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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - When the Pastor Gets Sick

I think that most of us know that we are not indispensable when it comes to our parishes, but we do carry the bulk of the responsibility for Sunday morning worship.  Our question today has to do with the challenge of being physically sick and unable to carry out Sunday and other responsibilities.

A situation I encountered this week raised a question for me, and I'm curious how others handle it.  I have been sick a lot this season - more than usual.  I suspect it is a combination of (1) my young children in preschool for the first time, (2) lost sleep due to children's illnesses, and (3) some other added sources of stress in my personal life.  It hasn't been the easiest year for us on a lot of levels.

Here's what the last few months have looked like:  In November, I had a bad respiratory illness and lost my voice - almost completely - for two weeks.  I continued to work through that, and prepared services ahead of time, but I had to rely on others to lead.  I also had to have a colleague officiate at two funerals.  I was present at both but had no voice.  Then during Advent I had a sinus infection, skipped some meetings but didn't miss any Sundays.  In January I had a one-week scheduled vacation that included one Sunday morning.  In February, I had strep throat, left a couple meetings early but again didn't miss any Sundays.  Now the first Sunday of March I am sick again, this time with stomach flu.  On Friday night it is still raging, so I called a retired pastor friend, who agreed to lead services on Sunday.  I'm feeling a bit better on Saturday, but he says to just stay home and rest anyway.

I feel guilty for staying home, even though I know my colleague and mentor will handle things well on Sunday.  I hear other pastors say they "never miss a Sunday, no matter what."  I know many pastors continue to lead worship when they are sick - or after family emergencies - or other things.  It seems like my worship leader is sick and tired of my weekend calls saying I'm not feeling well, and every time I turn around someone in the congregation is saying, "You're sick again?" with a bit of a raised eyebrow.  Of course, I suspect some of that is more imagined than real.  :)  But it is still how I feel right now.  

So how do you decide when to stay home and when to make it work?  Is it better to call on Friday and give someone a day's notice (not knowing if I'll be feeling better by Sunday or not), or wait it out hoping I'll be better and then have to call someone on really short notice on Saturday night if I'm not?  Who do you call on if you can't lead - lay people, other clergy?

From Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart

I think it often makes sense to bring others in your congregation into your response to a pastoral dilemma like the one you’re facing.

Illness is making it hard for you to attend to the needs of the congregation—to do your job.  In another setting, you might have an HR department, a principal, or a supervisor, and the setting would likely have a sick leave or personal leave policy. Does the congregation you serve have a personnel committee or something similar? I’d talk to that group, when well, and lay out the problem just as you have with us.

What would they suggest? How would they like you to handle an illness in your life or in your family’s life?

Try to come to a good decision with them, and make sure that they help you interpret what you and they expect. Through the grapevine as well as through the church newsletter or whatever communication tool you have, you can share accurate information and expectations and not leave things up to those who would raise their eyebrows.   It’s a good way for your congregation to acknowledge your needs, their own, and what you, together, think is the best response.

From Muthah+, who blogs at  Stone of Witness
Dear Sick Sistah,

One of the things that popular religion does to us is make us feel guilty about being sick.  You are ill because you have bugs in your system and you aren't giving yourself the time and the rest you need to allow your body to fend off those little bugs.  I am sure your doctor would say the same thing and maybe give you an excuse to take to your council.  BUT that isn't the issue here.  You are experiencing your ministry like a job rather than building Christian community and most likely your congregation is experiencing your ministry as a job too.

First of all, perhaps you need to see the ministry of Jesus Christ is something you participate IN rather than DO.  It helped me when I had to be out of my congregation due to illness for 2 months.  Others came and contributed to the ministry that is the work of all the people in the community.  Those meetings can pretty well run without you giving germs to others by your presence.  

For a preacher to be without a voice is a sure sign (I think) that it is time to listen, and take that time to rest, pray and listen.  There is a reason we get sick and sometimes it is God's time to have us be present to the Holy in our illness.  Then we can go back refreshed and healed and ready to be the pastor we need to be.

Check also with your doctor to find some ways to boost your immune system.  

And from Sue, who blogs at  Inner Dorothy

First, I'm so sorry that you've had such a bad time in recent months. Ministry takes so much energy, both internally and externally, that being sick in the midst of it all is so very difficult. I do hope that this run of illnesses eases up for you soon.

I can certainly understand your dilemma.

In October I had a concussion which the doctors at the ER, plus one neurologist, plus my family doctor all deemed to be "serious." In other words, it was considerably more than a little bump on my head. When the injury happened, the first ER doctor insisted on 5 days off work "to begin with" and asked me to return to the ER on that 5th day. I also had instructions to do NOTHING during those 5 days. No brain stimulation whatsoever. No reading, no driving, no tv, no music....nothing. The only way the brain heals is to rest.

The accident happened late on a Saturday. My husband called our church secretary (who goes to worship every week and sits on the Worship Committee) first thing Sunday morning to say that I would be not be able to be at church. She came to pick up my sermon, prayers and children's story. When she got to the church, she found the Worship Chair and as many Board members as she could find. They divided up the different parts of the service and everything went very well.

All that was fine with the Ministry & Personnel Chair. I spoke with her briefly that afternoon and said I had the doc's note saying 5 days off.

When I went back on Day 5, a different doc ordered an MRI to make sure I had no bleed. My symptoms (nausea, memory loss, spatial dissociation, headache....) had become considerably worse so the doc brought in the neurologist. They agreed on 7 more days off work, then a consult with my family doc.

When I called the M&P chair to let her know about the extra 7 days I would be off work (which would include another Sunday), let's just say she was less than impressed. The following week, my family doc did not think I was ready to return to work. I told him that I had enough overtime accrued that I would try working only mornings for a few weeks if he would just let me go back.

I only did this because I was intimidated by my M&P chair. I felt so weak and my head felt so foggy that I simply could not handle dealing with her again. I now know why hockey players are out for months at a time because of concussions. After almost 6 months, I still have a constant ringing in my left ear.

All of that is to say - Don't Do What I Did!!! I let myself be bullied by that woman. I should have been home in bed when I was sitting at my desk waiting for the room to stop swaying.  If I had it to do over, I would have taken my family doctor's advice and stayed home for two more weeks to allow my brain to heal.

As a chronic migraine sufferer, there have been other occasions when I was unable to be in worship. I have put other options in place. While we have several retired clergy in our congregation, they are not necessarily the ones I call upon. On the days when my head pain is at its worst, I really cannot function - so the "Just In Case" protocol goes into place. If I haven't had the ability to write a sermon prior to the migraine kicking in, that becomes an issue, but otherwise it all works because we have such strong lay leadership.

One woman will take the children's story on a moment's notice - literally. If necessary, she will dig into her "church bag" and step in for me. A gentleman in the church is always on hand to do the welcome and announcements as needed. Another will always lead the Prayers of the People. So, I've put in place a situation where I've got a "team" of people that will pick up parts of the service. For the sermon time, the congregation has found various ways to be creative. One day they had a Q&A session with the Presbytery reps about the latest Presbytery news. Another time, in the spring, they opened up the microphone and shared memories from church camp!

If you have a team of willing leaders in your congregation, it might ease your mind regarding missing Sundays. If they only have to be "at the ready" for one or two parts of a service, it might ease any anxiety they may otherwise have about taking the whole service. My children's story helper is a retired teacher, so it's nothing for her to come up with a story on short notice. The others have become comfortable with their tasks over time. I wonder if you could sit down with your Board/Council and explain what you have explained for us, and then ask if you might be able to train volunteers to do various parts of the service on those days when you are unavailable. That way, no one individual is responsible for the whole service, and the congregation is responding appropriately to the ministry of the whole people of God!

Again, I really hope that you feel better soon. It's so difficult to feel unwell AND guilty!

ps - I had an emergency appendectomy on Palm Sunday the second year I was at my present charge. Ya. Timing is not my greatest gift! Holy Week and Easter still happened. The tomb was still found empty. I missed it all, but it happened. We all do the best we can do. That is all that God asks of us - not perfection, not perfect health - just faith. Have a blessed Easter.

Now it's your turn...what advice would you share with our "sick sistah"?  Please use the Post a Comment function to join in the conversation.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. I did have one Sunday about 6 weeks ago, after hoping for days that I would feel better, when I had to call the chair of Personnel at 6:00 am Sunday morning. I could barely whisper or stand up -- offered her my sermon, but she went ahead and invented some kind of participatory service on her own. I was planning on preaching the 4th and culminating sermon in a series and I just let it all go. Lotta that this year.

    It turns out that it's not only the physical that's incapacitating. For my most recent surgery, I had planned to be off from Wednesday through Sunday. My physical recovery was a breeze and Friday I wondered aloud whether I should go back for Sunday. My son said, "Mom, stay home; you've just had general anesthesia for a third time." Brilliant boy. By the next morning I was in such a state of emotional turmoil that I can only imagine the way in which I might have behaved had I been in the pulpit 24 hours later. I'm grateful that, given the opportunity for a little foresight, I was able to protect the congregation as well as myself.

  2. I doubt that there is any woman out there who cannot both sympathise and empathise with this!! We beat ourselves up about our roles as mother, and cook, and cleaner, and shopper, and bread winner (in my case) before we even begin to add in pastor and teacher and preacher and listener and chair of the meetings and provider of the ideas....
    Something about this winter seems to have led to lots of bugs staying in the system longer than normal. I have had a recurring cold/ chest infection/ asthma issues since last October. One Sunday my voice was so bad I just sat in the chair and various members of the Worship Team read out the things prepared. Several other Sundays I soldiered on - only to have folks kindly tell me to go home and ask why on earth I'd come out in the first place!
    In my head, I know what I really need is a couple of weeks rest in order to let my body heal - and I have two weeks pencilled in towards the end of April...
    Before I was a minister I worked in a shop - and actually did exactly the same!! Maybe it's part of who we are as women? Maybe it's time to pause a little and remind ourselves about our humanity; and God's grace, and the fact that only HE is perfect - we do not need to prove anything to Him xx

  3. I do hope you get better soon dear "Sick Sistah". I really sympathise with you about unsympathetic church leaders. I have not had a full day off for 3 weeks because of various crises and I asked our church warden yesterday if she could cover the youth for me tomorrow as I will collapse if I don't take a day to myself (my real day off is a Monday). She was totally unsympathetic and I think a bit shocked when I tried to explain that I was on the point of collapse. Fortunately, the other warden was quite the opposite and has found someone to stand in for me. But sharing today with other clergy in our archdeaconry, it seems so many lay leaders see the priest as there to do a job without taking in any account of his or her limitations as a human being. I think we really have to learn to stand our ground on this. But of course it's hard to do when we feel awful anyway, sick and guilty. My love and prayers are with you, Sick Sistah.

  4. I am hearing the little snatches of "womanspeak" in my own head as I read these very helpful responses -- some of it is "No, no, I'm fine, I'll be there, I'm fine, I can do this, I'm fine, IT'S MY JOB"... I can also hear, "if I don't show up and do my job they won't love me" (huh!)..."Why yes, I AM superhuman, why do you ask?"... and I remember the Best of Mentors telling me, very early on, "Just remember among all that you are called upon to do and be, you are NOT THE PROPITIATION FOR THEIR SINS, that job's been DONE." It has helped...

  5. A "view from the pews": I think that one of the best gives a pastor can give her congregation is the understanding that pastors are human too.

    We've actually been around this from the other point of view - a pastor who wouldn't hear what his body was telling him (it was screaming STOP...) despite a church leadership team that was telling him to just take all the time he needed (so, its not just a girl-thing :-) ) We muddled through, but I'm convinced he spent several months being more or less constantly ill, when 2 weeks in bed at the beginning would probably have fixed it properly.

  6. The first Sunday I ever actually had to call in, I felt fine, but my car had slid down an icy hill into a ditch. The tow truck couldn't come until 2 pm. We couldn't risk the same thing happening to my husband's car. So I called people who lived closer to the church. I kind of waited for the boom to fall, but it never did. People were just glad I was okay. I think our congregation want to help us (most of them) more than we ask and more than they offer. It's hard to be sick, to consider the information you're missing receiving giving. But you have to love yourself in order to love your neighbor. If our pastoral care practice would be to encourage someone to follow their doctor's advice, we have to do the same. You need rest, food, and water to heal. There's no magic combination of just two of those that will do the trick. (And just one of them, combined with prayer, will not do it either.)

  7. Maybe it would be good to sit down with the Worship Leader and some key church leaders to talk what a church service looks like when either the Pastor, the Worship Leader or other key participants get sick. Having a back-up plan could ease some of the stress that others are feeling, not to mention the stress you are feeling! It would also be a good time to let them know that you aren't getting sick on purpose (good grief!).

    I also agree with Allison-in-France, congregations don't always see Pastor's as human beings. Might be the best thing you can do is help them take Pastor's off the "pedestal" and into real life.

  8. Our Worship team (lay readers and eucharistic ministers) all know that if for any reason that the priest doesn't show up, they are to lead a service. Last Sunday at the 8 am service, I was late because of the time change. The relief on the faces of the leadership team was great when I walked in the door only a couple min. late. This preparedness by the leadership team is a great relief to me. This means that if I did put the car in a ditch, the service would go on. I believe that there are prepared sermons available in a file.

    There have been times when a stomach bug or the like comes up on the way to church. The parish needs to be prepared for this--both the worship committee and the pastor. It is just life and normal and the parish needs to be able to deal with it as if it were normal. I can certainly commiserate with Sue and hope that all of us have some kind of prepared procedures in place when we do get ill.

  9. Sorry, this got longer than I anticipated.
    I am fortunate to be in a congregation where people care about me as a person as well as pastor. A few years ago, Saturday evening I felt like a cold was coming on, by Sunday morning I could barely get out of bed. So I rang a person experienced on leading worship[, email the service, and went back to bed. No problem. the following week I called another person on the Friday. Sunday 3 [in a row] was Pentecost, as a Church Council we had planned this to be a celebration of gifts in the congregation, it was AGM with annual reports and elections, and I was at home. A worship leader led the service, Church Council chairperson led the reflection part, and all was well.
    I don't know how to make these things happen, I am blessed by this congregation. I am open with them, about most things. They know that when I get a bad cold my voice disappears. My Doctor gives me certificates off work when necessary, for me as much as for the congregation. I have been known to stick them on my computer to remind me that I actually am sick!

  10. This is so timely for me that I wonder if it is an answer to my prayers for guidance! I serve a church part-time (6 1/2 years) and work full-time plus as a hospice RN(which involves a full case load and taking my share of overnight call). I must do the RN job to support my family. I too have been very sick with respiratory problems for the past year...bronchitis and pnuemonia and asthma. I am exhausted to the bone but keep putting one foot in front of the other and "soldiering" on. It has gotten to the point that the doctor is recommending a 6 week leave of absence from the church.(I can't take a leave from the full-time job because that is what supports my family financially)Every time I get sick is worse than the last...probably because I do not rest and recover. I love the church and I love pastoring, so it is heart-breaking to think of taking such a leave...and yet..thank you for all the great advice and sharing...I hope I have the courage and good sense to do the right thing. It makes me very sad, though, to think about being away from the church for that long. Also, as a side note to the RevGal that wrote about having a head injury...take care of yourself and get the help you need. I know from expereince that there is no such thing as a "mild" traumatic brain injury. Thank you all for being here, and for "listening".

  11. Isn't it ironic that when we're sick, our congregations worry about the preaching, not the pastoring?

    I've learned to be upfront with my congregation about my criteria for staying home. That has reassured them that I'm not going to ditch for a hangnail but that I'm serious about caring for myself so I can continue to care for them.

    I've also learned to let them do some caretaking. There's a difference between calling and saying, "I need you to do (what you perceive as) my job for me today" and "I need some help." By admitting we need help, we also empower others to ask for it.

    It's a wonderful thing when a congregation realizes it can be a worshipping community without the presence of the teaching elder, and no matter how many other ways we present that message, being absent on short notice really drives it home.

  12. I have been in my congregation for 15 months (my first). I have missed 2 Sundays due to illness or injury, and 10 to maternity leave. One occasion (at 36 weeks pregnant, no less), I fell down the stairs and spent 24 hours at the hospital and was sent home Saturday night on narcotics and with a cast and crutches. I called Saturday morning to let my senior warden know what had happened, and he took care of everything (arranging a worship leader, notifying the congregation, etc). The second time, I had food poisoning and was vomiting violently and profusely (and other problems) all Saturday night, plus fever, chills, sweats, dehydration... I have never been so sick in my entire life. It was awful for me, and for my family. My husband called and told my warden I couldn't be there and why -- I was too sick to go to the phone, too sick to hold or nurse my son, too sick to function in any capacity. I was just trying to hold down a sip of water. So, no church.

    Everyone was more than gracious and caring, though surprised. Every congregation is different though, and I certainly felt terrible about not being there (not the stairs time, to be honest -- then I was just tremendously thankful that the in utero kiddo was fine and that I was mostly fine).

    Perhaps one of the great gifts we can offer our congregations -- our companions on the way -- is twofold: first, to be an example of self-care and willingness to reveal our humanness, and second, to help develop leadership and communication so that when we are not there, "the show goes on". Or as I say to people who get cranky about this or that in the liturgy: "Was God worshiped and honored? Then it is ok that the acolyte forgot X or the reader mispronounced Y." And by extension, that the priest, who 10 days before fell down the stairs and was still on cast and crutches, is not preaching this week.

    I try to use the experience of illness to inform my pastoral care, and to help me develop plans for the next time something happens, because it always does, especially for those of us with small, dependent people. And I'd suggest having a conversation with your congregational leaders about a contingency plan -- and how they feel about it, what their concerns are, what their needs are.

    Oh, and consider preaching about illness and your response to it. It might crack open conversation and the experience of your people, who have certainly known illness in their lives, and the impulse to push the body beyond reason.

    Just thoughts.

  13. thanks, Muthah ~ "see the ministry of Jesus Christ is something you participate IN rather than DO"...

  14. This is such a tough one for most of us, and wonderful thoughts have been offered. One thing I would add, having been on the receiving end of the "I can't make it call" is if possible, make it sooner rather than later, even if it is simply to sound the alert. Not always an option to notify in advance, but when we are feeling horribly sick on Saturday morning, that is a better time to call with a heads up than at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday after being ill all day. I had a colleague at one point who did that repeatedly, and it was very frustrating. I know that hope springs eternal, but sometimes we just need to face the likelihood of not being able to function in 24 hours.


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