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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — Emergency! Now what?

As chance would have it, most of our matriarchs are away fulfilling other obligations this week. So it was interesting to get this in our in-box yesterday. Fortunately, Peripatetic Polar Bear was on hand.

How do you handle emergencies when you are on vacation? I understand that you would need to have another minister 'on call' in case of a death or something, but I struggle with trying to figure out when and/or if to return home.

Recently, I was out of the country (not just a couple of hours away), and a church member was irritated because I was not immediately available when someone's mother died. I had left my numbers with our Board Chair and Elder Chair, but they forgot, and I was delayed in being notified, whic, in turn, delayed my ability to contact the person whose mother died. I almost feel guilty for having been on vacation.

PPB writes:
I place a clear line between being on vacation and being on study leave. If you're on study leave, you're still working and obviously you're going to contact that person immediately, and decide whether or not you need to return home—often the funeral will wait for you while the person you left on call tends to the immediate fall-out.

But vacation is vacation. And as much as we'd all like to be superwoman and be able to be fully present to all in our circle at all times and in all places, those who do that quickly burn out. I bought some new rechargeable batteries for my camera today. I loved the directions: failure to fully recharge batteries for one full hour will result in inconsistent power. In other words, a half-charged battery could poop out on you at any time. Charge it all the way. Get someone reliable to cover your church, write a lovely letter the second you get back on the job, visit the bereaved, and continue ahead, fully charged.

The church member has displaced her anger on you. Maybe her mama forgot to pick her up at the babysitter's house. Maybe her third husband walked out on her, or her children don't call her on her birthday—whatever it is, her abandonment stuff is not about you. You're just in the way [as in, you just happened to be there]. You've done what you could do.

And now, a note from our sponsor, er, well, from Gallycat anyway
Don't forget, we love hearing your insights and experiences. Have you ever had a situation like this? How did you handle it? Let us know in comments!

And if you are a ring member with 10 or more years of ordained ministry, feel free to drop us a line as we are still seeking new AtM Matriarchs to help out. On the other hand, if you need advice on a particular situation in your parish or ministry, feel free to send us your question, even if you already posted it on your blog. We're here at


  1. Where do people see spiritual retreats fitting in? I try to get away for a couple of days whenever I can, to a monastery or whatever. There may be a study component to it, but it's different than study leave, but not quite vacation.

  2. I totally agree. We aren't going anyone any favors by trying to meet their every expectation.

    It is not reasonable to make contact when you are on vacation. Yes. If someone dies, I would like to know, and if possible I would return for the funeral, but there will ALWAYS be someone or something who has a need when you are gone. If you wait until there is nothing to take time away, it will never happen.

    When we are the only ones who can take care of people in their times of need, we set up a false barrier between clergy and laity...

    Anyway, that's my two cents.

  3. When I leave for any reason I enlist the wardens (who are my right and left hands, and who function in primary lay leadership as head of the vestry, or governing board. The wardens and parish administrator are the three primary contact persons for any issue that arises, including death or serious illness. The wardens and parish admin know how to reach me and they know to call me only if there is a serious event, which I clarify and define as: the death of any parishioner, a serious illness and hospitalization of any parishioner, a fire in the building...and they have my cell phone to reach me. They know I will decide whether or not to come back based on what is fesible and what the situation warrents. Now, we also have a deacon, so another clergy person available in pastoral emergencies, even though not a priest. So far it has worked.

  4. I have a Parish Associate who is a retired minister. His gig is that he is always on call when I'm gone, even if it's for study leave. (I always arrange this ahead of time just to be sure he's around.) He can marry, bury, baptize, etc.

    Not everybody is this lucky. I have a colleague who calls me to be her on-call person sometimes when she is away. I almost ended up having to do a funeral for her once when she was away.

    I do not believe that a funeral is a reason to cut short a vacation. Study leave, maybe. If the family absolutely has to have me do the service, they will wait until I'm back in town is how I see it. The loved one will be just as dead a couple of days later.

    Most people have waited to die until my last day of vacation, so far. Then I am home in time. Problem solved.

  5. I agree whole heartedly- the battery image is a great one!

    My mantra: I am the pastor. I am not God...

  6. With regard to RM, I've never had a retreat as an option, so I never thought that one through. I think it could go either way---actually all of them could go either way, so long as it's clear to your staff and your governing board what your intentions are.

    I also think this is different if you are a member of a staff versus being solo. I know when I've covered on-call for local clergy, and done the go to the hospital someone's dying thing, unless the pastor's out of town/the country for 3 more weeks, they almost always would rather wait for the person they know than have me, the borrow-a-preach fill in. And of course, it's true. Once someone has died, a few days don't make a whit of difference.

  7. That didn't make sense. What I meant is, if you're the member of a staff ministry, the bereaved will have their pastor present for the emergency--it may not be you, but it will be someone known to them, and most likely funeral plans will go ahead without waiting for you.

  8. In this case, it sounds like you didn't even know about the situation in time to have contacted the person with the promptness he/she would have liked. I agree with PPB - the anger is not about you.

    As for the retreat question, I'm not sure. I probably tend to be overly available regardless of where I am; I ALWAYS have my cell phone and make it clear that I'm reachable in case of emergencies. And yet, I am still human, and my cell phone doesn't always get reception, and and I'm not always available the instant someone wants me to be, and that is okay, and even good.

    I guess it depends on whether I'm taking the retreat as work time or as vacation/personal time. If it's on "work" time, I'm going to answer my phone. If it's "personal" time, I usually set a time each day during which I will check my messages to see if anything urgent has arisen. So far, my congregation has respected the line of what is actually an emergency, so this has worked.

  9. loved the analagy with batteries

    reverend mother -for what it's worth - my take is that spirtual retreats are NOT to be violated - you need to pastor fully but once once the batteries are recharged.

    Jesus didn't run to Mary and Martha now did he?

  10. It's so nice to have a place to think things through. We have had very few deaths in my time at the church I currently serve, and none during the head of staff's vacation, though a few funerals have taken place while I was away for various things. Knowing my head of staff, I suspect she would come back from vacation, study leave, whatever. Even with an associate there. So I appreciate the counter-testimonies here.

  11. I'd be leery of comparing myself to Jesus in that story, Lorna! Talk about raising expectations!! :-)

  12. I've only been a solo pastor, and this really came up only once. It happened during my first vacation, when I had been at the church less than a year. I spent most of that 3+ week block of time nursing my oldest after a scheduled surgery, so I was not out of town. My husband and I had planned two nights away while my former husband could care for the kids. Wouldn't you know that was exactly the time someone wanted a funeral scheduled, on the Saturday morning of the weekend we were planning to leave on Friday and return Sunday?
    We decided to rearrange our plans, since it was a driving trip to a neighboring state, and here's why. In the nine months I had been at Small Church, no one in the immediate church family had died. My only funerals had been for relatives of members who were not members themselves, and whose deaths had no impact on the membership as a whole. This was the husband of a longtime church member and Guild member whose ties were throughout the church family. I felt I had an opportunity to build trust with the community by doing the funeral.
    Can we say it worked if no one else ever died during my vacation time?
    Seriously, in future years, I worked with the Deacons on a plan much like what mompriest described. I had a neighboring pastor cover, and that person never got a call. I did the same for him, and ditto. I know other colleagues who cover mutually, and they have done funerals for one another's flock.

  13. This is all good stuff, thank you. I think the spiritual retreat falls into the battery charging category and would therefore consider it an emergency only contact.

    SB had a great point in that funerals are where you build trust with a congregation. So if you are new to your parish, getting there for the funeral is probably a good idea. After you have been in your parish a couple of years they will most likely wait for you.

    Displaced anger - absolutely.

    Prep ahead of time can help avoid a lot of these things including having deacons prepared and trusted by the congregation to handle hospital calls, etc...

    One more thing, if the family insists on you coming back then the church MUST pay for travel expenses and you should get your time back too.

    Enough rambling from me.

  14. I'm an assistant, so this is less of an issue here, but I've also been "on-call" for solo priests at other churches nearby, usually in the summer. Also, we have a retired priest in our area who is an on-call hospital chaplain for one of the local hospitals, so he is a great resource.

    About the displaced anger though... if I'm reading this right, the parishoner who was upset *wasn't* the one whose mother died? Thats SO not about you!

  15. That's right - the church member who was upset with me was not the one whose mother died. And, thanks to will smama for pointing out that the church should pay for expenses if a return trip is necessary. That was my next question!


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