There’s a phrase I learned at some point in seminary: “Ministry of Presence.” Folks might define it differently, but basically, my understanding is that simply being physically present with someone can be a genuine spiritual gift. Chaplains often use this phrase when they sit with a family who is experiencing a traumatic or sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. There are no words that can make it better, but being beside them as they process and grieve their tragic loss can be a significant gift and strength. Others use the phrase too. A youth minister who chooses to sit next to the shy, awkward teen rather than the cool kid is practicing a ministry of presence. The class member who sits next to the visitors in a small group gathering rather than beside their friends of 30 years is practicing ministry of presence.
I sometimes think of my visits to mom’s assisted living facility as a ministry of presence. It isn’t what I say, what I do, what token or gift that I bring that likely makes the most difference. Instead, simply my being there can change her day, can touch her emotions, can warm her heart. I confess I am not able to visit as often as I wish I could, but I almost always enjoy my time with her.
Today I sat beside her in the communal living room with several of other residents all sitting comfortably in a circle. One woman was so comfortable, she was drifting in and out of sleep. Another resident had two family members beside her, feeding her spoonfuls of soft-serve ice cream they had brought with them. The woman closest to mom was on a small sofa with a baby doll in her lap and a stuffed animal puppy beside her. With genuine care, she would bounce the baby doll on her lap, then hug it tightly to her chest. She would hold it at arms length and gaze into its face, then she might kiss its forehead. Occasionally, she paused to stroke the puppy beside her. Her expressions of love were so abundant, I realize I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
Mom and I kept chatting as I sat there but at some point, I locked eyes with the woman beside her. I said something like “You are so kind and loving” to her. There was a moment of silence, and then she replied, “I am here.” Her gaze returned to the baby doll and her loving actions continued. That was all that she said. “I am here.”
I’ve always thought of “ministry of presence” as something a skilled leader offers to someone in need. Instead, today… this woman with advanced dementia taught me a lesson. I was enthralled with her actions, her kindnesss, her sweet loving spirit. But she is more than just her actions. She is more than memory. She is more than anything she can say or do. The fact that she exists is a gift to the world. Her presence, even in her days of dementia, is a gift. Some might assume she only had a “ministry of presence” in years before dementia when she achieved or fulfilled responsibilities or excelled in other ways. Others might realize that as long as she can love that baby doll and stuffed animal, she can inspire others. But she led me deeper. Even if she were bedridden and speechless and generally unresponsive… she would still be a gift. She is there… the same “her” who has always been. Her abilities may change, but her very existence is a gift to the world as long as she draws breath.
“I am here.” What if we start to notice the stranger in the aisle in the grocery store and say to ourself, “She is here”? What if we notice the car that zooms past us on the highway and pause to pray and give thanks for that person and pray for their safety as they rush to their destination? What if we take movie stars and politicians and professional athletes off of pedestals and simply give thanks that they exist, that they are human beings created in the image of God receiving the gift of life. “I am here,” they all say to us… celebrities and strangers, the rich and the poor, the popular and the outcast.
“Ministry of Presence” is an important call for those who serve others… but today mom’s neighbor taught me that it is also a gift embodied by every single human being. I am here. You are here. Forgive me when I fail to notice, I ask of you. Because you matter. Everyone is of value. It may sound simple, but if we can’t affirm that and live like we believe it, then why argue about more complicated questions of faith and belief?
I am here. You are here. Thanks be to God.
4 thoughts on “Ministry of Presence”
Your reflections are challenging, important, and true. The ministry of presence is so valuable in the situations you encounter and describe. Thank you for sharing so much that you learn and notice in visits with your mother and those around her. Sometimes we cannot be with a person in-person and I have found that actual tangible cards that a person can hold and reread comfort them more than email, but any reaching out to say, I am here. I know you are too. I care about you, does help. Your in-person visits have ministered to many more people than your mother. God bless your every effort.
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Thank you for this beautiful affirmation of the ministry of presence, which is the essence of Incarnation. Sam Wells says that the most important theological word is WITH! God with us! Being with one another, especially in vulnerability, is a participation in God’s presence. Thank you!
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Yes! Thanks for this loving reminder. Quakers have an expression that has often grounded me “there is that of God in everyone.” Slowing up to be aware of, to be with, to acknowledge another’s humanity and soul often gets lost in my endless to do list. Your words and your presence are a vital reminder.
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Sometimes at night, when I go to the back of the house to take my shower … my mom starts to miss me. Once, I noticed she had called my cell phone 4 times in a span of that 15-min shower. She had forgotten where I was and was missing me. We may not talk much when we’re sitting together in the evenings watching TV, but I do think she appreciates the fact that I’m there. She’s calm and at peace. You’re right. It matters. It’s so simple, but it matters. And, I’m grateful.
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