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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ask the Matriarch -- The Rev Is In, When She Is In

Every time I turn around, these days, I hear about more part-time or bi-vocational ministry situations.  It's a truism of course, that the only way to have a part-time appointment BE a part-time appointment is to have an additional part-time appointment!   But our enquirer this week is asking about appropriate ways to map "time on" and "time off" and communicate the realities to her congregants.  Here's her question:

Hey, Matriarchs!
I've just started a 1/3 time position as a rural pastor in a town about 20 miles away.  This congregation has been without a settled pastor for a few years, and it's clear from many of my initial conversations that they need some reassurance that their new pastor is, indeed, "here for them."  They're also very respectful of the fact that I, as a 1/3 time bivocational pastor, CAN'T be there for them 24/7.  (The church--and deacons especially--have done some good, hard work around this issue, and they have already taken on all the visitation duties.)

I've been trying to sort out ways to announce my genuine availability AND clarify my professional boundaries.  For instance, I only plan to keep office hours one day a week, but we're moving the pastor's office out of its current upstairs back-hall location and setting up a ground-floor office with clear sight lines and full disability access.  My office hours will also be posted/published clearly.

I'm toying with the idea of getting vanity plates ("rev"something) so that, when my car is parked there, it sends another clear signal that the pastor is in.  (I've seen other pastors do similar things, either with special parking spaces or plates.) Matriarchs, please advise me:  is this pure foolishness that will make me and my vehicle a target for any unpleasantness, or is it sensible after all?

What further advice do you have regarding the part-time pastor's delicate dance between reassurance of availability and clear boundary-setting?

Thanks in advance for your guidance, cautions, insights, and wisdom!

And here are our eloquent responses!!!

Dear Rev. Something-

If you can afford the vanity plates, I say go for it!  A former colleague has a set that date back to his days as a mission developer. It eliminated some of his anonymity but it also helped people see that he was present in a variety of places.

My guess is that if you live only  twenty miles from your congregation, you may already know a lot about rural life.  However, if you aren't familiar with life on a farm, ask some questions.  Get a tour or two.  I've never met a farmer who wasn't eager to show off their milking parlor or tell you about the cost of their combine.  Your interest in their life's work will help them to see your commitment to the community.

Is there a local coffee shop or diner where the locals go to have their mid-morning coffee or Sunday lunch?   Is high school basketball a big deal in your area?  Where do folks go for fun on a Friday night?  Make a point of being at one or more public places every so often.  You have to eat anyway and who doesn't want to have fun on a Friday night?

Last thing, and I know this is really obvious, but if there is an emergency, make every effort to respond.  If you can't be with them, do what you can to communicate your concern and provide them with care.  One of the saddest stories I have ever heard was of a part-time pastor who would not visit a dying parishioner because she was on her "stay-cation."  Healthy boundaries are important but there are times when is is simply not appropriate to say "no."

Best of luck!
Further wisdom --
Dear Bi-Voc.
   You have already made some of the changes I would have made.  And I am so glad that you have been thinking about how to signal your availability.  It is so difficult both in small towns and especially when you are p-t.

Be faithful to your Office Hours.  They will depend on them.  Is there someone in the parish who will function as your secretary?  Mine did the bulletin for Sunday and was the local contact person if there was anything going on in the parish.  I checked with her everyday.  This way you do not have to field every call that comes in, but are free to focus on the immediate needs of your people.  Perhaps the deacons can do this.

I love the vanity plate idea.  It will help; however, it won't take long for the whole town to know what car you drive and whether you are in town or not.  Small towns consider you their pastor even if they do not attend your church.  If you go to the bank or the post office, you will be known and people will know if you are in town the minute you cross the village limits.  And make friends with the other clergy in town if possible.

My tradition wears clergy collars.  Wearing it in small towns was very helpful.  Since I lived there on the corner of N-S and E-W Main St, it was the way that I could signal when I was on duty and when I was off.  If that is not your practice, would a particular cross worn on duty mark you?  If nothing else, it will remind YOU of when you are on and when you are off.

I am excited for you.  This is one of the greatest ministries in the Church.  The possibility to build Christian community in small towns is one of greatest gifts God gives in my opinion.  Have fun with it.  It sounds as though your congregation is excited to have you come and they will treat you with great respect as they know that you care about them.  How you are planning to do that is right on the mark. Contact me if you need more help.


SOO true that the whole town will soon know what you drive (and will take note approvingly if you wave whenever you meet another vehicle, if your small town is like every other small town I've ever known!)
And a third take on the question:
I don't think a "Rev" plate will cause any unpleasantness and it's not foolishness, if you want to get one. I also think you won't need that identifier in a rural setting. Your car will be known, trust me!  And that's not a bad thing.
I have not been a part-time pastor but boundaries are boundaries in every pastorate.  
My advice: Publish a little blurb in each worship bulletin and in each newsletter stating your availability.  I always say "typical office hours" because you know how that is!  On the church answering machine, after "leave a message," it says "If the nature of your call is urgent, please call the pastor at (cell phone number)."  I also put something similar in the newsletter and add: "If it is urgent to you, then it's urgent."  I've had more problems with people who didn't want to "bother" me with a hospitalization or death than I have had with people calling for something that could wait.
When you get "called out" for extra things -- meetings, emergencies, etc., -- take extra time off when you want or need to.
Run your plan by a few people from your search committee and/or the church leader person.  You will surely tweak this along the way, as you see what works -- and what doesn't! -- for you and your congregation.
Many blessings in this new ministry setting!
I've little to add other than hearty endorsement of the excellent advice offered here--go where the people are, whether that's coffee shop or curling rink or garage sales...

What do YOU think?  We await your comments.  -- and your questions.  Questions should be addressed to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.

Great thanks  to earthchick for looking after Ask the Matriarch next week--this Matriarch will be "on the boat" and out of touch temporarily!!!


  1. Suzy Garrison MeyerJanuary 24, 2013 at 9:02 AM

    Blessings for your new ministry! I am not only bi-vocational but bi-geographic, serving 50 miles from my home (which isn't that far in the West), and I love it! It's not easy. There will be times when the valid needs don't match the possibilities of your schedule. Learn to juggle. :)

    Here are my ideas:

    1) Continue the congregation's emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Every one of our ministries is a ministry of the congregation. Good structures and guidance from you will keep that from going off the rails. Praise them often for what they've done and are doing, while showing them that you're willing to get down in the trenches with them.

    2) I am diligent about providing my steering team with a report on how I spent my time. It's important that they know how many calls I made, how much time worship prep really takes, that when I have to shovel the snow it cuts into my schedule, etc. That discipline (which sometimes feels petty to me) has helped build realistic expectations for what we can do with our time and talents.

    3) Explain (and know) what you need to pastor well. If that's uninterrupted time with your family, or a half day in your study with the door closed, or whatever, say so. Your congregation is glad to have you; they'll want to keep you happy and healthy. In return, you need to show them that their efforts really do help.

    4) Where I get hung up is in outreach, because people who are not members of my congregation can't be expected to know that I'm not "on duty" on Mondays, etc. When someone calls and asks, "Can I talk to you for a minute?", I've never learned to say, "Not today, sorry." I have to ask what the need is before I can even say, "I'm at my other job right now; can I call you back over my lunch hour or this evening?" Fortunately, my weekday vocation is flexible.

    5) The best way to be visible in a community is to participate. Join a few organizations not directly related to ministry. Walk to the post office. Go to the school programs and greet every child, every time you see him or her. Be willing to have coffee with nearly anybody. Send lots of cards and little notes, especially thank-you notes for every little thing. When the weather is nice, I sit out on the church porch to work on my sermons. People will come to trust that when you're there, you're really there, and when you're not, you're not entirely out of reach or unwilling to juggle a little. It's easier for no to mean no when people hear you say yes too.

    6) Rather than a vanity plate (they're expensive in my state and it's hard to get one that isn't cryptic), you might consider a tasteful magnetic sign for your car. Places that sell business cards offer them starting at about $20. It can come off when appropriate. We also have signage at our church, sort of like the Peanuts cartoon: "The pastor is IN."

  2. I, too, am bi-vocational and bi-geographic (60 miles). I have settled into a routine in which I am usually physically here Saturday night-Sunday and Tuesday-Wednesday/Thursday; sometimes more during the week and sometimes all week-end. My congregation is very respectful of the fact that I am 3/4 time, live at a distance, and can do only so much as the sole pastor. (I have a small spiritual direction practice at home, so I do have obligations there every week, not to mention my husband and son and occasionally my daughter! and house, of course).

    I do sense this week that folks were looking at me a bit askance when I told them I would be away at a nearby college every morning one week in February to lead a retreat, and for a Fri/Sat in March for the same reason. None of this cuts into my time with and for them, but now that I've been here 1.5 years, I think they have a certain proprietary sense of me as "their" pastor.

    This community is SO small and people are seldom out and around -- and there was a kerfluffle in the church (the only one in town) many years ago that caused a mass departure in the congregation -- so none of my spring-summer-fall walkabouts in the town have produced much interest. But I do almost all the things Suzy mentioned above.

    I do find it very challenging as the forms of communication I am used to -- internet and, at home, coffee shop (where one of my home church pastors spends her sermon writing time and does most of her meetings, so she is very visible) are simply not part of the culture here. So I am trying to learn how to reach out, individual by individual. People LOVE home visits from the pastor -- honestly, not one of my strengths, and not something I've really experienced or would want myself absent major life events.

    Difficult to function in a new and different culture!

  3. Thank you, friends, for all these excellent suggestions...what a huge collective repertoire of ministry skills and styles we enjoy!


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