Tingling Masses of Availability: Changing Congregational Expectations

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By Derek Penwell

Tingling Masses of Availability

I had a professor in seminary who told us that when he was a parish minister he used to require, as a condition of employment, four weeks vacation every year—which he took all at one time. He said that he required the better part of two weeks just to start feeling relaxed.

I hear that.

He also said that when he went on vacation, he would go to a cabin without a phone–this was, of course, before cell phones and email. He did that intentionally so that he would be hard to reach. His secretary knew where he was, but the only way to get ahold of him was by calling the state police, who would then have to make a trip out to the cabin. Not impossible, but difficult enough to dissuade casual contact.

Making himself difficult to reach, he said, was the point. He wanted his parishioners to have to make a decision about whether their need was urgent enough to have to call the state police in order to get it addressed.

I love that.

Seminary students were horrified–as were his parishioners, I imagine, when he first explained it to them. “What if someone needed you?”

“I didn’t go to the moon. I simply made them make decisions about what ‘need’ means. People often define urgency in ways favorable to their own understanding of the world. Is Aunt Gladys’s bunion surgery an emergency? Is the failure to locate the toner cartridge for the copying machine urgent? Is misspelling the matriarch of the church’s name on the Christmas Bazaar literature a reason to go to DEFCON 1? Maybe. But why should the minister always have to decide what’s urgent? By going away like this, I tried to help the congregation take on some of the responsibility for its own care, by discerning what truly needed my attention from that which merely ‘felt’ urgent to each parishioner.”

But don’t ministers get paid to be at their congregation’s disposal?

Do they? Distilled to its essence, is that what ministry is about—being, as Will Willimon (I think) has sometimes said, tingling masses of availability?

I would like to suggest that perpetuating an understanding of ministers as ordained 911 dispatchers infantilizes congregations, and plays only to the insecurities of ministers whose need to be needed defines their pastoral calling.

Baby Churches

I once worked at a church where the secretary, a single mom, asked to change her hours by forty-five minutes to accommodate her daughter’s new school schedule. She would start and end the day a little earlier.

This seemed like a no-brainer to me. What did I care if she switched things up a bit, if it made her life a little less complicated? She’s a single mom, for crying out loud. So, I said, “Of course.”

To a very vocal contingent in the congregation, this was the wrong response. Beyond the who-did-I-think-I-was-making-a-decision-without-calling-a-meeting-and-involving-several-layers-of-bureaucracy aspect of the controversy, the argument that got repeated most loudly and with the most vehemence was about the church office being unavailable for forty-five minutes at the end of the day.

“What if someone calls and nobody’s there?”

They can leave a message.

“What if it’s an emergency?”

Then, they’ll have to do the same thing they did last week when they called five minutes after the office closed. They’ll have to call me. Or the associate. Or the chairperson of the elders. Or someone on their care team. If it’s truly an emergency, they’ll receive the appropriate attention. If it’s not an emergency, they can leave a message or call back the next day. This isn’t brain surgery–and if it is brain surgery, they’ll get all the attention they need.

“But when we call the church office, we ought to be able to get a hold of someone.”


“Because. If I call a business and I don’t get a hold of anyone, I will soon form a low opinion of the business.”

So do I. But where did you ever get the idea the church is a business?[1] Businesses seek to make and satisfy customers, in order to realize a profit. Churches, on the other hand, seek to form mature disciples fit for the reign of God. The two are extraordinarily different kinds of endeavors. Moreover, shouldn’t the church be leading the way on how businesses treat their employees–like single mothers, for instance–rather than aping the profit-seeking moves that tend to treat people like “human resources?”

If the job of the church is to help people grow up, one thing it can’t do is continue to treat its members like three year-olds, who will throw a tantrum if they don’t get the attention they desire right now. Part of maturity is learning what is truly urgent and what is not, what needs attention now and what can wait. People will never reach maturity as followers of Jesus if ministers continue to treat all decisions as urgent, based solely on the decibel level of the request.

Ministers Who Need Baby Churches

I take it as established that ministry attracts an inordinately high volume of needy people. Please understand, I do not except myself from this observation. I’m a people pleaser from way back. I carry around with me a whole steamer trunk full of insecurities. It is because and not in spite of the fact that I’m often part of the problem that I feel free to weigh in on it, admittedly, in what some will feel is an obnoxious and self-righteous manner.

I’m not sure who produced whom—immature parishioners or insecure pastors–but I do know that we’ll never remediate the former without addressing the problem of the latter.

Now, I imagine that will be heard by some as my call to pastors to act like jerks. I don’t mean that at all–although, what I have to say cannot but be heard that way by people who think ministry centers on meeting “felt needs.” I think the answer lies in discovering a sense of self in relationship to, but not subsumed by, pastoral identity.

I’m a pastor. I’m not only a pastor.

My self-understanding is informed by, but not limited to, my role as an ordained clergy person.

I’m not going to go into all that clergy self-care stuff; if you’ve been to seminary, you’ve gotten a healthy dose of that already. It’s important to help keep you sane, and to resist being sucked into everyone else’s private psychodramas. So, pay attention to it, but that’s not my immediate concern here.

Instead, I want to draw attention to ministerial insecurities, not just because of how it damages pastors and their families, but because of how it infantilizes congregations. Continuing to be available whenever the phone rings or the email alert pops up only preserves a state of affairs in which all impulses are treated equally by the congregation.

  • Why should they worry whether its your day off? You’ve successfully communicated to them that you’ll interrupt your time with your family to attend to their needs–no matter how small.
  • Why shouldn’t they flood your inbox with emails about every detail of whatever happens to be on their minds? You’ve demonstrated your endless willingness to cut their steak.
  • Why shouldn’t they expect you to email them back immediately? You’ve proven that no problem is so small that you won’t stop whatever you’re doing to answer their concerns.
  • Why should they concern themselves with niggling details like the fact that it’s 10:00 at night when they call to discuss their pledge? You’ve made it clear that those conversations are welcome by continuing to pick up the phone.

Notwithstanding the damage done to pastors and their families by not establishing good boundaries, congregations suffer from being treated like toddlers.

I know this sounds terribly patronizing–like pastors are the parents who must raise their incorrigible children. I’m not sure how to respond to that, except to say that if maturity is the goal, somebody’s going to have to take the first step and act like a grown-up.

Otherwise, things like taking up your cross and attending to the needs of the least of these will continue to be heard as activities reserved to the ordained, and not practices expected of the baptized.


  1. I know the church has to operate in a professional manner, paying its bills on time, not yelling at the waste management people when they forget to pick up the trash, getting rid of the harvest gold and the avocado green in the nursery, etc.

[From the archives]

via Articles – [D]mergent http://ift.tt/1xxphlW

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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