Traditionally most ministers take off the week after Easter – and understandably so after the busy build-up to Easter Sunday. But this year I drew the short-straw, with the result that I had to hold the fort, while my three other ministerial colleagues went on holiday. So in this traditional holiday period I found myself working – and as a result sending e-mails.
So, for instance, I wanted to consult two of our regional ministers – but both of them sent me an ‘out of office reply to my email. This did not surprise me, for they leave their ‘out of office’ reply permanently on. I suppose that they would argue that this is a form of acknowledgement – ‘message received’ – but as a constant reply, I find this irritating.
I also received other out of office replies. One was from a minister based in Didcot, our Baptist Union resource centre – I am fairly certain that at the time he was on holiday, and therefore was content to receive his ‘out of office’ answer. But to my surprise, I also received an ‘out-of-office’ reply from one of my ministerial colleagues. I knew, of course, he was on holiday, but the message grated on me. Why? Because whereas my friend in Didcot is essentially office-based, I am not convinced that ministers should regard themselves as office-based. For ministers are not just bureaucrats – they need to be out and about in people’s homes as also involved in the wider community. Furthermore, if the truth be told, I am never 100% happy with calling the room where I work at church an ‘office’. As the books lining three sides of the room imply, it is also a ‘study’. Ministers based in a local church do not just engage with emails and paper, but with books and with people. I would much rather prefer letting people know I was not available.
But to be fair to my colleague, he did at least ensure that people emailing him would be given a reason for their emails not receiving a reply. Furthermore, along with the ‘out of office’ reply he did give another email address and telephone number of somebody who could deal with any enquiries. However, what concerned me, was that the email address and telephone number were for the general church office. But supposing there had been an out-of-hours pastoral emergency? On reflection, I wonder whether in his absence he should have given my email address – and my phone numbers, both my church number and my home phone number.
For in principle, I believe that ministers should be easily accessible – although not always instantly accessible. This is why when I am working from church, I tend to keep the door of my room open – the only time when I consistently keep the door shut is when I am concentrating on writing a sermon , although even then my colleagues know that they have a right to interrupt me if needs be. Precisely because ministers are not office workers, I believe that ministers need to be accessible at home. True, I would prefer not to have to deal with matters relating to church administration when I am at home, but if there is a pastoral need, then I want people to be free to let me know even if I am at home. Indeed, if it is a pastoral emergency, then I want people to be free to phone me on my free day – so if someone has died, I can go and immediately be with the bereaved family.
Yet, there is a difference between being easily accessible and instantly accessible. As a result, I do not make public the number of my mobile phone – by and large only my family know the number. There are times when I want – and need – space. But, because my mobile phone is able to receive all my emails, I still remain accessible, albeit on my terms rather on the terms of others. For although emails need to receive a prompt reply, they do not need to receive an instant reply. Indeed, delaying a day or so in replying can mean that there has been time for thought and reflection.
In summary, ministers need to be available to their people – but not always instantly so!