I am writing to respond to a blog post entitled, The Pastoral Ministry of Shaking Hands, written by Pastor H. B. Charles Jr. which was recently shared on Tim Challies blog. I reluctantly read it with caution because it touches on a topic that I have been wrestling with issue for a number of years. Reading the blog post confirmed my deep seated convictions on what Pastor Charles Jr. calls “The pastoral ministry of shaking hands.” I simply do not agree with his rationale for this mainly because I believe that the practice that he is advocating is mainly cultural not biblical. This “pastoral ministry of shaking hands” is mainly a creation of the American culture than it is of the Apostles in the New Testament church. The practice is very foreign among many Christians outside of North America (although some are now copying it simply because it’s coming from America and thus it must be right). For this reason (mainly), I do not think that it should be expected of every pastor. In all fairness, the Bible does not necessarily condemn the practice (although I believe good biblical grounds may be found against it). But it is also fair to say that the Bible does not sanction or prescribe it for pastors and congregations for that matter and we shouldn’t either.
For this and other reasons that I will give later on, I would like to propose what I believe to be a biblically sanctioned (prescribed) alternative to this, namely, the pastoral ministry of shaking hearts, on our knees in prayer and on our feet in preaching. Now, I know that the Bible does not use those exact words. Don’t go googling in search of a Bible verse that contains those words. Those are my words not the Bible’s. But I believe that essence of those words is directly taught in the Bible. I will just point you to one classic Bible verse on this point. In Acts 6:4, we read these words from the mouth of the Apostles, “…But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” There was a neglected group of members in the early church (the Greek speaking Jews) who needed the Apostle’s attention. But the Apostles wouldn’t be bothered – no they were actually very concerned that they decided to do something about it. What they did is very surprising to say the least. They decided to delegate the job to deacons. So being led by the Holy Spirit, they created a new office in the church to attend to such pastoral matters as had arisen in the church at that time. Their reasoning is very clear. They said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching to serve tables…” and thus, they appointed deacons (Acts 6:2-3). This is not to say that the diaconal office is not that important. The Apostles would not have said that. But the Apostles understood what their particular calling was (i.e. prayer and the ministry of the word). This was their special calling and by extension, it is the special calling of every pastor. That is to say, that a pastor cannot and should not delegate these two tasks that are crucial to the pastoral ministry (namely, prayer and preaching). Everything else, he is free to delegate if necessary. But not prayer or preaching!
The Lord will hold every pastor accountable on these two points: prayer and preaching. He will judge us based on how fervently we prayed for the congregations entrusted to us and based on how faithfully we preached His Word as stewards of the mysteries of the gospel of His grace. It’s nice to do the “pastoral ministry of shaking hands,” but it’s far better, more faithful to the Bible and more fruitful to the congregation spiritually, for every pastor to devote himself to what I am calling the pastoral ministry of shaking hearts on our knees in prayer and on our feet in preaching. The Lord does not expect all of us to be hand-shakers. Our personalities and cultures are vastly different. But He surely expects every pastor to be a heart-shaker in his prayers and preaching. No pastor will be let off the hook as far as that is concerned.
I serve a small congregation in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I am so glad that I am not expected to stand at the door after every service to shake people’s hands. Let me share a few other reasons why (in addition to the major one that I have already shared above):
- I Can’t Handle It
In all honesty, I don’t think that I could handle the hand-shaking at the door week by week after I have just finished preaching. Not because I am too exhausted. I am usually (though not always) bubbling with a lot of emotional excitement and thankfulness for the wonderful privilege of being a conduit of God’s Word to God’s people. There are times when I feel terrible because in my own estimation, I did not preach the Word as faithfully as I could have – either because I was not thoroughly prepared or because I just had a bad day and the sermon didn’t come out as I expected it to. But that’s beside the point. There are two reasons why I feel that I cannot handle this practice. My personality is such that I cannot handle too much praise or too much criticism right after the service. Thus, I need to guard my heart from inordinate pride and unnecessary despondency. Too much praise right after I have just preached would make me very proud. I am concerned about this because more often than not, to be polite, people say nice things to you as they shake your hand at the door whether they mean them or not. If I heard these nice things like that every Sunday, I would begin to believe them and thus my already restless ego would grow way out of proportion. So, I must guard myself from that by not providing the occasion for that temptation. That’s my concern on that front. On the other hand, I know that too much criticism right after I have just preached, would crush me. The reason is that for the first few minutes, right after each service, I am emotionally raw and vulnerable. Metaphorically speaking, my skin is not as tough (it becomes so soft) after I have just delivered a sermon as it is at other times during the week. Thus, I prefer that any comments (praise or criticism) regarding the sermons on Sunday should be reserved for later when I (and those making the comments) have had time to process everything prayerfully before the Lord. I am and they are more likely to be objective that way.
- It Tends to Put Pressure on the Congregation to Say Something Nice to the Preacher
Whether we want to admit this or not, this hand-shaking practice after every service, has the potential of putting undue pressure on the congregation to say nice things to the pastor as they try to quickly find their way past the pastor who is standing at the door – sometimes only shaking his hands with one of their fingers. I have experiences this – not in the congregation where I serve as pastor – but as I have traveled around preaching elsewhere. It’s uncomfortable and awkward both for the people and pastor! You often hear people saying “Good Evening” to you after the morning service and “Good Morning” after the evening service or something worse. On the rare occasionally, you get those honest souls who are simply unrestrained and unafraid to let you know how lousy or how long your sermon was – but that’s rare. For the most part, people want to be courteous, which is what puts the pressure on them to come up with something nice to say and say it with a smile. I am not sure we have the right to put that pressure on anyone especially the people we have been called to serve through prayer and the ministry of the Word.
- It Tends to Distract People from the Message that They Have Just Heard
Sometimes, a very powerful, soul-stirring message is preached and the Word comes down so heavily upon an individual with its two-edged sharpness, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, dissecting and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the listener’s heart (see Hebrew 4:12). Because I usually don’t know when that happens, my normal practice is to disappear (at least for a few minutes – sometimes completely) as soon as the service is over so as not to be a distraction to the people as they are trying to process and wrestle with the Word which they have just heard – whether it had to do with conviction of sin or encouraging them in some other aspect of their lives or both. On occasions, I have found that I can help people process what they heard and perhaps clarify some things that weren’t clear to them in the sermon. But that is the exception not the rule. More often than not, I find that it’s very easy for a careless word to slip off my tongue and completely ruin the good Word that was preached by diluting it if not completely washing it off an individual’s conscience. Sometimes, this can happen not so much through a slip of the tongue, but simply through aimless chatter (or small talk) with members of the congregation right after the service – which often happens because either the people or the pastor want to be nice and polite to the other. I think that’s dangerous and must be avoided at all costs.
- It Tends to Rob God of His Glory by Putting Undue Focus/Praise on the Pastor or the Sermon Preached
As fallen human beings, we all have a sinful bent towards self (not towards God) – self gratification, self promotion, self service, self x, y and z, (you fill in the blanks). Therefore, we must take whatever precautionary measures necessary to ensure that we are not (intentionally or unintentionally) feeding that sinful bent towards self. Many times, I find it hard to respond to comments which “praise” me or the sermon preached. If I say “Thank you,” I feel that I am taking the credit that does not really belong to me. If I say “Praise the Lord,” it feels like I am just trying to sound “pious” or “spiritual” and that I am really not acknowledging the words praise or appreciation being directed towards me from a congregant. It’s a real dilemma for me and I suppose it is for other pastors as well.
But what concern me and even scares me most is that I am too quick to draw attention to myself – that’s very natural for me. I find that I can enjoy people’s praise so much so that I can become larger and larger in my own eyes and perhaps in the eyes of others even as God becomes smaller and smaller. I believe every pastor and every church member wants to say with the Apostle John, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). In principle, we all affirm that. But in practice, we do the opposite. In the end, we and our sermons are the ones that end up increasing while God on the other hand is decreasing and being relegated to the side while we, our sermons and pastoral hand-shakes take center stage – effectively obstructing people from squarely focusing on God and giving Him the glory that is due His Name.
For these reasons, I have made it my practice to go into “seclusion” right after the service (even for a few minutes in cases where I can’t afford to do this for longer periods). I usually go somewhere quite where I can hide and be alone with God. Sometimes, it means that I have to lock myself in a toilet for a few minutes to check in with the Lord and report back to Him. He sends me into the pulpit each week. I ask for His help and blessing before I step into the pulpit each week. So, the first thing that I want to do as soon as the service is over, is to go back and report to Him that I have done what He had sent me to do; to thank Him for giving me His grace and strength which saw me through the service; to ask Him for forgiveness for any sins that I may have committed while preaching or while leading the service. And to ask for His blessing upon His Word and the people who heard it that they would be given the grace to lay it up on their hearts and practice it in their lives.
None of what I have shared so far has to be the case necessarily. Each of these things can be avoided if we are careful and are aware of the potential dangers associated with the hand-shaking practice after church services. I am of the opinion that the church would be spiritually healthier and more focused on the Lord and His Word if this practice were to be avoided altogether. At the very least, we should not require or even expect every pastor to be a hand-shaking pastor because that is not a necessary requirement of the pastoral office. Congregations should be more diligent to ensure that their pastors are praying for them and preaching the whole counsel of God whether they shake their hands after the service or not. Perhaps the hand-shaking would be better delegated to other elders and/or deacons in the church.
So What Are We to Do?
I have already shared what I believe to be the biblical alternative to the “pastoral ministry of shaking hands.” I have called it, the pastoral ministry of shaking hearts. Let me share an example of how other churches and their pastors conduct their business on Sundays in this regard. It’s Sunday morning. Let’s say the church service starts at 10:00 am. The pastor, church elders and deacons make their way to the church at 9:30 am or thereabouts. They gather in the vestry as people are coming into the sanctuary for worship. While they are in the vestry, one or two deacons on “greeting duty” for that particular Sunday are standing at the main doors into the sanctuary – greeting people and directing them to their seats until the church fills up. Back in the vestry, the other men update one another on congregational life. Praise items and prayer concerns are shared. Together, they pray (usually led by one person – the pastor, an elder or one of the deacons). They pray for the service as well, everything, the singing, the reading of the Word, the preaching, the offering, visitors, everything. After prayer (it’s not 10:00 am), the all file into the main sanctuary for the service. The pastor is the last person to enter the sanctuary. Upon entering the sanctuary, he goes directly to the pulpit and leads the entire service. After the service, the deacons on “greeting duty” that Sunday are busy guiding the people out of the sanctuary – and greeting them as before. The pastor is the first one to exist the sanctuary followed by the elders straight back to the vestry where they all take their seats (sometimes they stand if they do not have enough seats for everybody). The pastor asks one of the men to pray – sometimes he prays himself. Together, led by this one man, they pray and dedicate everything that has just happened to the Lord – have a few discussions – sometimes not – and off they go each to his home.
You may wonder, “When does the pastor make contact with the people?” Well, during the week, the pastor and the elders are usually busy visiting the members of their congregation – and also during their mid-week services. I will admit that it’s easier to do this in a small congregation, but perhaps that it only an argument for smaller not bigger churches.
In any case, I pray that this article will be of some spiritual benefit to one or two pastors out there and their congregations. Ultimately, I pray that the Lord may use it to raise up more pastors who will devote themselves to the pastoral ministry of shaking hearts on their knees in prayer and on their feet in preaching. To Him be all the praise, glory and honor – now and forevermore! Amen!