Eight things congregations can do when their pastor is ill for an extended time
A few years ago, when I was chair of our leadership team, our pastor, Linda, was diagnosed with a chronic illness. Since then, I’ve had several conversations with others about situations where a pastor acquired a chronic or acute illness. By now, Linda has had enough time for perspective and to add her reflections.
I was chair of the leadership team/elders/board, when our pastor was unable to function. Here are some things we did to navigate this challenging time.
1. Conference minister: The conference minister was involved from the beginning of the illness to give guidance and, when necessary, help in the selection of an interim pastor. We informed the conference minister of significant diagnoses and expected disability.
Hint: Somebody on the church board should know how to contact the conference minister or overseer.
2. Transparency and communication with the congregation: Personal contact and phone calls to each of the congregants assured them the needs of the pastor were being met and their needs for pastoring were met. We used a phone tree with the leadership team to call members of the congregation. We called and informed them of important messages. Some examples were (1) the pastor started medical leave. (2) An interim was hired. (3) We were having a meeting and wanted to make sure we had each person’s input, whether by attendance or dialogue.
Hint: This time in the life of a congregation typically loses members or attendance, unless you reach out to each person. Nothing substitutes for personal caring and engagement. Emails, announcements at church or surprises leave people feeling disconnected and vulnerable.
Linda’s reflection: As the ill pastor, this felt critical to make sure the congregation got care.
3. Pastoral relations committee: The group that provided support all through the illness to the minister was the pastor support or pastor-congregation relations committee. The leadership team provided direction, steered the ship for the church and took care of the parishioners. It would have been a challenge to take care of an ill pastor and the congregational response at the same time. The leadership team needed to keep a balance for the sake of the congregation, which meant it felt less supportive for the pastor.
Hint: If you don’t have a pastor-congregation relations committee, follow the guidelines on the Mennonite Church USA website or modify that outline according to your situation. This committee can serve many purposes besides support for an ill pastor.
Linda’s reflection: This was essential for me in keeping a sense of connection. I would have felt even more like I had fallen through a hole without the group—and the illness did that badly enough.
4. Communication with the ill pastor: We set up regular meetings with Linda, about once a month. We suggested she have another person present whom she selected, such as a spouse, child or advocate. We followed up in writing with any decisions to make sure everybody agreed on the same thing.
Hint: When folks are sick, they don’t hear or remember everything that is said. It may be too overwhelming for the entire board to meet with the ill pastor, so two representatives may be sufficient.
5. Health insurance and disability: Since our pastor was part of the Corinthian Plan, we started the conversation about disability as soon as possible. We discovered we didn’t want to wait for the elimination time to pass and then expect things to move quickly. We encouraged the application for Social Security disability.
Hint: If your pastor is healthy and doesn’t have a disability policy, find one now. When folks are so sick they can’t work, they also have trouble filling out forms and putting up with the hassles of phone trees. Make sure your pastor has somebody to help with the paperwork.
Linda’s reflection: It was embarrassing to admit that the forms were beyond me, but two friends that helped were invaluable.
6. An interim pastor: We decided prior to calling any candidates whether or not the interim was to be an applicant if the pastor position became available. We also determined the length, a three-month time frame. We modified the sample covenant from the Mennonite Church USA website for hiring and maintaining a pastor.
Hint: It is not fair to the pastor or the interim to say, “The length of time is until the pastor improves.” That puts too much pressure on the pastor to resume duties as soon as possible and doesn’t give the interim the freedom to do pastoring more than a few weeks at a time.
Linda’s reflection: I felt a lot of pressure internally. I had an overwhelming sense of letting the congregation down and initially thought I had to be back to work right away.
7. Paid salary: The pastor used up all the sick days and vacation days first. Anything that is beyond the required payments is a nice gift from the congregation but not a choice that all can make.
Hint: Some congregations may self-pastor and so have the budget to continue salary for the pastor. Others will pay an interim; still others don’t have the money.
The pastoral leadership team should regularly check with the pastor for accurate record keeping for vacation days and sick days according to the covenant guidelines that the congregation determined. Doing this after the pastor gets sick is not the time to start this process.
Linda’s reflection: Amen. This discussion with the leadership team should happen early on in the pastorate. If I worked a half-day, then went home early because I was sick, but then worked 12 hours the next day, did I use up any sick time? Do I keep track of hours per day, per week or per month? I regretted that lack of clarity for the church and myself.
8. Range of emotional responses: We realized that pastors, congregants and the leadership team had a range of emotions, depending on their relationship with the pastor and their coping skills.
Hint: Somewhere during the course of illness, pastors and their families often go through an anger phase at the illness and resulting situation. It may be directed toward God, family members, the leadership team, the congregation or the conference minister.
Linda’s reflection: Anger wasn’t as much an issue for me as depression. The old cliché that “men turn depression outward as anger, and women turn anger inward as depression” may have been true.
9. Living with uncertainty: It wasn’t apparent for a while if the pastor would return. We decided to do a self-analysis to review mission and goals and think about the next chapter in the life of the congregation. If the pastor returned, she would have a focus for where to lead us, or we would have direction for our next pastor.
Hint: The board will be wise to provide even, steady leadership with communication to the congregation.
Linda’s reflection: I will always be grateful to the interim pastor. What a gift he was to the congregation and me!
Leadership from the church board, interim pastor and conference minister can provide wisdom during this difficult time.
Beth Landis is a member of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship in Boise, Idaho. firstname.lastname@example.org