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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Privacy and Accessibility

We've talked a couple of different times recently about maintaining the privacy of church members, but what about the pastor? This week's question comes from a colleague who is struggling with balancing the pastoral need for accessibility with her family's need for privacy:

I recently began a sole pastorate at a congregation about 30 minutes from my home. Until recently, I have not had a landline phone, but just hooked one up to try to save on cell phone minutes. My husband was upset that I published the home number in the church bulletin because he was afraid that it could be looked up to see our address. I then informed him that usually, the pastor shares her address with the congregation for the purpose of receiving correspondence at home, etc., and that's it just a normal practice. I told him that at my last pastorate (where I was Asst. Pastor), our address had been listed in the directory. He was upset about that and said he didn't realize it and would've been unhappy if he'd known. Part of his concern, especially in this new church, is that he is a manager at a local industrial business, which puts him in the position of having to fire employees at times. There happen to be two employees who attend this church, thus would have access to the address if/when it's published. I think my husband is overreacting and don't see a problem sharing the address, even with his employees as members. What are your thoughts on this, and any possible alternatives? In some churches, there is a parsonage, and then of course the members obviously know where the pastor lives. Though this is not the case, I feel as though I'm hiding something if I don't simply share the address.

Matriarch Jennifer writes:

What a good thing it is that you want to be available to the new congregation and still sensitive to your spouses concerns about safety and privacy! I think you did a thoughtful thing in trying to save on cell phone minutes (if a landline phone does, in fact, end up saving you money) and allow the congregation you serve to be in touch with you. I think you’re right, that many congregations are aware of their pastor’s address, but perhaps not all.

The added dimension of not wanting to raise questions by departing from a previous practice (publishing contact info in the bulletin) is a reasonable one, too. My hunch is that you may have help --right where you are—in sorting this out.

I wonder if you have a personnel or an administration committee where you’re serving, or some trusted folks from the committee or group that called you to serve there, whom you could ask about expectations and contact information. It may be helpful to hear from them, if you don’t already know their feelings, what would be acceptable. I would not hesitate to share with that “sounding board” person or group that you don’t want to create new issues by being circumspect about your living arrangements, but that your spouse has a desire, because of his employment, to be concerned about making your home address public.

And ps: If it’s not too late to explore unlimited cell phone minutes, you may discover that it’s still cheaper to maintain only one phone and protect your family privacy as well.

Diane offers:

I think Jennifer's reply was very complete and also very compassionate. I remember the days when most pastors lived in a parsonage and there was no escaping having everyone know where the pastor lived, and probably very little privacy for the pastor's family. (The pastor at my church growing up lived right next door to the church.) In my first call in a small rural parish I once had a woman seeking shelter from her abusive boyfriend come to my front door, so I lived knowing that everyone in my community knew where I lived.

I'm not sure I can add much to Jennifer's excellent response, except to say that she is right in recognizing that there is a need for privacy for your family as well as the need for your congregation to get in touch with you in emergencies. Even with the printed phone number in the church directory, you need to be firm regarding your day off, and when it might be appropriate to contact you at home.

Singing Owl says:
I confess, I think it would be nearly unthinkable for a congregation not to know where their pastor lives! Of course, every congregation is different, but I think that it would indeed look as though you were hiding something if you refused to disclose your address. This is especially true if the church has a printed directory. I’m sorry about your husband’s distress, but I do think he is overreacting. Being at least somewhat accessible is part of being a pastor of a church.

Sunday's Coming
Privacy is important – especially for families. You don’t have to worry about ‘hiding something’: if people have a number where they can reach you that’s good. In the UK you can have a number ‘ex-directory’ which means people can’t simply look up the address – to protect your partner – is this possible?
If people need to be able to write to you is there maybe a church address, an office or something, where they can send things for you to pick them up? You can of course explain this to a management committee/elders meeting/committee of some kind and explain why your home address is not in the public domain. I hope they are wise enough to understand and not make a big deal of it. Good luck & God bless

It's an interesting dilemma our colleague finds herself in, and not one I think previous generations of pastors faced. And it is difficult for some in other professions to understand the accessibility required of the pastor. What advice do you offer to this pastor? How would you balance the need between what the church needs and what her family needs? (and wow, isn't that what so many problems we have boil down to?!)


  1. I suspect there were plenty of clergy wives in previous generations who wished no one knew where they lived! And this really is a new issue, part of having women clergy with male spouses or female partners who may not play the same role in the life of the church expected historically of a clergy spouse. If there is a Pastoral Relations Committee, I would talk with them about the concern, especially the dual relationships of the spouse to the church members and try to find a solution that works for all parties involved.

  2. We cannot any longer have a printed/photo type directory for congregations without a lot of legal hassle. If addresses and names are published in a booklet like that, signed and stamped documents are required from each person in the book, including children. So we just don't bother.

  3. One possible solution would be to have the church pay for a work cell phone, one used only by parishioners.
    As for the directory, we have a great one and it not only includes pictures but also maps to each house from the church. No one even thought about legal issues. My last parish was a large one and they too published pictures, using Olan Mills to produce the directory (disaster but another story).

  4. Had the Olan Mills disaster too, ugh. Can't imagine not having address published and yet I do appreciate living far enough out of town that no one would ever drop by. This will change when I move into the parsonage. For so many years, clergy were accessible b/c we lived in the church's house. It is a new thing to have this concern and the Parish Relations committee is a good airing ground. I like the cell phone option and the church pays me a subsidy every month in stead of paying for a home phone.

  5. We have a slightly bizarre system whereby the Church Council etc can insist on privacy but the clergy phone number and address are EVERYWHERE, including on large notice board outside the church...It just goes without saying that you are accessible 24/7 regardless of what your family might prefer.
    In practice, people are very good at not appearing on the doorstep, and because I'm not immediately next door to the church I don't get gentlemen of the road turning up for money, or battered wives seeking refuge on spec. Of course, it's still the exception rather than the rule for clergy to have an office of their own at church - there might be a general parish office, but all pastoral work happens at home anyway....all so very different.

  6. Oh Kathryn, that would really bother me! I mean, it's one thing for my own parishioners to know where I live - but it would be something else entirely for my address to be so publicly advertised to the whole town! Ugh!

  7. Wow, but what will your spouse do when the next church's calling committee comes to hear you preach and then expects you to entertain them in your home?

    Considering how many other people have my address, including spammers, mass mailers, telephone solicitors, etc., it doesn't seem unreasonable for the parish to know my address. They at least are real human beings, not just massive marketing machines.

  8. It sounds to me like there is a bigger issue here, about the pastor's spouse's expectations of privacy and time/space away from church. My husband has some of those concerns too, so I empathize. In a huge generalization, I think the pastor is usually more willing to be available to the congregation, whereas the spouse may see that as an invasion of personal space.

    Whatever the solution to the address publishing dilemma might be, I would guess there are a lot of other things to talk about too.

  9. I can't tell from the letter whether the writer is in a denominational system that might offer some guidance, but in my context, I might consult my Executive Presbyter or another wise presbytery colleague for guidance, especially if I were new to the area. It might even be that the spouse might be open to some pastoral care on the issue of his work situation. (It is difficult--and not advised--for the pastor to counsel their partner sometimes.)

    My congregation was not used to having a pastor who lived so far away, (15 miles) so very soon after I came here I had an open house to which the whole congregation was invited. None of them have been back to my house since. It seems all their curiosity was satisfied with that one party.

  10. Oh, and Off Topic: Sometime lets have an online support group for those of us who have survived the Olan Mills experience. I got stories!

  11. Off topic but since a number of you mentioned it...we are looking into doing a new pictorial directory and have info from both Olan Mills and Lifetouch. I'd love to hear more so as to make a better choice!

  12. Sue,
    there is a mixture of opinion on that one. I figure if the info is in the telephone book it can go in a church directory. That being said, we haven't put one out since 2003 so I haven't checked with the conference office (archivist actually) yet.

  13. OT first, to Silent: Like others, we had baaaaad experiences with Olan Mills. Very good experience with Lifetouch.

    Back to the subject at hand: I agree with Shalom in wondering if there's not more at issue here than the publication of one's home address and/or phone. A previous bad experience? A bigger sense of losing his spouse to the congregation, or fear of it? Or??

    In a day when true privacy is very hard to gain, and with a spouse in such a public profession, the pursuit of this level of privacy is just going to be very hard to achieve. In my congregation, the attempt would not be well received; at a minimum, I'd have to spend a lot of time explaining the reason, thus actually drawing more attention to my family and residence. I like the suggestion to discuss the concerns with the appropriate committee to see what suggestions they might have.

  14. Wow. This will be something to think about when God leads me to a church...

    RE: directories
    We have an on-line, secure database. It is only accessible if you are a member, and each member can divulge what information they choose. Before their info is released to the rest of the congregation, the member/s must pick a new password and select what can be seen by (a) staff and (b) members. There is no "printed" bulletin, but we've all survived fine. I guess because we are a younger average aged church in a big metro area, the non-paper directory is cool.

    Lots to ponder... and yes, we hated Olan Mills too...


  15. 2 thumbs down for the Olan Mills experience here as well. We now produce our own photo directory and hand it out to members on CD or paper copies. we haven't had anyone express privacy concerns, but who knows...

    I have my address and a cell phone number (a phone provided by the church) listed in the directory. I do not have a landline. I also have a second cell phone (which I pay for myself) which I use for friends and I can turn the church phone off and still have access to my friends. :-)

    No one has ever appeared at my house, though I have received maybe 5 pieces of mail from church people in the past 3 years...

  16. Here in England it's the norm for priests to live in a house attached to the Church, which is owned by the Church, and the stiped (salary?) is correspondingly low. I am in the more fortunate position, in Chaplaincy, of working in an office, with a house nearby. My College pays for me to have a mobile phone, and only a select few members of staff have my home number so that they can call me to alert me of an emergency at work if necessary. I think the cell/mobile is a worthwhile investment from that point of view.

  17. It's an interesting dilemma but as Kathryn has already said, not really one that is an option in the Church of England. There's an expectation that your address and phone number are pretty public - not only for the church community but for the wider parish too, to whom we also have (try to have) a ministry with and for. And to some degree it's part of the journey spouses need to go on as the partner explores and takes on ordained ministry. (Though I don't have a spouse myself).
    In my previous parish (training post/curacy) I lived next door to the church and did get the surprise callers, either from church or 'strangers'. One man (not quite homeless but in need) used to appear at the door every so often asking for money, but usually got food (and after a while learnt that I didn't always have available for him just what he fancied that day, and if I had cheese in the fridge, cheese sandwiches were what he got even if he did want meat!). I didn't invite him in (single woman/strange man) but sat on the church wall to chat and pray.
    In my current post I live at the other end of the parish so have few church or other callers but my address is quite public and a sea of post arrives at home! I suppose it's part of the expectation of ministry you prepare yourself for in this context.

  18. I read the question differently... I think. I know the home phone number and the address being published was the "issue at hand"... but I heard the "real issue" as what the crap am I... the pastor's spouse... supposed to do if I fire someone where I work and they are part of the congregation. Knowing where you live... can get your house TP'd... and you can get harassing phone calls. But what do you as the pastor and spouse say to the fired person on Sunday morning when/if they choose to show up? Or worse... what do you do if there's "smack-down" in the narthex before worship?

    First step for me... would be to tell the presiding body... my husband is a manager at X. In his employ are several disciples in this congregation. We have a question... that IS NOT AN ISSUE. In these difficult economic times... how do you think it would be best... if my spouse has to fire one of our congregants?

    My spouse is concerned that we as a couple will get in hot water (however you define it) in this situation. I am concerned that it might be difficult for me and the congregation to minister to the person dismissed because my husband had to carry out that directive.

    When you strip it down to bare metal... I don't know if this situation is any different in firing a church employee... that is also a member of the congregation. The same fall-out is probably going to occur.

    That is as far as I can take this issue... because I've never had to fire a church employee... who is also a member. Maybe now it's time for the matriarchs to pick up the conversation again.

  19. I don't have any advice, just additional perspective. I agree that it seems completely weird to me to imagine the church not knowing where the pastor lived. Weird enough that there are probably other adjustment-to-being-a-pastor's-spouse issues that are going to come up. My husband is very private, but even he would never have requested this. (Although, he's also into hospitality at our home, so maybe he's not a good comparison.) I think it would help to know if having home addresses be private and undisclosed is a normal thing at the husband's job, or if that's just him. That would give a clearer picture of what you're dealing with. Good luck!

    Oh, and we do an address/phone/email directory at least once a year (never got written permission, though we do sort of ask). But we're planning a new photo directory (first in 15 years or so), so I thank y'all for the Olan Mills warnings. What was the problem?

  20. Oy, the Olan Mills experience!

    I must say that I agree with those who think it would be inappropriate for the congregation NOT to know where the pastor lives. I can understand having an unlisted phone number for the family even if that meant more cell minutes. And I can understand maintaining as much privacy there as the family needs. But not keeping the location undisclosed.

    In my last position I lived in a rectory just slightly removed from the church and when I first moved in, people did tend to drop by when they needed something, but by anticipating those needs better (e.g, making sure all the altar guild members had keys and that there was a clearly understood process for gaining access to the church) that tapered off. Phone calls were never really a problem even though my land line and cell #s were published. On my days off I screened calls before answering.

    Now I literally live in the church's front yard. Three weeks in, no problems but we'll see. I do intend to have an open house when the boxes are all unpacked b/c there are parishioners who've never been inside the rectory.

    As someone else said, I think the real issue is a larger one. The dual role/professional issue with the spouse is understandable and I hope he will come to feel more comfortable with it--and as someone else suggested, perhaps there is a judicatory body or advisory board with whom it can be discussed.

  21. And despite my oy,(which is more related to getting all the pics actually taken). Olan Mills does have an online program you download and use to assemble your directory instead of physically cutting and pasting, or having them design it. It's user friendly, and if you have lots of candids of your congregation (and earn some free pages) you can make a very attractive directory.

    Olan Mills promises everyone a free 8x10, but they also put a fair amonut of pressure on folks to buy more.

    Don't know anything about the other company.

  22. Re legal concerns, we just did our directory last fall, and no legal issues were raised either by the company or by parishioners. We do not give the directory to outsiders, and having it is partly to help parishioners connect better. People can opt out, but I dont' think anyone did.

  23. Beach Walkin -- just want to agree that there is the underlying issue about pastoral care and firing someone (who is a church member), which seems also to be a good question for the matriarchs, although I've never had to deal with it.

  24. In the French reformed church and in almost all German mainstream Protestant churcheswhere you live as a pastor is public knowledge. In Germany you are not allowed to spend a night away from your official residence without receiving official permission from your superiors - because of the problems related to people dying.

    I regularly had people down on their luck and in very difficult cirsumstances knocking on my door. The parish rooms were downstairs from our appartment - we couldn't even have a decent row without thinking there might be someone listening in - not that this stopped us much ;-)
    Part of me realises that I assumed that I would be available to the community I served in this way this is different in the way ministry takes place in more long distnace ways today.
    I suppose I still want to ask what does all this conern about privacy say about the gospel?
    PAstors have a public role and a right to a private life. I do think congregations have a right ot know how to contact their ministers though.

  25. Thanks for all the wonderful comments, everyone!

  26. My phone numbers, email, and address are known to the congregation in the photo directory. I did draw the line at putting any of it on the fact, when I discovered my home and cellphone numbers ON our website, I called the volunteer webmaster and insisted that they be removed immediately!

    The church office has an "in case of emergency" directive on the voicemail, so in my opinion, the church phone number is the only necessary listing.

    I serve in a small town, and have had the occasional stranger drop-by my's not hard to ask and find a neighbor VERY WILLING to tell you where the pastor lives. I have small kids at home, so if I don't recognize the person at the door, I don't answer. Period. This also happens at church, so when I'm there at odd hours by myself, the doors are LOCKED.

    I have been harassed/intimidated both by phone and email (by members), and certainly have had my share of dicey situations with transients who are altered. I have instructed staff NOT to share my personal information with those who drop by church and might request it, member or not. EVER. In a true emergency, they are instructed to call the police (and the police know how to find me), or the staff member can call me and pass along a message.

    Regardless of the circumstances for the questioner, it is good to run through the "what-if" scenarios, both at home and with church staff/volunteers.

  27. Hi all. One of our Matriarchs, Sue from the blog Inner Dorothy, sent a response last week that went to the wrong address. I just got it today and wanted to share it. She wrote:

    don't live in a manse, but most people at our church know where we live. Still, it's a security building - they would need to be buzzed up, so they wouldn't show up unless it was really important. Our home address is not published in the bulletin or newsletter, but it really doesn't need to be. People know where and how to find me if they need me. Our home phone number (land line) is published weekly in the bulletin for pastoral or personal emergency needs.

    The answering machine at the church, however, does NOT have my home number on it. The message says, "If this is an emergency, please contact our minister at her home." This has worked well. It means that regular church attenders have the number if they saved the bulletin, and the rest know my name and can look up the number, which is in the local phone book. I know it's a bit of a go around for those who attend less often, but it saves me having SO many calls from folks looking for cash. All of the churches on this side of town have creatd a single fund to which we all contribute money. It's managed by a different congregation.

    The fund has been in place for so long that the people looking for cash almost certainly know about it. The calls I used to get were usually for extra money, which our Board has agreed will not be kept at the church and will not be given out as a matter of policy. That may sound cruel, but it is also a matter of safety. Either myself or our secretary are usually in the building alone - and let's face it - some folks don't like hearing that you won't top up what they've already received from the joint fund.

    So, that's what we do here...another boundary question. Isn't it interesting how often this topic comes up and in how many different ways?


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