On Pastors and Phone Calls


Interesting piece at Christianity Today, Karl Vater’s blog, called “Why Most Pastors Aren’t Answering Your Phone Calls.”

Vaters notes that ministers have a reputation for not being very good at answering or returning phone calls or communications from parishioners, missionaries, and others. He then says, “It’s not because we’re lazy, disorganized or uncaring – not most of the time.” Vaters does acknowledge that this might be part of the problem (see point #9 below), but then he lists eight other reasons he thinks pastors don’t respond as well as many parishioners think they should.

Here is a list of the reasons he gives. You can read the article for his explanation of each point.

  1. There are too many calls to answer.
  2. Good leaders are proactive.
  3. Most pastors don’t have a phone on their desk anymore — or a desk.
  4. We have personal lives.
  5. Many pastors work full time outside the church.
  6. There are better options, especially for a first contact.
  7. Some things can wait.
  8. It’s not you, it’s us (except when it’s you).
  9. Some pastors are lazy and rude.

Karl Vaters concludes by encouraging pastors to do better, and to make sure legitimate calls get answered, but not to beat themselves up out of an undue need to please others.

I saw this post shared on Facebook, and here are a few of the responses that came:

  • I hope I am wrong but I find pastors have become less pastoral with each passing year. Call me “old” but I want to know pastors care about people more than I see in this list of reasons/excuses.
  • We have a rule that pastors are to respond within 24 hours unless it’s their day off.
  • Pastors work hard, I hope, but it is a very flexible “job.” It amazes me when I hear a pastor say “I don’t have time.” After being a pastor for 30 years I know a bit about it.
  • Most of the excuses in the CT article are self-important, lame or downright lazy. Ministers are professionals. We are not paid for by the hour, but for the service we offer, and that is without limit of time. …I simply cannot understand a minister who loves his people wanting to keep them at arm’s length. Their life is my life.
  • I love engaging with people anytime, anywhere. But in this age of “instant” everything, sometimes it may be good for anyone/everyone to take some time to reflect before reacting with an “urgent” phone call–oftentimes out of unrestrained anger.

I don’t think this is one of those black & white, unambiguous issues. I have made my position clear on many occasions. Anyone who carries the name “pastor” is charged with the spiritual care of people. No one who neglects personal ministry to others in favor of “running a church” or preparing messages or giving “leadership” is worthy of the name pastor. However, there is and must be a balance in relating to parishioners and people in the community that respects not only them but also the minister.

Generally, I have found that people understand this. In fact, in my experience many people are too hesitant about contacting the pastor or the church community when they have a need. They don’t want to be a burden, they’re shy about receiving attention, they’re embarrassed to admit they need help. I’ve had much more frustration in pastoral ministry with those who didn’t contact me when I would have liked notification.

Sure, some people present “emergencies” that aren’t. And there are “needy” individuals and families that are draining. On the other hand, I did neglect my family at times when I didn’t need to. I did get caught up in situations where I wanted to be the hero and took too much personal responsibility for things I should have shared or stayed out of altogether.

And mea culpa, I did not always handle well the personal responsibility that comes with the set-your-own, flexible schedule that comes with being a minister, especially in smaller churches. Sometimes, my parishioners called me on it, and they were right.

In the end, there are only two rules for all this: wisdom and love. Both are only gained by experience — that is, by doing your best, getting good counsel, and falling flat on your face and seeking forgiveness, as you walk the path to personal and vocational maturity.

And always remember. It’s about people.

26 thoughts on “On Pastors and Phone Calls

  1. I am a “bi-vocational” pastor of a small church. I also work for our State Inspector General in a full-time position. My greatest regret is the lack of time for pastoral care. I generally focus my pastoral care time (visits, proactive phone calls) on those who are sick or in hospital. I wish I had more time for general visits and lunches, etc. I would echo the thought that often the people who most need to reach out do not do so for whatever reason. Generally I try to always answer the phone unless I am in a situation where I simply cannot (meetings at my State job or serious conversations where it would be rude to do so). I have had a few occasions where people have been upset that I could not answer immediately but those occasions allowed me to share that being bi-vocational is a very different situation.

    I do believe that many pastors have lost the sense of shepherding and personal care that goes with pastoring. Dr. Stephen Olford used to say that a pastor “earns the right to be heard” by loving and ministering to his people they are more receptive to his preaching and leadership.


  2. I think this is really a symptom of how pastor’s have changed over my life.

    When growing up in the 60s our pastor knew the name of everyone in the congregation. He made it a priority. And he would make visits to people throughout the year. He’d call in advance so as to not make surprise visits. The church had a typical Sunday attendance of about 600. It was just him a secretary or two. A music minister and deacons from the congregation. Flat congregational organization. See:
    for a good parody of how things were organized.

    The church where I spend most of my kids lives had a typical Sunday attendance of 2000. There were 17 pastors on staff. At least 1/3 full time. Maybe more. As we (and others) were leaving the church over a couple of incredibly poorly handled by pastors incidents we discussed various things with our close group of friends in the church. Most of us had never had a pastor give anyone of us or our families a phone call or email or letter. Not ever. This church was organized as “elder led”. Elders elected by the congregation but only elders could nominate elders. Pastor even once commented that in 20 years only 3 times had the elder board every questioned a decision. Budgets were opaque. What pastors did also.

    This entire “not answering phone calls” is a side effect of anointed pastors in charge of the sheep model of thinking these days.


  3. It may also help if the Pastor has an actual relationship established before hand, before the ‘need’. Obviously there is a problem with that at a certain scale.


  4. > “Unless your name comes up on my caller ID, I will not answer –
    > and there’s very little chance that I’ll call you back.”

    I am not a Pastor. But this is my rule. I would respect a pastor that said this. [of course, with technology everyone in your congregation should be in your caller id… everyone employed by my employer is…]

    > “If you’re making an initial contact with a pastor, try something other than a phone call.”

    Seems reasonable. A phone call is an interrupting demand. One of the reason working with younger people is great – they get this – calling on a phone is a last resort as it is considered **rude** by many. Calling on a phone is “Pay attention to me right now despite whatever you are doing!”. The mobile phone has changed the nature of phone-call-as-communication.

    I am 110% down with find-another-way so long as those other ways are clearly made available AND actually cause a response.


  5. > making the subject of your email indicate the time sensitivity

    THIS!!! OMG, that why the Subject header exists. Using a tool correctly increases its effectiveness!


  6. > he would find himself wading through hundreds of email notes each day

    vs. wading though dozens and dozens of voice mail messages? I don’t get this at all. Voice Mail is a terrible way to communicate.


  7. I wonder if there’s a parallel between pastoring and stage acting. Stick with me…

    For the actor, maybe they’re doing a stage play for the tenth, twentieth, maybe hundredth, time. To them, maybe it’s become a dull routine and they’re ready to phone it in.

    But to an audience member, this is their first time viewing the play, not the hundredth. It’s totally new for them. They NEED the actor to bring a performance that’s top-notch, not phoned-in.

    Somehow, the actor must get past the “I’ve done this a thousand times, here we go again” to a “this is totally new to most everyone sitting out there” attitude and mindset.

    The parallel is that pastors (and maybe more so, chaplains) get caught up in the “here we go again” aspect of taking care of people. But while they’ve “done this a thousand times”, the people with the needs and who are suffering are experiencing the pain and suffering for maybe the first time. They need the pastor or chaplain to “bring it”, not phone it in. So maybe it would behoove pastors to talk to actors to see how they “bring it” every night.


  8. Vater sounds burnt-out and angry. I sympathize with him, but more with anyone looking to him for pastoral care.

    Pastoral work isn’t for everyone, certainly. Even for those who find it a true calling, such as you, CM, I am sure there are many times when the balance of your energy and caring, vs. people’s need or demand for your energy and caring, is overwhelming.

    A friend who is a nursing home chaplain once told me about a not-unusual morning when she moved from one death to the next to a third, trying to be present and comfort the families at each bedside. As she left the third room, she was paged to attend a fourth death. She said she stopped for a minute and drew a breath and said to herself, “I need to take some time out here.” I guess she spent a few minutes in the nursing home chapel, but then went on to serve another family. Unsurprisingly, she takes a lot of antacids and blood pressure pills.

    Like my friend, many people who go into pastoral ministries probably do so because they are basically very caring, giving people. Unfortunately, I think some needy people feed on this “vibe” and assume the pastor owes them undivided attention whenever they want it. Other times, a pastor may sign on for a pastoral job, then be drained dry by its demands. The result can be either my friend’s health-destroying struggles as she tries to fill the needs, or Mr. Vater’s don’t-call-me-and-I-probably-won’t-call-you attitude.

    Your last two paragraphs are the answer, CM — and they’re not something that can be summarized in bullet points.


  9. I clicked through and read the piece: quite appalling. It starts off with the worst:

    “Unless your name comes up on my caller ID, I will not answer – and there’s very little chance that I’ll call you back.”

    I can’t help but notice that there is no mention of him listening to his voice mail: merely that there is “very little chance” of his calling you back. This is particularly remarkable in combination with number 6, where we find

    “If you’re making an initial contact with a pastor, try something other than a phone call.”

    We often criticize the modern church for acting as if Christianity is a product to be pitched to potential customers. This piece evokes the rare opposite reaction. I imagine some poor sinner seeking a pastor, calling this guy, and getting….. nothing. Imagine trying to find a real estate agent to help you sell your house. No agent would act like this guy, because no agent wants to lose a potential client. This is about the only time I have read a piece on pastoring and had the reaction that we need to treat Christianity more like a sales deal.


  10. Absolutely, HUG. A great many wanted to go on and get a doctoral degree in order to teach at the college or seminary level. Several expressed their desire to be in very small parishes so they’d have lots time to study. That’s all good, but where will the pastors come from to just be shepherds to the masses? Not shepherds to the shepherds, but to the sheep.


  11. It seems to me that if you take into account that each pastor and each congregation is unique and individual, any one-size-fits-all solution to this problem is doomed for difficulty and failure, and that includes attempts to define just what a “pastor” and “congregation” is supposed to be and do. Except in individual cases and circumstances, when I would think definitions and boundaries and responsibilities would be the first order of business. It sounds to me as if what is wanted here is more of a social worker or a chaplain or an administrator, and if so, why not hire a social worker or a chaplain or an administrator?

    I like the solution the apostles came up with back in the beginning when this came up. They called for the appointment of people to deal with the day to day practical problems, which left the apostles free to deal with the day to day spiritual problems. Apparently these workers did not get to call themselves a “leadership team” nor did they get to call the shots outside of their area of responsibility. Apparently it worked well enough to get by. I’m a day early, but James said when someone is sick, call for the elders, plural. Just who were the “elders”? Where was the “pastor”? Maybe James was the “pastor”.

    Thank God I am not a pastor, but if I was I would want a church secretary to field the calls and do triage and tell me what was what. If the church couldn’t afford that, I would want a church cell phone with scheduled congregants taking the phone day by day on 24 hour call for routine business and emergencies, again doing triage. If there weren’t enough people willing to do that, there aren’t enough people to support a dedicated building and full time paid pastor anyway. I’m guessing most congregations would agree that thank God I am not a pastor.

    Not knowing CM’s exact situation as a hospice chaplain, I’m guessing he has scheduled times when he is on, perhaps 24 hour call or split shift, and scheduled times when he is off, sort of like a firefighter. Maybe he has to sometimes get up in the middle of the night and get dressed and go out like a homicide detective, maybe sometime he doesn’t go to bed all night, but I’m guessing there are a lot of stressed-out pastors doing 24/7/365 that would trade places in a heartbeat.


  12. The pastoral relationship then becomes a one-sided relationship in which the sheep control the shepherd by shaming him out of a basic living wage, out of time with his family, out of time with himself, and out of time for almost anything else.

    This is the life of my burned-out preacher writing partner, always thirty seconds off from being fired because of perpetually-offended “Gatekeeper” Church Ladies who REALLY run the church. (They even snoop through his personal emails; he’s had to take down personal Websites and blogs to keep his job, and usually has to CYA himself around once a week.)

    And then at Wartburg Watch, Spiritual Sounding Board, and Wondering Eagle I read documentation after documentation of Moses Model Pastor/Dictators who live high as Paris Hilton off the tithes of their sheeple…

    Something is WAY out of balance here.


  13. Every day on Metrolink, I’m the only one on the train — or the platforms, or the connecting bus, or the sidewalk, or the break room — who doesn’t have their face in their phone screen, thumb texting away.

    Remember Brave New World and Soma?
    SOcial MediA


  14. Most of the men that were studying to be pastors rarely mentioned the people aspect. They mentioned Word, sacraments, original Greek, study, all those academic things but rarely did I hear much about how to deal with, love, care for, or connect with people.

    Sounds like they were in training for this:


  15. Thanks for this perspective! The sheep controlling the shepherd through “shaming”…Yes, I can see how that probably happens.


  16. I have found that making the subject of your email indicate the time sensitivity helps with contacting priests a lot. I’ll use an example from last year, because this year has been weird there for the same reasons y’all have not seen a lot of me.

    If I title an email, “About the canon tonight…”, my rector knows that is coming from his ecclesiarch and that if he doesn’t get back to me the order of service tonight might be wrong. He can then figure out how important that is compared to the other stuff he is doing.

    If I title an email to the same guy, “When you have some time…”, my spiritual father knows that email is probably going to be pages long or have some kind of question he’d actually have to have time and space to think about, and again, he can respond accordingly.

    I don’t call unless I have a really good reason that would benefit from an immediate response, and even then I’ll sometimes call his house first to see if I can get a bead on if he’s in a situation that is appropriate for a phone call to his cell.


  17. Being a part-time pastor is a whole different beast. Your pastoral time is severely limited and one would hope that the congregation would understand that. But wait! They are people and probably don’t, sadly.


  18. I am one of those pastors who works full-time. I work at a VA Medical Center. I also have temporary care of a small parish that, sadly, is headed toward disappearing unless younger couples start coming. And, I find that I just do not have the time to “pastor” in the way in which some rather idealistic, but misguided, people would wish me to pastor.

    By medical center rule, I am not supposed to answer my personal cell phone while on duty, so I do not. I have found the hard way that if I break the rule, then promptly folk begin to call me during my on-duty time and get upset if I do not respond. This is not fair to the people who are paying 95% of the money on which I live nor to those with whom I work at the medical center. Does this mean that sometimes I may miss an “emergency” call? Yes, it does, but Jesus was right when he said that it is not really possible to be faithful to two masters. Any pastor who works full-time at another employment has two masters, which is not a good situation. But, many times this is necessary because the very sheep that are being pastored are not capable of supporting a full-time pastor.

    So, why not be faithful to the sheep that I pastor? When I read that type of response, I see a misunderstanding. It is the same misunderstanding against which pastors began to speak in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In various denominations, this was also the time that minimum pastoral stipends began to be the rule. The misunderstanding is that the pastor is essentially placed in the position of having to apologize for not pastoring enough, for wanting time with his family, for wanting time for himself, and for wanting a basic living wage. This is misusing the concept of service and washing the feet of those you pastor in order to put the pastor in a headlock of guilt.

    The pastoral relationship then becomes a one-sided relationship in which the sheep control the shepherd by shaming him out of a basic living wage, out of time with his family, out of time with himself, and out of time for almost anything else. It is noteworthy that the Gospels record a couple of instances in which Jesus left even his apostles behind and said that he needed to be by himself for a bit.

    I know too many pastors who have no hobby and no life outside of their congregational situation. I know too many congregations that would think that this is appropriate, that they have “hired” a 34/7/365 person who should lay everything down whenever someone believes that they “need” something. It is noteworthy here that Jesus, himself, refused to go to Lazarus on Martha and Mary’s timing, but went on his own timing. It is absolutely true that He knew that there was going to be a resurrection, but it is also clear that Mary and Martha were quite disappointed. “Lord, he would not have died if you had been here.” Every pastor faces an occasion like this sometime in their ministry, and should not feel the need to apologize unless their decision was clearly and badly made.

    I agree with Pastor Mike that this is not a black and white issue. I also agree that the pastor who wrote the article could certainly have written it better, as he leaves out much of the passion, and even pain, that is involved in the pastoral life and that finally needs to the realization that you have to have some personal rules to guard against burnout. Had the author put some of that in, his points might have come across in a more understandable-to-the-non-pastor manner.


  19. Don’t know if this was an evangelical seminary, but from what I know, those Bible schools and seminaries either abandoned teaching pastoral care out of an effort to distinguish themselves from “liberal” theology and churches, or they never taught it in the first places, except in a few rare instances.


  20. Interesting perspective. I was in congregational ministry as email was developing, and I can tell you, I wasted a lot of time and neglected face to face conversations far too often as we navigated the new era of electronic communication. Email, texting, and social media have their place but we are still needing to grow in wisdom in our usage.


  21. Interestingly the former priest of our parish did not have an email address but rather insisted if you wanted to contact him call him on the phone. His thoughts were that considering our parish is quite large, somewhere between 6,000 to 7,000 families, he would find himself wading through hundreds of email notes each day, which would greatly reduce the amount of time he would have to actually get out and minister to the parish flock. I suspect it also eliminated quite a few of those complaints/issues that one is less likely to bring up in a face to face conversation.


  22. “It’s about people.” Yes. I’ve mentioned here that I worked for a time at a Seminary and this “people” thing was a bother to me. Most of the men that were studying to be pastors rarely mentioned the people aspect. They mentioned Word, sacraments, original Greek, study, all those academic things but rarely did I hear much about how to deal with, love, care for, or connect with people.
    Yes. It is all about people in all their messiness and how to show God’s love to them. And you are correct that experience is the best teacher, but you have to be willing to learn & stick around long enough to do so.

    Excellent post!


  23. I had a parishioner share their discontent about our pastor this weekend.

    Too ‘actiony’ and not ‘pastory’ enough.

    I encouraged them to share their concerns with the leadership team, but I also pointed out that if they wanted the pastor to do more pastory stuff, they were going to need to find a solution for the organising. Because very often, when push comes to shove, the only person to step up to the plate and do what needs doing is the pastor.

    And to be honest I find it refreshing to have a pastor who is not ‘above’ getting his hands dirty, and serving his parishioners practically. It chimes with my thoughts on Michael’s post from yesterday: maybe our problem is too much talk and not enough show.


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