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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - It's My Body... Edition

Today's question gives us all opportunity to consider how much, if any, of our personal health concerns need to be communicated to the people with whom we serve.

Hi my sisters and fellow servants in Christ! I'm working through something for which I thought your group might be able to provide insight. I am a pastor in medium size church. Ordained women are a relatively new concept and practice in our denomination. In a few months I have to have surgery - specifically a hysterectomy - which will necessitate my taking at least 6 weeks off. My concern is how do I inform the "board" as well as the congregation? I'm having a hard time with the idea that people will know what I'm having done. I know it's kind of foolish in this day and age, but I'm a product of a generation that only whispered about such things and then only among women. I'm frankly, embarrassed to have to tell people about such a personal issue.

Because of the newness of women in ministry in our "tribe" I don't have anyone else to talk to. I have great male pastor friends, but the next closest female is in another state. I'd welcome input.

First of all, we offer our prayers for your health and renewed well-being!

Sue, who blogs at
innerdorothy was the first to weigh in...

I understand your concern, especially given that women's ministry is fairly new to your denomination. I spent six months on medical leave last year, so I hear what you're saying about how much or how little the congregation needs to know about your absence. In our denomination, we are fortunate to have a Restorative Care Plan - part of which specifically states that the minister does NOT have to reveal the reason for any medical absence. Any questions about the medical leave are to be directed to the individual's Restorative Care worker. Those questions are met with the following "Your minister is on medical leave and needs some time away. The reason for her/his absence is confidential, but she/he appreciates your concern." End of statement. No one needs to know the type of surgery, or even that you're having surgery at all. All they need is a note from your doctor or surgeon saying that the time is medically necessary. If people ask you directly, you might say, "Thank you for your concern, but I would prefer not to discuss it." My guess is that they won't push any further. Rumours will no doubt spread like wildfire. If people don't have information, they usually fill in the blanks with whatever they imagine might be going on. Let the rumours fly as they may, don't concern yourself with them. Rather, use the six weeks to heal and rest your body and soul from what is major surgery. Your body will need that time to heal itself - let other people's questions and curiosity be their problem, not yours. That's the best advice I've got, and it comes from my own experience. It may not fit your situation, but there you go.... I hope it is helpful in some way.

Karen adds...

I'm having a hysterectomy next month as well. What helped me was remembering a time fifteen years ago when the Senior Pastor at the church where I was an Associate had to have prostate surgery--probably an equally "embarrassing" male equivalent. He was very straightforward about it--didn't mince words, but didn't give unnecessary detail either. I've just sent out a letter to the congregation explaining what kind of surgery I am having and how long I will be out of the office. (I did this after clearing the medical leave with our Personnel Committee and with Session.) Since the letter went out ten days ago I've gotten nothing but supportive feedback--including over 20 women who have assured me that they've "been there, done that" and that I will feel SO MUCH better afterwards.

And finally, mompriest who blogs at seekingauthenticvoice speaks from some very recent experience...

This is a timely question for me, as one who has literally just gone through this. I too felt very vulnerable, embarrassed, and had no desire to share with others what I was about to go through. Very personal. What I discovered is that it is so common that nearly every woman had had one, and almost every man had helped his wife through one.
Some critical decisions: do you know for a fact that you will be off for 6 weeks? Will the surgery be abdominal or vaginal/laparoscopic? Abdominal means 6 weeks off work! Vaginal means any where from 2-6 weeks off - plus a BIG difference in how one feels and what one can do and the amount of pain. I was one of the lucky ones, needing only two weeks off.
This is what I did: I scheduled vacation time (three weeks), and figured I would return to work as able, and in a limited capacity following that time off. I exercised and got myself into excellent shape so I'd have stamina for the surgery. (Exercising may not be an option, given the cause of your symptoms). I told a few key people of the pending surgery (my parish administrator and some of the staff). I arranged for an email to be sent to the parish the day before the surgery (I wrote it, the Parish Admin sent it) informing the parish of my surgery. A follow up email was sent the day after I returned home from surgery letting the parish know how I was doing. Most of the communication to the male leadership was done via email. I did speak to a few of the women. Many of the women said to me, "You are having the surgery EVERY woman wants at some point in her life." That may not be true, especially if one is young and wanted children, then it could be a heart break. BUT for a middle aged woman who was tired of the annoying symptoms from this failing organ, it was absolutely true. In other words, it is common, and there will be a lot of understanding from women who have had it and men who have helped the women in their lives recover from it.
And in case no one has offered this, go here for more info and support: hystersisters
Prayers for you. You will feel better when it is all over!

Do you have any insights or advice to add? You can do so by using the comment function.

And remember, your questions about life and ministry are always welcome! Send them to


  1. mompriest, I'm curious. Was there no time allotted for you as sick leave? I hate to think of pastors being compelled to use vacation time to recover from surgery of any kind. I've worked in churches that have been fairly vague about sick leave, so I'm not aware of what is typical. I did make a point of scheduling a child's surgery for my vacation time, but given that it was bite correction surgery and elective, that seemed appropriate.
    In the UCC, we have the option to participate in a type of disability insurance that will help cover the church's costs if a pastor is out for an illness or surgery. Anyone can qualify for it as long as you sign up for it in the first 90 days of your first call. Then it's portable to all other calls.
    I guess, were I in the position of the questioner, I would be matter-of-fact about what's coming up and just be sure I had all my information straight about what kind of leave I would be using. Be clear about who will cover for you, what assistance that person will need from the congregation and what you expect from them, whether it's casseroles or a blind eye or prayers or _________. If you sound confident about what you will be doing and when, that will inspire confidence in the congregation.

  2. I had the same question as Songbird. To use holiday time for surgery seems unjust, but maybe that's only me.

    To be clear - when I was away, it was the responsibility of the Board to keep the congregation informed as to who was covering, and what they could do to help that person. The Restorative Care Plan paid that person (much like Songbird's option) but because that person didn't know the congregation as well as they did themselves - the people were invited and encouraged to volunteer visiting time etc...

    So it wasn't that I just disappeared and no one knew what to do. Everything was in place. The only thing they did not know were the medical/personal details about my condition.

  3. Would you feel the same way if it was a tonsillectomy? Or thyroid surgery? If so, I think you are on the right track.
    If not, let's think about the message we send when we communicate shame or embarrassment about being female, or male, or at least about having physical sex organs that sometimes need medical attention. I'm pretty sure that, even if you are one of the first women to be ordained in your denomination, people DO know that you are female. It's not like you'll be more accepted as a pastor if no one ever mentions your gender.
    I wouldn't offer any truly "personal" details - and no one polite would ask. But - hey - God didn't send disembodied spirits to preach. He sent us. Here we are.
    Also - I think if you keep this a secret, you are tacitly asking your congregation to keep all their gender-based problems to themselves, too. Which will limit your usefulness at some point. I'd just say, once, "I'm having a hysterectomy. See you in six weeks."

  4. This happened to me about 11 years ago. I was serving as an interim and let the Session or governing board know that I needed to have surgery, specifically a hysterectomy and would be out for 6 weeks. The congregation knew I was having surgery and I shared when asked what it was. The women came out of the woodwork sharing their experiences and support.
    Mine was abdominal and I was out for 6 weeks. It took me two weeks just to feel human again and begin reading and working on craft projects.
    Take time to rest - your body is healing and on a cellular level it is busy fighting infection, reconnecting tissue, etc. Give in and rest. Be kind to yourself and body. The congregation sent a wonderful floral arrangement and one of LH's parishioners made us a casserole and complete dinner.
    Let them love and care for you as you for them.
    May your surgery go well and sending healing prayers your way.

  5. Oh, and I didn't use vacation time.
    I was given the time and supply preachers filled in and a colleague provided emergency pastoral care. As I recall, there were no emergencies and all was good at the church.

  6. Personally, I think keeping too much to yourself has two problems: one, that you may be sending a confusing message to the parishioners if you hope that they will open their vulnerable moments to you but you can't do that with them; and two, that too much secrecy about a very common issue probably creates more fuss in itself.

    I'm with those who suggest making a simple statement: "I'm having a hysterectomy and will be recovering for ___ weeks." You can keep all the rest of it to yourself, I think. But the simple truth will probably nip any rumors in the bud, and it will give parishioners a good example to follow.

    I've had some similar struggles myself in dealing with infertility; I really don't want to talk about it with my parishioners, and for the most part I have not, but I know my silence has some costs to it. There are times when total privacy is warranted, but in this case, I think a little bit of explanation is okay.

  7. I had a hysterectomy last year during seminary. I figured I'd go ahead and tell people, because those young guys needed to get used to hearing such things :)

    Not too many details, just my female systems went haywire and I'm having a hysterectomy. That was as much detail as most wanted, but not more than they could handle.

    I second the link to hystersisters, it's a good online community of folks going through hysterectomy and associated oddnesses that your doctor won't think to tell you. I had the vaginal and was in class 10 days after surgery, but not doing stairs, etc. I would NOT have been back at work. And I was not fully back to "normal" for more than 6 months after the surgery, possibly due to the anemia, possibly just because surgery is a BIG impact on the body.

  8. I reflect on this issue from a couple of perspectives.

    I had an 'emergency' hysterectomy while on internship. Finding out I needed it and having it were separated by two weeks, so I didnt control the information that well.

    I discovered it was one of those 'You like me, you really like me' moments. Of course, I wasn't the sole pastor, and my absence did not generate that kind of anxiety.

    Which brings me to my second perspective - how healthy is your congregation? From my background as an interim pastor - and ancedotal evidence from male friends who have had surgery - a pastoral absence for surgery can make a congregation very nervous. And a nervous congregation can do some very bad things.

    Because of this I would think you would want to be very open and upfront with your board - it's a hysterectomy, it's not life-threatening, I'll need 6 weeks off (and then next 6 weeks at a slower pace as well.) I hope and pray you have a reasonable leave policy. If you don't, you may have to fight with your folks - remind them that surgery, of any kind, can happen to anybody.

    I think you have a double role - you need to take care of yourself, but you are also their pastor (I guess from your post the only pastor), and your job is to lead, be prepared and stay calm. The calmer and more at peace you are (and I wasn't before my surgery!) the likelihood you'll have good relations all the way through.

    Communications with the congregation should be more matter-of-fact, Pastor K. is going to have a hysterectomy, she'll be out on leave from blank to blank - Pastor L. will cover during the week and preacher S. comes on Sundays. Please call the board president with any concerns. The letter/newsletter or pulpit announcement should highlight the idea that everything is under control and you have the support of your board.

    A final question - say you were sitting on the board of the church - what would you want to hear? If you were in the pew, what would you want to hear?

  9. While I don't know the questioner's exact situation, I might gently suggest that treating this surgery with embarrassment and silence may keep you from some needed support and advice.

    I've had dysfunctional uterine bleeding through significant periods (pardon the pun!) in my 40's. It's always wearying and worrisome, even when tests show that there's nothing seriously wrong. I've found the shared experiences of other women, AND of men whose wives/sisters/daughters have gone through the same thing, really helpful, and even become part of a sisterhood. I'd encourage you to, as others have suggested here, be straightforward with your congregation about the "what" and "when" of your don't have to go into a lot of medical detail. Apart from their concern for you as a person and as their pastor, I think their other concern will be who's going to pastor the place in your absence...and if you have a plan in place for worshp leadership and pastoral care, that shouldn't be a great problem, I wouldn't think.

  10. See, to me it's not about "secrets" it's about appropriate boundaries.

    Why would it be expected that the minister share the nature of his/her medical situation when we are so often asked to keep parishioner's concerns confidential? For example, I would never publicly ask for prayers for a person I have visited unless I had that person's clear permission to do so. That is common courtesy but also a huge matter of trust between myself and that individual.

    That confidentiality is so important to meeting the pastoral concerns of the community, surely the pastor deserves the same courtesy should she/he not want to discuss their own medical situation.

    When I was away, I received cards and meals from my exceedingly kind congregation. I was deeply appreciative of each gesture of care and concern and let them know that.

    I also appreciated that they understood the basic rule of national church's Restorative Care plan - that the details of my medical condition were between me and my doctor and that I needed the time away to get better. They were cool with that. A few rumours were bandied about, but not for long.

    Since I've been back (almost a year now) nothing about our pastoral relationship has changed. I still love them and they still love me. I don't think that would be the case if anyone felt that "secrets" were being kept from them. The congregation was just glad to have me back with them, just as I glad to be back.

  11. I would gently support those who suggest that you name your surgery and explain how long you will need off, and let that be it. No need to go into any more details than you wish.

    I, too, worry about secrecy regarding "female" surgery. Yes, it can be embarrassing to talk about, but it is just one more aspect of our humanity and of our physical being.

    And might it not raise MORE anxiety for the board and congregation to not know the nature of your surgery?

    And as others have noted, I hope that clergy everywhere (and lay workers as well) have some provision for short term disability/sick leave without having to use vacation time!!

  12. My vacation time was already scheduled THEN the surgery happened. I have to check my contract, but yes, I do have time off for sick leave and even time available for disability. The end result is I will simply schedule more vacation time before the year is out. BUT this approach, ie vacation time, did give me the comfort of not having to say too much before I was ready - and allows me to work out the details with the leadership.

  13. I still think it comes down to a gender issue and a boundary issue. If I've learned nothing else in 11 years, it's that no one else is going to create boundaries between your personal life and your ministry life except you.

    I still question whether a male pastor would stand up and declare that his left testicle is being removed next Wednesday.

    I still wonder why "surgery" isn't enough information for the congregation.

    I still wonder why confidentiality, which we hold so sacredly for others, is something we deny ourselves as women in ministry. Honestly, it makes me sad. The status of our uterus and ovaries is personal. It does not need to be shared and is not a "secret" being kept from anyone. It's simply personal. It doesn't keep anyone from sending flowers or extending kindness.

    Where does that disclosure stop? What if a man has to go to a center specializing in erectile dysfunction? Does the congregation have a "right" to know about that too? Is it a terrible "secret" if he keeps that to himself?

    What if it wasn't a hysterectomy, but a few weeks needed to determine a clear diagnosis of mental illness? Do you really think the congregation needs to hear about the minister's bipolar disorder if the minister wants that, and her medication regimen confidential?

    I see a dreadful double standard here. We honour the confidentiality of our people, but don't ask the same for ourselves.

    I think I live on another planet up here in the North. Maybe I just shouldn't answer these questions anymore.

  14. What an interesting discussion.

    Sue, I think your contributions are very important and valuable, particularly as you seem to have a different system in place in your denomination than some of the other respondents and commenters.

    The whole existence of the Restorative Care Plan and the fact that it specifically states that the reason for taking sick leave need not be revealed...causes me to think that various ones of us are coming at this from rather a different cultural perspective. By culture, I don't just mean that you live in another country (though maybe so)...but rather that your denomination has that explicit norm and expectation of privacy. That's a new one to me (though I'm not on a church staff).

    I'm on the Vestry of our church, and both in that setting and in my university workplace, it would seem strange if someone simply said, "I'm taking extended medical leave and the reason is private."

    In fact, for absences of over 3 days, we are required to submit a doctor's note documenting care, so it would be apparent (to supervisor and HR if no one else) what sort of illness/treatment had been the case.

    The other possibility is that it IS an American thing...I'd like to hear from other non-US folks on this?...because unfortunately, working in international education, I learn that the stereotypical American tends to tell more than other people would...more than they want to hear sometimes!...?

    Finally, I encourage the questioner to 1) discuss the issue with a trusted supervisor in her denomination, or a colleague who has been in the area a long time. She or he will have a better idea of how such news might best be managed; and 2) to honor her own wishes. It is, indeed, her body.

  15. Mary – Beth , I'm not from America. I had a hysterectomy during seminary, and it was arranged in less than two weeks, which happened to be during semester break. I can't remember what I told other students, but the staff knew - I was off for at least 6 weeks, and undiagnosed anaemia made it longer before I was up to a full study load. I was in a field placement at the time, and some women did speak to me on my return, reminding me to take it easy, one even visited me in hospital. BUT I think some of the men would have been very embarrassed if the nature of the operation had been publically announced.
    Now I am in a congregation that cares for me very much, I am still conscious that some men would be embarrassed. Recently a member of the congregation had prostrate surgery. He told me it was ‘secret men’s business’ – his wife kept me informed as to how he was going while he was in hospital.
    There is a line between being open with the congregation – which I think we need to be – and keeping something of ourselves for ourselves. If a member of the congregation were having this operation, would they tell you, or the whole congregation? And if you don’t feel comfortable with the congregation knowing about the nature of the operation, my hunch is that they will pick up your discomfort more than what you say.
    Hope the surgery goes well.

  16. I value the full range of wisdom from our matriarchs, Sue, especially when one denomination's understandings or expectations suggest new ways of doing things. There is no comparable support in the United Church of Christ for my privacy or my care. And since the church pays for my insurance, I am in a symbiotic relationship with them, in a sense. Unless they continue to employ me, I don't have the insurance.
    I guess in the interest of the whole person, I am more interested in demystifying illness than in protecting my own privacy. I have a chronic illness, and while I don't wear a sign announcing it, I don't hide it, either. That's my choice, and I guess what I'm saying here is that there seem to be a range of choices we can make, based on our situations, our employer's expectations and our own preferences. I do know women who prefer not to discuss a hysterectomy, whatever the cause of the surgery, and others who have announced it in church when requesting the prayers of the congregation. I am prepared to honor either approach from a parishioner and would hope the feeling would be mutual.

  17. I guess I'd weigh in on the side of privacy, as well. And I'm not Canadian! I had my gall bladder removed a while ago, and it was just "minor surgery."

    I guess where I get concerned is when the pastor's dental surgery is announced, her back surgery is announced, and her hysterectomy is suddenly private. I feel like that sends a message.

    But for me (and my house), I would err on the side of vagueness. For a couple reasons: a) it's just private. b) I think a lot of folks get uncomfortable hearing medical specificities about people who are not close friends and c) while support from congregants is great, I would hope that the pastor has another set of supporters with whom she or he can be very specific. d) I don't think it matters. I think if the pastor needs time away for medical reasons, being super-specific about it feels (to me) like you have to defend being sick enough to be out of work.

  18. I always feel like I want to reference all the comments I've read before weighing in, and won't be able to specifically name all of them that have influenced me or made me want to respond, but I just want to say a few things:
    1) Sue -- your voice is very valuable and helpful, please do not stop being a matriarch for us!

    2) I have kind of a different looks at things because I've recently been through the births of both of my babies within the past three years in congregations, and that can bring up a lot of "sexuality" sort of things, not only because being pregnant (GETTING pregnant, too) and having the baby remind people of what you and your husband might be doing sometimes, but after the babies' births, I nursed, which brought with it its own issues and privacy constraints (or lack thereof.)

    3) I don't think that if one is uncomfortable sharing, one should be forced to share (i.e., the parishioner who said he was having "secret men's business" taken care of), but I do think that a lack of clear information or some kind of status updates can lead to anxiety in the congregation, as several mentioned, and can create an unhealthy dynamic. I tend to be transparent to a fault, and it has served me well, but I am a wee one in ministry and may be eating my words at some point. I've just found that people feel more comfortable when they know what's going on, probably because they're a little bit nosy, but also because they're human, and having too much vagueness around them makes them a little rascally and can lead to trouble.

  19. Thanks for your words of support.

    To be clear, RCP does have a definite requirement for documentation from one's doctor. That info is confidential b/w client & doc & RCP unless the minister specifically indicates otherwise.


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