of many in my community whether or not they knew this joy-filled, people-loving, Christ-following, young man. 

For some time now, even before the first traumatic event of my term of service as a deacon - the passing away of Sean -  I've been thinking about the ministry of absence. A ministry of absence I felt is needed to balance the deacon's ministry of presence. Our culture values presence and Christian culture especially values it even more; hence pastors and deacons strive to be present during times of trouble and bereavement to those who need it. But presence can add to confusion and absence isn't always to be negated or condemned. A Holy Spirit-led deacon ministry is a ministry of presence along a continuum with absence included.

The Bible tells us that Jesus deliberately stayed away from the sick bed of Lazarus. Later, Jesus also tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit can only come to be with them if he goes away: It is for your good that I leave.  We often wonder "where is God?" when we see poverty, injustice, war, and violence. We ask: Is God present? Why is God absent? For me, as a deacon, when to be present or absent has become a question and prayer of discernment as well.  When, in my ministry, is my presence needed (in the sense of someone sent by God to convey God's comfort, love, and presence) and what does my absence mean? Absence, for me, means that I pray and do only those things to which I feel God has called me. Above all, I let God be in control (not I). I pray the person over to God to let the Holy Spirit lead them (and me) and Jesus to give them his peace that passes understanding. Does this make sense?  Because you see, in many circumstances and for many people (and most especially in this case of parents losing a child), there is nothing I can say or do that can comfort them or ease their sorrow. I become a distraction (maybe even a nuisance) especially when lots of loving family and faithful friends are there; rather than rush into offering them my "presence" it is better to practice a filtered presence (helping family/friends in the background, keeping in touch with the family via phone calls and other social media tools) and an active ministry of absence. A ministry of absence means that I spend time with our heavenly Father in prayer for them. 

I've tried to explain my ideas about such a ministry of presence and absence but I didn't do a good job. Imagine my surprise when I found that Henri Nouwen has actually written about it in The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus! One of Nouwen's two illustrations about a ministry of absence is in the context of pastoral visitation; the other is in the context of the Eucharist. Btw, in the PC(USA), visitation is called pastoral care (home and hospital visits); pastors, deacons, and laity are all encouraged to practice it. Here's what Nouwen writes (you can substitute the word deacon for minister):
Although this ministry of presence is undoubtedly very meaningful, it always needs to be balanced by a ministry of absence. This is so because it belongs to the essence of a creative ministry constantly to convert the pain of the Lord's absence into a deeper understanding of his presence. But absence can only be converted if it is first of all experienced. Therefore, ministers do not fulfill their whole task when they witness only to God's presence and do not tolerate the experience of his absence. If it is true that ministers are the living memories of Jesus Christ then they must search for ways in which not only their presence but their absence reminds people of their Lord.  This has some concrete implications.  It calls for the art of leaving, for the ability to be articulately absent, and most of all for creative withdrawal. ...  We have to learn to leave so that the Spirit can come. Then we can indeed be remembered as a living witness of God...
The minister is not called to cheer people up but modestly to remind them that in the midst of pains and tribulations the first sign of the new life can be found and a joy experienced which is hidden in the midst of sadness... 
When our absence from people means a special presence to God, then that absence becomes a sustaining presence. Jesus continually left his disciples to enter into prayer with the Father....
In grieving with and caring for Sean's family, I am learning how to be a deacon with a Jesus-like ministry of presence and absence as my model. Most importantly, as I practice the ministry, I find that I must never fail to withdraw into solitude with our heavenly Father; praying for every single person in my flock, and especially Sean's parents and grandmother. There are also other things to do but not at the expense of prayer time with our awesome Triune God. Thus, in these last two weeks, as the Holy Spirit leads, I have prayed many prayers: the prayer of unity that Jesus prayed for all believers (John 17: 20-26) so that the family will find God's comfort through the love of good friends; prayer using the Psalmist's words (crying in grief as well as praise), and also as Paul prayed in Ephesians (e.g. to know the love of Christ, to put on the armor of God & be protected) Philippians (for perseverance & thanksgiving) and Hebrews (to equip us with every good to do his will). Many times, I have had no words, just feelings; it is then I experienced the grace of prayer received and feel the Holy Spirit resting on the family, nurturing and sustaining them, giving them comfort and the consolation of God's love through Jesus Christ. I, too, then, rest in God alone.

Sean is no more with us physically but lives on in Christ Jesus; with many of our loved ones who've gone before. One day we will all meet face to face again and celebrate. Until then, we have the hope, joy and peace of Christ because the Comforter is with us. Deuteronomy 4: 7 promises The Lord our God is near to us whenever we pray to him. I Corinthians 15 reminds us to give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead, for in Christ death has lost its sting: But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


  1. Anita, Your words on a ministry of Absence are deeply profound and very accurate. So many times we rush to be by someone's side in times of crisis but what is needed, is prayerful support away from the crisis. These times of absence are as important, especially when in concert with the Holy Spirit. Thanks for your thoughtfulness. Tim

  2. Thanks, Tim. This is an affirmation I treasure. (Sorry it took me so long to respond.)


Thank you for taking the time to encourage me with your feedback. Blessings.