June 25, 2012

The Phone Always Rings

We were on vacation. I was a child, and our family had just arrived for our annual week at the beach. We stood in the rental house, surrounded by suitcases when the phone rang. 

My father answered. It was a man at our church back home, calling from 600 miles away:

“The ladies’ bathroom is out of toilet paper.”

He was joking. But phone calls like that are common enough that this moment quickly became an oft-repeated part of our family lore. It’s a certain symbol for ministry life; whether the person on the other end wants toilet paper or marriage counseling, the ringing phone can become a focus of exasperation at best or bitterness at worst.

Dinner’s on the table. The kids are washing their hands. You are kissing your husband for the first time in a long time. And the phone rings (Or buzzes. Or chimes. Or whatever your phone does.) What can you do?

You can sympathize.

Recently, we had a troubling incident with our children. Because one of them is newly adopted, my first thought was to call our adoption agency case worker for advice. The only problem: it was Sunday afternoon.

Almost immediately, my mind began to assemble the evidence in favor of disturbing her weekend:  She’d want to know. I have never done that before. This is really important. She’s the only person who can help us. I’m doing it for the kids. I’m not normally that person.

Suddenly, I realized that these are probably the very thoughts that precede the ringing of my phone.

I’m sure all of us have been in situations where we feel we must talk to someone. Right. Now. We are not being intentionally selfish or thoughtless. To our eyes, the problem (whatever it is) appears huge. We feel genuinely desperate.

When the phone is relentless, I try to remember my own moments of need. I can sympathize.

You can set boundaries.

But it is also very legitmate to occassionally ignore the phone. If the pattern of your life is one of helpfulness, love, and self-sacrifice, you need not feel guilty for finishing your dinner before checking the voicemail. My dad once said to my husband, “There is nothing in ministry that can’t wait 24 hours.” Almost always true.

I went through one stretch of grief and emotional frailty recently, and I didn’t answer the phone all day. I figured no one in trouble wanted to find a crying woman on the end of the “help line” anyway! Waiting for a good time makes life better for both ends of the call.

We also have a few standing rules in our house like not answering the phone during dinner. (I wrote an earlier post about how this boundary communicates love for our children.) I also feel the freedom to ignore the phone if I’m praying, reading a story to my kids, or kissing my husband.

Must run—the phone’s ringing.


  1. Wonderful post. I love how you continue to weave the spiritual and and practical. Your wisdom is a blessing.

  2. Working across several time zones makes not answering the phone a little bit more complicated, but caller ID is very helpful! My kids know the different tones on my phone for email, text messages, phone calls. I can see the relief on their faces when they hear the different tones, and I say I'll check it "later". I think "later" is one of their favorite words.

  3. We have the same policy here. The ringing phone doesn't take priority over our family time other important times of productivity. I guess that's why I like e-mail so much. I can be available when I'm available. But I'm sure it's much more pressing when you are a pastor's family. And after I said all that, feel free to contact me if you have an adoption question. :-)

  4. Having a church secretary is a good thing. Before we had one, people called our house for phone numbers of church people, addresses of people who had moved out of the area, service times and church keys. It is much easier now.

  5. Patsy, I am feeling some love from that comment! I am sometimes tempted to answer the church phone, "Directory assistance - how can I help you?"

  6. Seems like the stakes in this game are raised by the advent of i phone, droid etc where people EXPECT the pastor and family to be available 24/7.


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