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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Party All the Time Edition

What do you do about receiving invitations from parishioners for dinner or other personal get-togethers? I have recently joined the staff at a congregation twice the size of my first church, and am receiving a lot of invitations for dinner, parties, and other events. This is very kind, and I do appreciate the hospitality. However, I can't help but feel that I am 'at work' whenever I'm at a parishioner's home. (They inevitably say something like, "Don't think of yourself as a pastor tonight! You're just a guest!" and that's a lovely thought, but it doesn't actually work.) I have a fair number of evening meetings, so my husband and I already have limited time together, and accepting too many dinner invitations is hard on both of us. But I don't want to be ungrateful or seem uninterested in getting to know people.

How do you handle those invitations? How do you decline gracefully, and probably often?

Thanks for the help-
Overinvited but Grateful Pastor

Our matriarchs all agree that socializing with parishoners is work (even if it is fun!) and they express a deep respect for family/couple time:

Long Time Rector says:
I accept almost all dinner invitations or social invitations that I can. I do see them as work and take off time for them - honestly maybe not on a 1:1 basis exchange - but I think it is important that you honor this as work, not play. And I have found it worthwhile work - it is the time and place where relationships build and deepen. I take almost any chance to get more connected with the congregation. Being an introvert - it takes a toll, and that's why I take other time off. Could you maybe take time off for nice lunches with your husband? Conversely, I think it is perfectly acceptable to say - Wednesday, Friday and Sunday are family nights for us - or something like that. Boundaries are good to set. But set in a way that is fair for parishioners as well - that way they don't feel like you are capriciously rejecting them.
Earthchick also receives many invitations:
My current congregation is very socially-oriented, and my husband and I get many social invitations. For the first couple of years we were here, we accepted the majority of them, provided we were actually available. This often included engagements on what was otherwise our day off (Friday). I considered it a part of my job - to accept hospitality, as well as to get to know my new congregation. We have been here 8+ years now, and we still get plenty of social invitations, though not nearly to the same degree as in year's past. We decide on a case-by-case basis which ones to accept. Birthday parties and anniversary events, we almost always go to if we are available. I feel like it is an honor to be invited to such an occasion, and I feel like it is part of my job to accept. Accepting the hospitality of other people is part of ministry, in my opinion.

It is very tough, especially if you have children. Parishioners don't always realize that an evening in their home can cost us $50 in babysitting. And many of them don't realize how many nights during a week we are already out because of meetings and other church obligations. If the invitation is not a special occasion kind of event, and we have already been spending a lot in babysitting and/or spending too many evenings away from home, I feel very comfortable declining the invitation.

My advice to you would be that, while you are still new to the congregation, accept as many invitations as you can accept without completely overwhelming your calendar. The invitations will almost certainly slow down after you have been there a little while. Regardless of what congregants think, it is work, and it can be exhausting. When you do accept an invitation, try to find a way to take some "comp time" in return, if you can. Break your calendar into segments - morning, afternoon, evening. If you are out too many evenings with parishioners, find some mornings or afternoons to take off from the office.

Singing Owl weighs in on the need for couple time:

There is nothing wrong with letting people know, gently, that you have limited time with your husband and need to safeguard that. In fact, it might serve as a good example of setting healthy boundaries and priorities. Is there a tactful and appropriate way to let the entire congregation know that you have limited time at home? A tired and resentful and overtaxed parson is no good to anyone. One caution: if you determine how many invitations you can accept, be careful that you do not appear to be playing favorites. I know this is tricky. I mean, we all know that some people will invite you over often and some people will never invite you anywhere.

My husband and I have only two week nights when we are both home. That means that we have an unbreakable rule that one of those two nights must be spent at home, barring dire emergencies or deaths. I have rearranged my schedule to fit somewhat with his, but I don’t know if you are able to do that.

I think that it is almost universally true that parishioners will not understand that there is never a time when a pastor can “forget you are a pastor and just be a guest.” Most people probably mean that kindly but there are those, sadly, who may not. That is one difference between a job and a calling. Being a pastor, IMO, is a 24/7 job. Even people who mean only good by that statement will not understand that being a pastor is not something one can take on and off like a coat. That is why pastors need lots of time to get away. I think that to forget you are a pastor and just be a guest is just about impossible, but also to do so is an unwise thing. I do think that it is possible to be on friendly terms with folks in the church, but the elephant is always in the room. And should be, in my opinion.

You are right, it just does not work. Time with parishioners, even friendly time, is part of the calling and thus part of the job. Accept the invitations when you can and decline when you need to. Otherwise, as you likely already know, you will end up tired and resentful. You won’t seem ungrateful if you decline with genuine appreciation and warmth, and honesty about your need to be home with your husband.

Rector in Hawaii adds: What I've learned to do is respond with "What a nice invitation! I'd love to come but I've already made plans for that night or lunch that day or whatever." And you have. You've already made plans to relax with your husband and have some alone time. Making appointments with ourselves is just as important, if not more so, as spending time with parishioners.

One of our new matriarchs, Ceramic Episcopalian, (who blogs at suggests:
Talk other staff members. Is there a policy in place about how to handle this situation (and if no formal policy, is there an unwritten 'way things are done' that you should be aware of)?

Talk to your spouse and come up with a plan for maintaining your time together-- either by setting aside certain evenings of the week as 'your time' or limiting the total number of events attended.

Use the guidelines from the staff and your family along with the written record to help you decide which events to attend. If you are going to accept invitations, make sure to spread yourself around so that you get to see different sets of people. As for declining gracefully, just say that you are sorry that your are unable to attend. Do not over-explain or give excuses.

Consider such events as work time and plan for their impact accordingly. Keep track of which congregant's events you attend and how open they are (by which I mean are they parties that the congregation as a whole is invited to, or are they events that only the congregant's friends are invited to). I would recommend keeping notes to ensure an objective record.

Do you have some insights that can benefit Overinvited but Grateful Pastor? Share your comments using the comment function. And please keep your questions coming...there are only one or two in the queue right now...surely there is someone or two or three among our readers with a question on her/his mind! Send those questions today to


  1. All good advice! Especially about accepting social invitations when you are new- it can go such a LONG way with forging those relationships - you can actually get away with turning down more invites later. It really is worth the sacrifice in the beginning. Once they know you they are more understanding about the declines.

    One thing I learned to do was make it a practice and explain to couples that as a rule I NEVER attend wedding receptions. Usually they are mostly people you don't know - the family you do know is busy taking care of other guests. Big time waster for little payback. But DO go to the rehearsal dinner, those are more intimate and more time to get to know folks.

  2. As a single person, I find it easier than those of you who are married and/or have young children to say yes. I am very careful, though, of making plans for Saturday night. Last week, I asked someone to attend a play - with a parishioner in it - in a nearby town. We didn't get home until 11:00 and by the time I got to bed, I had less than 5 hours sleep before getting up and doing Sunday morning. Avoid Saturday events if possible. Besides, then you miss the late night preachers' party!

    That *does* mean that I say yes to dinners on Friday, my other day off along with Saturday. It doesn't happen very often.

    My problem is asking people to have lunch and then having them insist on paying! These are people I need to see for pastoral reasons and lunch seems to be a good time to get together - also most of them like going out more than having me come to the house. I try to balance being treated with treating in these cases.

  3. There is an active group of older workers/recent retirees who plan the church's "social events" on Friday nights. Friday is my day off, my *only* day off.

    I went to these events at first, but then the family pattern became such that Friday was the only evening my spouse and I ( and sometimes the kids) had together, and I started declining to go to these events.

    When they grumbled, then also added the disappointment that none of the younger families attend the church's social events, I pointed out that for many busy families, Friday night really is "family night". It had never occurred to them, since they hadn't had "family night" in 15 years or more.

    We kind of came to a truce about it. They now don't grumble about the fact that the "younger people" don't come, and I spend Friday evening with my family!

  4. I agree that it is easier to accept these invitations as a single person. But as an introvert who presents to all accounts as an extrovert, it IS tiring. I love the advice I've read here. Its a helpful, always necessary boundaries reminder.
    One thing that I can be quite shameless about is the "I wish I could but I've already made other plans"-line. Even if I the plans I have made are for 3-4 evening meetings on other days in a week, those plans DO effect my ability to accept theirs, even if I don't have anything scheduled for that particular night.

  5. i read someplace about a pastor who at the new year decided how many evenings in a year he was willing to be away from his family... he then put a marble for each evening of the agreed upon number (he talked it over with his wife)... and then put the jar of marbles on his desk as a very visual reminder... of balance.


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