Visit our new site at

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Distractions are the Ministry?

Our question this week touches not only on issues of balance and boundaries, but also on the issue of how we handle such tricky issues in the context of a staff. When your own philosophy of ministry is at odds with that of your colleagues, what do you do? Read on:

I am one of two pastors on staff here at a medium-to-large sized, program driven church.  My senior pastor believes strongly in the philosophy that "The distractions ARE the ministry."  That is to say, he is willing to cancel or ditch any meeting, administrative task, or project planning when a need arises.

Let me say that in general, I agree with the statement, "The distractions ARE the ministry."  I do believe that the heart of ministry resides in the phone calls from people in need, the hospital visits, and the meetings with funeral families, even or especially when these things interrupt meetings, challenge workflows, and defy tidy to-do lists.  

At the same time, in a program-driven church like ours, I struggle with how to balance these ministry moments with the necessary day-to-day tasks that need to happen to keep the church running.  There are members on staff who hold tightly to this "distractions are the ministry" mantra, and in doing so, put a lot of burden on other staff members to keep necessary details going while they are off "doing ministry."  They repeatedly find themselves absent from meetings and planning gatherings because of these "distractions are the ministry" moments, or they are so moved and distracted by those moments that they bring grief and anger into administrative meetings and demean administrative tasks as "not the ministry."

So my question about balance is this: Is ministry always about dropping everything for people in need?

When I write this out, it sounds heartless, I know.  But I have to wonder out loud about this, because if I were always to drop everything to be present in the moment for every person in need, then I would never get things done that need to get done, and I would end up hurting either the broader ministries of the church or my own home and family life.  How do you take seriously this idea that the distractions are the ministry without derailing the day-to-day functions of both church and home?

Jennifer responds:

To me, the philosophy your senior pastor espouses (or the extreme to which it has been taken) sounds like a prescription for disaster. I’m the first to want to honor and provide sensitive pastoral care. Like many, I believe God is in the details.  To be sure, to hold tightly to one’s own agenda in the face of the unforeseen would be insensitive and pastorally irresponsible. Certainly, stuff happens, needs arises and crises occur, but I’m a little leery of declaring “the distractions ARE the ministry” for ANY need. I would be the first to say that there are times when one’s attention has to be given to an unforeseen need or emergency, but it’s not good stewardship of one’s own time, much less all the others affected by tending to an emergency.

I think your final paragraph says it all: if I were always to drop everything to be present in the moment for every person in need, then I would never get things done that need to get done, and I would end up hurting either the broader ministries of the church or my own home and family life.  Change the pronouns to first person plural and you’ve just described the mess in which your staff and congregation find yourselves.  I’d suggest an intervention: maybe you need to talk with your senior pastor and suggest that the staff have a little tea and cookies over what “the distractions are the ministry” really means. Perhaps it’s time to reinterpret this mantra and allow the pendulum to swing back from its extreme to something more moderate and that which reflects good stewardship of everybody’s time.

The Vicar of Hogsmeade writes:
You say its a question about balance but I also think its a question about boundaries. While there is ministry to be done in the distractions, they do not always have to set the pace or agenda for the ministry to be done.

I have found that over the years most pastoral care (i.e. I need to talk) can be scheduled around when I am available. Most people can wait to talk to me when I have an opening in my schedule. But if there are things I'd rather not do then "The distractions are the ministry" becomes a convenient excuse for me not to do the part I don't like (administrative stuff) and only do the part I like (pastoral care). It can also feed my need to be needed.

Regardless of the experience level in ministry, different ministers handle boundary setting with different levels of comfort. For whatever reason, it sounds like the Sr has found a way to give himself permission to operate the way he does. Is there a way for others of you to say something like "You help my ministry when you ___________?" or "The Administrative team needs your support for their ministry by your presence and input during meetings." Is there a way to let him know that his input and presence is valued even though he may not find these things the part of ministry he values?

Sharon answers:
Short answer:  Distractions and interruptions are not *always* the ministry
Longer answer:  In my experience, it is a very very very (did I say very?!) rare ministry moment that cannot be postponed for 2 hours or longer.  All of the things you mentioned are "interruptions" can almost always be scheduled around previous commitments.  I probably sound heartless too, but the beauty of carrying cell phones is not only that we clergy are so available, but that we can be available selectively, intentionally and wisely.  We clergy can turn off our phones, or at least screen our calls, for the couple of hours that comprise most meetings and groups and kids' softball games.
Relevant cute expression:  "I'm not going to let your urgency become my emergency!"
Possible approach:  Your last question can become an invitation:  "I want to take seriously this idea that distractions are the ministry.  I need to let you know that a lot of distractions are affecting our ministry.  When you (have been unable to attend 3 out of the last 4 staff meetings), the result is (we didn't know ... I had to ...) and that meant that (name the burden placed on you or what fell through the crack)."  Ask your colleague how *we* can balance the urgent and the important in *our* ministry.
Discussion resource:  Check out Stephen Covey's "time management matrix" for possible staff discussion.  I also googled "urgent important matrix" and found this (surprise!)  "Urgent/Important Matrix" that has your situation written all over it!

And Muthah+ writes:
Dear J, 
I call you J because I recognize that need to get things done is a part of your personality and important to how an organization functions.  Have you and your sr. pastor taken the Myers-Briggs personality inventory?  It might be good for you to do so to share that with each other how your personality types can bring wholeness to the ministry you are called to do.  This may not be a philosophical difference that you have--it may be a personality difference.  If it IS a personality difference, my suggestion is that you make lemonade! 
If your colleague is a P--perceptive--one who is spontaneous and can deal with the claims on his time, he is an important asset to the ministry.  He can change gears readily and be totally present to people in crisis.  If you are one who is clear about deadlines, get things done on time, etc you are a blessing to your parish because you keep everything in order and functioning.  BUT you must be willing to see that what you offer the ministry is different and both are needed.  Rather than finding his unendedness a pain, you must be willing to see it as the way that God uses both your talents.  I am sure he finds such things as meetings and time lines a pain, but he must be willing to recognize that your talent is in organization which will save his butt in the long run.
 You must willing to address him by saying that you need to have the authority to make decisions in his absence.  And he must be willing to confer that authority by recognizing your talents when it comes to agendas and the ability to get things done.  This means you two have to work much more closely than you have ever done before.  But your willingness to approach the wholeness of the ministry of the congregation together will be appreciated by most.
Most likely he recognized intuitively your ability to be organized when he hired you.  Then you must be willing to talk to him like a colleague (not just your boss) and say that you are frustrated. If you can both recognize that you both have the necessary talents to do the work that needs to be done you will be an awesome team.  If you can work collegieally--by that I mean that authority for the administrative work be shared and his getting the support from you to be spontaneous it will help you both.
I am a P and I would have died and gone to heaven if I had had someone on staff who had the talent to organize.  But I also understand how your Sr. pastor desires to be present to those crisis where he can do so much good.  But for some reason it seems to be inate into the 'pastor psyche' to be lone rangers and not work well with others.  You both can provide a wonderful image to the ministerial world if you know your talents and liabilities, talk about them easily and joke about your limitations and use the gifts you both have to serve the kingdom.  You are both in my prayers.

Thank you, matriarchs, for such wise and wonderful responses. I'm sure that others of you have thoughts as well. Please join us in the comments section!

And if you have questions you would like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. Great comments and suggestions. I might add it is not just in a program-size church this occurs. I serve a small church in a rural context. Interruptions are just as as much of an issue on how to handle them.

    I am cognizant of NOT becoming "Pastor Saint Purple" who always dropped everything at a moment's notice. It is not healthy for me or for the church. It creates dependency on pastors...and some pastors will eat it up. My predecessor did.

    If only the pastor can the prayers that will "work" or has the "right" words....then we are doing ourselves, the congregation, and the larger church a great disservice.

  2. I also felt a little chill when I read that the administrative tasks of the congregation were being demeaned as not "ministry". Administration is a gift and when it is used in the church, it allows grace to abound. The "distractions" may be ministry. But they aren't the ONLY ministry!

  3. There are surely urgent needs, but if your ministry is only directed to emergencies, you are modeling hospice chaplaincy, not vibrant ministry. Holistic congregational efforts at mission and outreach and spiritual growth and meaningful education require planning. I say this--nay, claim it!--as an ENFP. I am not confused about this. If I spent my week sitting in people's houses the way they wanted, I would not be giving them the Sunday or the midweek study they also value. I'm not a therapist. I'm not a social worker. I'm a pastor and teacher.

  4. Pastor Cindy, that is so right! I think many of us tend not to think of administrative tasks as ministry - and that is stinkin' thinkin'! It's so unhealthy to value only certain parts of our work as ministry and the other stuff as just details.

    Such good thoughts, SB. As another ENFP, it has been crucial for me to develop some strength in places that might not be my natural tendencies.

    And Purple, you are so right about the creation of dependency. I think that's the darker shadow side to the lure of dropping everything for "urgent" needs - it makes us feel important, necessary, even indispensable. When that is the driving motivation, then our ministry becomes about us and our own needs, rather than those we serve! Which is ironic, since the whole premise of "distractions are the ministry" is that we are supremely focused on serving others.

  5. Oh the timing of this post is hysterical. It's 4:00 p.m. on Thursday (my "Friday" since tomorrow is my day off), and I'm just starting a project I planned to do today that will easily take me 3-4 hours. This time the distraction wasn't even the illnesses, deaths, or other crises it (too) often is; in this case it was an impromptu, but blessed creative staff meeting. I just couldn't cut off what was going in a great direction. So, I'll work here another hour or so and then go get the kids and finish this up tonight at home. It's a deadline thing this time, otherwise I'd let it go until next Monday. Such is life.

    I do agree, though, that on a staff and in a program-size church sometimes our responsibilities to each other need to be put a little higher up on the ministry scale. They may not seem as "crucial" but the pieces are important as well as the personal connections/ministry moments. It's reality. Love the matriarchs' advice. I pray that you are less conflict avoidant than I was in team ministry! I don't think I could have had that conversation well.

    I'm having a similar issue right now where I'm having to prioritize the "distractions" in order to try to get them all attended to pastorally and still get the every week/every month stuff done, like worship bulletins, session agenda, etc. A number of very ill parishioners and a string of deaths have left me with a lot of personal contacts I need to make (even when relying on deacons to help). I also have a member who is not too happy that her family friend who was a member of this church several years ago, but is no longer isn't make it far enough up my list of people to visit in person at the hospital after a car accident. I'm not against visiting non-members or former members at all (when they have no current church home), but at the same time there just aren't enough hours in the day right now and something has to give.

    The problem here is the member thinks their "distraction" is the most important ministry, but my assessment is different. The same question arises - - how do we decide what the priorities are?

  6. I love this discussion.
    I love "Your urgency is not my emergency". I have used this mantra many a time, if not out loud, in my head....

  7. I am a sole minister in a small family style church and as I am the only "staff", I find that it is important for me to put a higher priority on distractions than administration. I make good use of my cell phone and if I really need to get some work done, I work from home.

    But that is ministry in a small church, and that is not where you are. Some of the reading that I've done around church size presents the idea that in a larger "program" style church, the role of the senior pastor is more administrative and that pastoral ministry (including the ministry of presence) is left in the hands of others (whether ordained or not). So, in addition to the difficulty you are having being a possible personality conflict, it may also be that the senior pastor is more of a "family" type minister who is in the wrong position.

    I'm not sure if this helps or not, you can hardly go to him and say "You know, I really think you're in the wrong position!" We all tend to gravitate to the ministry we feel most comfortable with, so perhaps you can work something out with him where you can take on more administrative ministry and free him up to do what he obviously loves.

  8. I have been thinking about this post a lot, especially the need for pastors to really be honest with ourselves when we get a distraction: is this really an emergency that needs me right now, or does it appear that way because it is something that feeds my own "need to be needed"? One of the pastors at my church growing up seemed constantly to be seeing people in emergency settings, often in the middle of the night.

    I think Purple's warning about co-dependency is apt.

    That being said, it's a dance, and there are times when we need to be flexible.

  9. the comments really struck home for me, especially about the distractions that we welcome because the alternative is boring or unfulfilling or frustrating. Long live the adrenalin rush!!!
    But one CAN learn to say, gently, "Do you think you can hold it together until, say, 2 o'clock? or tomorrow morning? or Monday after next?" Sometimes it helps to say, "I'm going to call you again in [fixed time] and in the meantime you have A Nice Cup of Tea".
    Of course this isn't always appropriate...but if it isn't, you'll generally be told! And surprisingly often, people say, "all right, I can manage for the moment."

  10. This sounds like such a recipe for disaster. This is particularly true since staff members choose to "use" this as an excuse for doing their needed job.
    I think back to a time when a major hurricane hit nearby (at a previous call) and the lead pastor took off to "do ministry" in the hurricane zone. I was left to keep things up and going there, while he was gone.
    However, he got tons of credit for doing ministry. There was little to be said for those of us who stayed, took in donations, kept church our going, and dealt with day to day stuff.
    It may seem noble at the onset, but there is plenty to be said and praised for the ability to keep the normal day to day stuff going.
    Also, I agree with the statements about co-dependency and fostering the learned helplessness.

  11. A corollary would also be: "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." That said, Covey's diagram is very helpful. And since we are called to be good stewards of the church's funds, and our own time, talent and "treasure" then it seems a logical course (to me) to pursue a wise use of all three "Ts".


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.