Monday, February 1, 2010

How Accessible Should Clergy Be?

Jason Byasee made some observations in response to this question a few years back in a piece entitled "The Wired Pastor." Since then, his observations have become only become more relevant:

You’ve seen them, maybe you’re one of them: pastors who must be in touch at all times. The cell phone is either in use or strapped handily onto the belt, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. It’s best as a Blackberry or Treo, so it can vibrate every ten minutes with news of new messages. And just in case those fail, a beeper should be handy. You can never be too wired.

I can understand why some professions would cause one to need to be accessible 100 percent of the time: firefighters, psychologists with mentally ill patients and (given recent floods in this part of the country) plumbers come to mind. But why pastors? Certainly on large church staffs it’s a venerable practice to have one of the pastors on-call at all times in case of emergency. But I worry when I see wired pastors, ubiquitous as they are at church conventions and gatherings of clergy. I fear they conflate importance with accessibility, as if being incommunicado even briefly will lead to spiritual crisis. Must we be like other professions—doctors or financiers—and have a loop around our ear at all times? Or does pastoral wiring suggest anew the loss of confidence of the clergy vocation?

Read it all.

I know clergy who never seemed to have learned that you don't have to answer your cell phone just because it rings. But I'll admit to having a cell phone on me almost all the time. In fact, I almost feel naked if I don't have it with me. And I hate going for more than half a day without Internet access. I'm not sure that's such a good thing. (Thus far, I've resisted the temptation to acquire an iPhone or a BlackBerry. Then again, here I am blogging before breakfast!)

Byasee's perspective really does make me wonder if it wouldn't be better for clergy - and perhaps for most people generally - to unplug for part of the day, to be inaccessible for a time. It can be true that genuine ministry comes in the interruptions, and being accessible leaves us open to constant interruption and thus multiple opportunities for ministry. But surely it's also true that the energy and vision we need for ministry comes from times of quiet and reflection, times when we aren't easily interrupted, times when we are accessible to God alone.

Perhaps the drive to be constantly accessible is more about our need to be needed, and even our fear of encountering God in silence, than it is about living more deeply into our vocation as clergy.


BillyD said...

I think that clergy (especially parochial clergy) need to be accessible all the time, but not necessarily accessible to everyone all the time for any reason whatsoever. If I have an emergency that requires a priest (and yes, pace the move to lay "chaplains" I think that there are emergencies that require a priest) I want to be able to get in touch with one right there and then. I shouldn't have to wait until the rector has finished contemplating his navel for him to get around to coming down to the emergency room or the police station at his convenience. The judicious use of caller ID and voice mail would seem to protect the priest from intrusion while giving the parishioner needed access.

I also think that clergy ought to be identifiable as clergy in public, unless they're on vacation.

Bryan Owen said...

I think you hit the nail on the head, BillyD, by using the phrase "judicious use." It's not about rejecting the available technology, and certainly not less being mastered by it, but rather finding the right balance.

I also agree about clergy being publicly identifiable as such. Wearing the clerical collar is perhaps one of the easiest ways to do that. But, as I've noted in an earlier posting, there do seem to be "shades of ambivalence among [many Episcopal priests] about the appropriate times and places to wear the clerical collar."

The Underground Pewster said...

People love for their pastor to be available 24/7, and for small congregations this may not be a major problem for the pastor.

A Pediatrician friend, after many years of wearing the electronic leash of his beeper, and years of being awoken at all hours for advice, hired an answering service staffed by nurses who used algorithms to triage calls and to direct worried parents. This system seemed to work well.

For the pastor in solo practice, a good set of guidelines for the church secretary might be helpful in prioritizing calls. After hours is the problem. This might be a job for the lay pastoral care team or lay chaplain to take some overnight "on-call" with the proviso that they would have guidelines as to when to wake the rector up.

Just some rambling thoughts.

Been there, done that, U.P.

Bryan Owen said...

Good counsel, U.P.

hawk said...

I unplug all the time. I where my clericals less often than I used to. In my eleven years of ordination, there has only been one call that I can think of that required immediate response. I've been the pastor of a 200 member church, on the staff of a 2000 member church, and I now pastor a 500 member church.

I think the need to be needed is a major character flaw of many clergy and the cell phone/beeper/twitter et al are all symptoms of clerical self importance. Another issue may be clerical loneliness. When I go to lunch with someone I now ask them to turn off their cell phone as I'm turning off mine.

I do like the freedom the phone gives me so I can be out in the community doing work here and there. I don't think I'm nearly as tied to the office as the generation of clergy that preceded me.