Can Ministers Say ‘No’ To A Need?

For some readers, there is an obvious ‘yes’ in reply to that question. But for others, there is a default assumption that ministers, like a broadband connection, are meant to be ‘always on’, and when the connection drops there is something wrong.

I raise this, because two separate web articles have caught my eye over the last couple of days. BBC News published a piece called ‘Clergy hide from constant callers‘, which was taken up in inimitable style by Archdruid Eileen of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley under the title ‘The vicar can’t speak to you now‘. The BBC piece details the strategies some ministry families have to deploy in order to get some peace and rest on a day off, even hiding in a back room with curtains drawn, watching TV. Others imply it’s part of the calling to the ordained life that you always respond. Hmm. I suppose that’s why Jesus took himself off alone at times? The article sadly only speaks about ‘days off’ rather than the more powerful but tricky concept of ‘sabbath’.

Then I found this piece by Charles Stone: ‘Are you a sleep deprived pastor? Take this test and find out.‘ Er, yes I am. Sometimes I accept it’s bad personal management. Other times it’s health issues. But on too many occasions it is work items that aren’t optional. Two days after Easter I was up until the early hours, completing my submissions for the Methodist Church’s Past Cases Review. It’s an important piece of work, and I support it: our denomination is reviewing all child protection cases since 1950. The problem is, it is being phased across the country and I am in a region that was expected to do this work in a period running from two weeks before Easter to two weeks after Easter. Yes – our busiest time of the year, even more frantic than Christmas, and just the time when many ministers need a rest.

I have read articles about overworked ministers that tell us to take time off and get exercise. Yes, of course, but it’s not enough to tell us to do these good things. We need strategies. One involves having the mental toughness to say ‘no’. As I write this, there is a discussion on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about baptism requests, where families with no church connection approach a minister, expecting a specific date, sometimes even already having booked the location for the party.

But for some people, it’s bad form for a minister to say ‘no’. It’s also hard for us. We follow a calling into this work because we care, and care for others sometimes involves lack of self-care. We justify that as some kind of sacrifice. It can also be a cover for our desire to please other people rather than God, or perhaps even our fear that if we don’t please people they’ll have us moved on quicker than we wanted at great cost to our family. I suppose that’s a lack of faith – as also is the feeling that if we don’t respond, someone will not be helped when they are in need.

At other times, it just isn’t possible to say ‘no’, because all the things on our agenda are non-negotiables, and they can’t all be managed by forward planning.

So – if you are a minister, how do you cope with the demands? If you are a member of a congregation, how would you like your minister to handle this?

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