When Should Pastors Interrupt Vacations? Five Considerations

July 3, 2019

Because many schools are out most of the summer, pastors, like many families, choose to take their vacations this time of year. But many pastors are keenly aware of the risk of being called home for an emergency during their vacations. It is more common than most church members realize.

So, what should pastors do if the interruption takes place? Without giving specific details, let me share with you five considerations for pastors confronted with this reality.

  1. Interrupted vacations should be the exception. One pastor shared with us his vacation had been interrupted seven of the eight past attempts to get away. I bluntly told him he was deeming too many things to be an emergency. I also told him he was sacrificing his family to please other church members. That brings me to the second point.
  2. Your family remembers these interruptions. We have heard from grown pastors’ kids who still remember the pain of interrupted vacations. They still remember the angst every time the phone rang on vacation. Their perception is often that they really didn’t matter as much as other church members.
  3. Pastors need a back-up plan in place. Even in small churches, you need someone to visit the hospitals and respond to emergencies. Funerals can typically be covered by a pastor of another church. Indeed, some pastors have reciprocal agreements much like physicians who need back-up plans for vacations.
  4. Churches should consider reimbursements and re-schedules when pastors are called home from vacation. One pastor shared that it cost him over $1,000 in travel costs to get him and his family home for a church emergency when three members died in an auto accident. But the personnel committee of the church refused to reimburse him for his travel costs, and they did not allow him to reschedule those vacation days. That’s just wrong.
  5. Some members will simply not understand. “There is no easy way to tell a grieving widow you can’t come home from vacation,” one pastor shared with me. “I understand. She just lost her husband. But it was one of 17 deaths in our church that year. I had to find a way to take my family on vacation.”

There are some emergencies that require pastors to interrupt a vacation. One pastor was on vacation when a shooting occurred in his church. That is a clear and obvious reason to return home. But too many pastors interrupt their vacations for almost any need in the church.

It is a tough decision. Unfortunately, the pastors’ family is often the one asked to make the sacrifice.

How would you respond or set guidelines for these interruptions?

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57 Comments

  • Would any of the commenters pray about it? I didn’t see that mentioned anywhere. Forgive me if I missed it. I did see mentions of committees and boards and other groups.

  • One of the classes I happen to remember from pastoral studies in Bible College was when the professor said that there are times in pastoral ministry when you have to remind yourself that only Jesus can be available to everyone 24-7. As mentioned by others, prior to going out of town or on vacation I try to cover my bases and I’ve very slowly introduced (i.e. Who Moved My Pulpit) the reality that we have a pastoral care team. Quite honestly, they are much better gifted at this than I am. Our church has slowly gotten used to the idea that I personally cannot make every hospital visit, etc. Nevertheless, if I’m on vacation I will simply send them a text and/or make a phone call of fifteen minutes or less in which l let them know that I’m sorry for the event, pray with them over the phone and remind them that someone from our pastoral care team will be ministering to them. I then stick to my vacation plans. I’ve found that for the most part people tend to understand and that they greatly appreciate this simple act that only takes a few minutes.

  • I ALWAYS have a pastor on call when I am out of town. Likewise, when he is out of town I cover him. When I am on vacation, I do not answer calls or emails. That is work. Therefore, I turn my phone off. Remember, if God can take time to rest and the universe didn’t explode you can take a week and not use your phone.

    If there is a crisis/emergency when I’m gone- the church knows to call the secretary and the secretary calls the pastor on call. My secretary will then phone my wife to let me know what is going on. It’s a system that has worked VERY WELL for us.

  • Dr. Eno Mondesir, Pastor Haitian Baptist Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ph.: 617-513-9360 says on

    Great comments! Thank you, Pastor Rainer, for engaging us on this issue of “interrupting Pastor’s vacation.” I’d like to say that, 1-Jesus, after being informed of His friend’s Lazarus’ death, He did take a while before reaching the family; but I beg to add that in the Ministry, “…one size does NOT always fit all…” 2- Whether or NOT a Pastor is a Shepherd, that seems to be semantic, in my humble opinion. As seen in the book of Revelation, Apostle John was summoned to address seven (7) Churches in Asia Minor, but with specific address to the Angel (Pastor) of each Church.
    Hence, like everyone else, Pastors need vacation time, nevertheless, if I may reinforce; three (3) factors may play a significant role to interrupt or not interrupt: 1)-Relationship: what is the current/ongoing relationship between the Pastor & this family in need…; 2)-Timing: how long has the Pastor been in this fellowship? A shorter, the more demanding…; 3)-“Solo Pastors”: A solo Pastor may be more limited in allocating needed resources, (timing & otherwise), as he/she would want to, in planning & processing vacation without interruption. Blessings,

  • Luminitza Nichols says on

    I know this may not be possible for everyone, but we always go overseas on vacations, which makes it close to impossible to return on a whim. We make arrangements with the visitation pastor to cover all emergencies. It works well for us.

  • Robin Owen says on

    In our polity (ELCA Lutheran), it is common for pastors to cover for one another for vacations. In this era of cell phones, I still get phone calls when a member dies, but I am able to provide some prayer support from a distance and then refer the family to the clergy person on call. Once I was gone for 18 days and there were 3 deaths in my congregation (annual average was 6). I did drive back a few hours early for the third funeral, but if I hadn’t been able to do that, I knew my people were well cared for in my absence. The pastor on call for that vacation teased for the next 10 years that he would not volunteer to cover my vacations, but of course he did, and I covered funerals for him (though not as many in such a short time!).

    The only time I have changed my travel plans because of a death was for a continuing ed week. There was a death two days before I was supposed to leave. The family wanted me to officiate the funeral and paid for the change of plane ticket, so I missed the first day of the conference but it wasn’t more expensive for me. I was fine with this because it wasn’t family vacation – it was a work week, and I was making the sort of adjustment to my work schedule that I would have if the funeral happened during a week I was in town.

    I can envision coming home from vacation for a major event (tornado, multiple unexpected deaths, school shooting, or the like). But for the typical funeral of an elderly member, I trust my colleagues as they trust me. And the focus of the funeral is the promise of the resurrection, not the pastor. I can provide pastoral care in the weeks and months after the funeral.

  • Scott Moore says on

    I had a call about a death of a member as my family and I were pulling into Anaheim CA for my sons first time to go to Disney. I was really conflicted but made the decision to ask a retired minister I knew to conduct the funeral. I called the family to express my sympathy and to offer prayer. I made sure to let them know I wish I could be with them but made arrangements for someone else to care for them in my absence. They were so grateful for my concern and help they never one time mentioned the fact that I was not there to actually do the funeral. They were just thankful that I cared enough to contact them and give them another option.

    I still believe that most people will be grateful to us for caring even if we cannot always be with them. I know there are some that have not had my experience but it is so important to make sure that the Pastor’s family does not take a back seat to ministry. It may sound selfish but a pastor cannot do their job if their own family and personal health is a mess.

  • Jason Wise says on

    Distance has to be a consideration. A Pastor friend of mine vacations an hour away. I’ve known him to come back, preach a funeral and rejoin his family.
    My in-laws are 16 hours away and we typically drive… that’s a much different trip!

  • I had a call once from a church member on Christmas day whose relative was having a heart transplant that night.

    They wanted me to come there from where we are to a major US city.

    I had to get an emergency flight. It cost $600 for the round trip ticket (with a pastoral/emergency discount) and $20 for a cab from the airport to the hospital when I got there. Even with the extended family there, they did not have the class to even pick me up at the airport.

    They did buy my lunch at a cafeteria on the way back to the airport the next day, and
    they did take me back to the airport.

    But, they never offered me a dime to cover the expenses.

    I was working on my doctorate at the time, and we really needed the money. The $620 expenses on Christmas day left a big hole in our budget.

    The family was very well to do; they owned several businesses and drove expensive automobiles. It would have been easy for them to provide us the money.

    We were driving one 11 year- old car and another 15 year- old car. They were entirely thoughtless, and I guess they felt like we owed them for the privilege of being in their bii-vo church.

    Our whole Christmas was disrupted.

    The heart transplant recipient died in a few days.

    They did not pay me anything extra for the funeral.

    Just after I finished my doctorate, they “let us go” from the church. They did not give us one dime of severance pay.

    They all considered themselves in the higher echelon of being Christians. They seemed to think and acted like they were so much better than all the other church members.

  • In my previous community, my colleagues and I covered for one another for vacations. Church folks were to call the chair of the Elders or the covering pastor. They always did and rarely bothered me during my vacation. Here I don’t have quite the same relationship yet with my colleagues, but this church has a very well-trained and active group of Elders, so they’re quite able to cover for me.

  • In my years of ministry I have been fortunate to have congregations that seem to understand that vacation is the pastor’s time away. I have always been clear to have an on-call pastor available and publicize this information (including making sure the church office and council members have this information should anyone contact them).

    In the cases where I have been contacted it is more of a courtesy “Pastor, just wanted to let you know …” and honestly, that is appreciated so that I don’t come back and get surprised.

    As others have noted, I’m also good about not answering my phone or checking email except maybe once a day while on vacation and let people know that before I leave so they don’t expect immediate responses and if they need an immediate response they have the contact for the on-call pastor.

  • Lawrence Gember says on

    For the solo pastor of a smaller church, the family of one who dies will usually want the pastor to perform funeral since it is more personal than having an unknown pastor. However, the decision can be left to the family as to whether they are willing to delay funeral until pastor returns from his full vacation. I’ve seen many a funeral delayed so that family members around the country can make arrangements to travel, so why not for the pastor’s vacation? Again, it puts the decision on the family (instead of the pastor) to wait or accept a substitute pastor that has been arranged beforehand.