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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ask the Matriarch -- Emergency, Part 2

As I mentioned last week, some of our matriarchs didn't get a chance to weigh in on the question of the week--and we got them a little late. So I wanted to share their answers with you as well. You may also get a little insight from my godson, who's happily wrecking tractor trailers on the dining room table as we speak, so we're getting a little superhero practice in on the side.

In case you missed the original post, it's here, and the question was, "How do you handle emergencies when you are on vacation?" Should I stay or should I go? Something like that.

Karen says:
If you have done your due diligence with regard to appointing another pastor to be on call while you are away, and leaving both that number and your own emergency contact numbers with the appropriate people, you can leave for vacation with a clear conscience.

In the situation you described, the delayed response was due to your lay leaders' not taking the appropriate action. The question of what type of emergency merits returning from vacation is trickier. You can very quickly get into "Well, she came back when Mavis's daughter broke her neck, but not when my Harold had his stroke" sorts of comparisons. Distance makes a difference. If you are at the beach 90 miles away, it's reasonable for folks to hope you might come back for an untimely death or other calamity. If you are across the country or overseas, and it involves
expensive changes of plane reservations, very few emergencies would rise to
the "Come back at once!" level.

Even trickier are disasters that strike just as you're leaving town. One of our regular attenders had a fatal accident less that 48 hours before my family and I were due to head out of state for two weeks. I had a retired pastor in our congregation take the funeral. If it had just been me, I might have called it the other way, but my spouse didn't have the flexibility to change the time off he'd requested from his employer, my kids were counting on the trip, etc. I do think it is legitimate to consider how the decision to come back from vacation or to delay or cancel impacts one's family.

Jan says:
This is one of those power situations that makes ministry tricky. For some, you represent God as in "if only you had been here this wouldn't have happened." Jesus had this problem too. (See John 11:21.)

The truth is that there are some people for whom you will want to drop everything and come running when they have a calamity. But the problem comes when we return from vacation for one family (your favorite member) but not for another. People want to believe that they are so important to you/the church/the community that of course you would drop everything and come back from vacation.

In my first church, as a single pastor, I came back early from every single vacation I took . . . until my honeymoon in Europe. I had no cell phone. And I was on my honeymoon, for heaven's sake. The week after I got home 3 people died. (They waited for me to return, it seems.)

The best thing to do is to agree on a policy with your elders/vestry BEFORE the very first vacation. Or in your case, meet with "the leaders" now that this happened and talk about what to do next time it happens.

These days, I leave the name/number of another pastor. If someone dies while I'm away, the family has a choice. They can 1) choose to have the other pastor officiate at a funeral during my time away, or they can 2) choose to schedule a memorial service to take place after I return.

Remind them that even Jesus didn't come running (John 11:21 again) when Lazarus died, and as Christians, as painful as it is when we lose those we love, we believe death's not the end of the story. Death happens when people are near and when they are far away. And the grieving will continue long enough afterwards that you will be able to minister to them even if you can't be reached for a month.

Having said all this, I have to admit that there are certain times when I would come back in a second for certain circumstances. I remember a colleague who was on vacation but hurried back when five members of the same family died in a plane crash, leaving only a young mother and their infant who'd stayed home. He felt like this was clearly a time he needed to be there for the the surviving two family members and for the whole stunned congregation. I knew another pastor who returned when a bus wreck killed 4 children from 4 different families in his congregation. A no brainer.

Depending on the congregation, if you came home for every death you would never get a vacation and sabbath is something even God takes (note the 4th commandment).

People in their grief will 1) blame you, 2) accuse you, 3) taunt you, 4) make you feel guilty. But it's not your fault. Just love them. They could have been out of town too.

I'm sorry for your congregation's loss.

OK, I think I have a healthy lot of questions in the queue for upcoming weeks. Thanks, everyone! But if you have a thorny ministry problem you'd like us to contemplate, just send it to And whew, I made it through the post with the 3-year-old hijacking the keyboard. Off to save some tractor trailers!


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Karen and Jan.
    There's no question that some situations require subjectivity and others objectivity. But to know which is which, we have to know what our baseline is for vacation time and family time.

  2. I just love this feature. So much wisdom and grace. You matriarchs give us newbies great stuff to think about!

  3. GReat answers here. I think this feature really helps those who are setting out in ministry. Praise God for those REv Gals who have paved the way - but the grace of God.

    Great weekend to all :)

  4. Not sure where I was last week, as I missed part 1 but having had my review yesterday this topic came up...The wisdom here was that if you are on vacation you are ON VACATION and even if you're spending your time holed up in the vicarage, you are still not available.
    I must admit, that feels almost impossible to me, but I was given to understand that I'd better learn how to manage it pretty fast if I want to survive in ministry. I have no trouble with seeing spiritual retreats as sacrosanct. When I arrive I turn off my phone (though my favourite retreat house has no signal anyway)take off my watch and try very consciously to put myself only "on call" to God. Its really interesting to me that though most of you in ministry in the US have offices in your churches, and presumably find it easier as a result to distinguish between work and off duty time in the week, there seems to be greater expectations of your availability at times when in UK we are positively discouraged from answering our phones.

  5. Communication Resources Some good information about the Motorola V360 camera phone, as well as other resources.


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