Our question this week comes from a Rev whose health crisis brings her face-to-face with three things that we pastors would rather avoid in our congregations: taking time off to care for our health, revealing intimate details about our personal lives, and opening ourselves up to well-meaning comments and advice from parishioners.
Today, our Matriarchs offer advice on finding helpful boundaries when a Rev faces a health crisis:
I had a minor surgical procedure and a week away from the congregation earlier this year. It wasn’t successful, and now I am facing a much more significant surgery, which will include a hysterectomy. The surgeon suggests I will need four weeks off work. What should I tell my congregation? I don’t want to raise their anxiety and deal with a lot of speculation but I also feel uneasy about discussing my uterus in the congregation (I am childless and find comments and conversation about my fertility can get quite intrusive). I work in a clergy team with two men, one of whom I’m married to, and they will take my lead on how we describe this situation to the church community.
Rev. Preparing for Surgery
Let’s hear from our Matriarchs:
I am also a private person, but have found that when it comes to things like this, they go much better if I name exactly what it is that is going on – no more and no less. I have found it is helpful to equip the saints with facts, so that they can respond to those who like to conjecture and gossip. You will also be a blessing to others who have had or will have similar surgeries. There is no shame in having a uterus, or in needing for it to come out. Blessings and prayers for a successful surgery and recovery.
I hope that your surgery goes well and that your recovery is easy. As to what to tell the congregation, I would say that it was “major abdominal surgery.” What this tells them is that you won’t be lifting, carrying or bending in the usual way for at least a month. Some will assume that you are having gall bladder surgery. Others will guess that it is a hysterectomy or something similar. In any case, your privacy is intact but they will still understand the type of recovery that you will be making. Give this phrase to your colleagues and let them know that they don’t need to share any other details. I have used it more than once and it’s worked.
Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath aka as RevHRod
Dear Rev. Preparing for Surgery,
So sorry you have to go through this.
While I haven’t experienced anything quite like this with my congregations, there have been a couple of occasions when I was temporarily in a position to receive care rather than give care in my church. Privacy was not much of an issue, so I recognize that there are differences between your circumstance and mine.
I think you should give the congregation as much information as you can without violating your/your family’s sense of privacy. Better to let them know what is going on than have it be so mysterious people will worry and make up stuff in the void of information. You can always answer inquiries beyond the information you provide with a kind but firm response like “I appreciate your care, but would prefer to keep that private. I hope you understand.”
Unsolicited advice: When I was down with a miscarriage and later with late pregnancy bed rest, I would say that it was a blessing to be on the receiving end of the loving care of my congregation temporarily. Inasmuch as you are able to do so, I would encourage you to welcome help like food, bringing books or DVDs to loan, laundry, gardening, or whatever you would feel good about receiving. Receiving care temporarily deepened my bond with the congregation, and it was not difficult to restore the usual order and boundaries after the situation resolved, in my experience.
Best wishes for your healing.
Peace, Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational United Church of Christ, Bainbridge Island, WA
P.S. It might be a good thing to hear the word “uterus” uttered in your sanctuary. Many church members have them.
Thank you, Matriarchs!
And now you, dear Reader: How have you shared a health crisis with your congregation? What worked well? What would you have done differently? Share your experience and suggestions in the comments below.
Are you facing a hard situation in ministry? The Matriarchs are here to help. Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and get some support.
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor serving in Nashville TN. She is a contributor to the RevGals book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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