The Discipline of Hospitality: Non-Emergencies
In our previous posts in this series (see Part 1 and Part 2), I outlined what hospitality is, establishing basic boundaries following biblical priorities, and what constitutes an emergency. This time we will look at when it is appropriate to say “no,” that is, when it is appropriate to enforce the boundaries you have set.
What is a non-emergency? Well, since we saw last time that an emergency is defined as “a sudden unforeseen crisis (usually involving danger) that requires immediate action;” or “a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action;” we can reasonably assume that a non-emergency is the opposite of this definition. This leads to several obvious non-emergencies:
- Expected crises or situations
- Situations that are not dangerous to a person’s physical/mental/emotional/spiritual well-being
- Situations that do not require immediate action
But once again, other people’s definition of a non-emergency does not necessarily match ours. In his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev, pastor Mark Driscoll recounts a situation in which one of his members called him at home at something like 3:00 AM, while Pastor Mark and his wife were asleep in bed, to confess that he had watched a porno and, um, carried out the…ah…logical implications of watching a porno. Distressed, the guy obviously believed this situation constituted an emergency, when in reality it could be nothing further from an emergency.
What this means is that there is no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a non-emergency. If the situation does not fall under one of the categories I listed in the previous post (see above for the link), you will have to make a judgment call. The reality is that we cannot turn away every single person who comes to us. We cannot truly tell a person “no.” But we can have some sort of control over when to respond to these non-emergencies.
One of the easiest things we can do is to make it clear that we are available on appointment. If you have regular “office” hours, make sure your people know that you are available to them for any kind of appointment during those hours. You can also make appointments for when you are “off-duty,” that is, when you are at home. This goes back to the first post on the subject, where I discussed planning your hospitality. This gives you the freedom to turn down requests or schedule them, if your people are good about contacting you beforehand rather than simply showing up unannounced. As a personal example, my people know that I work 3rd shift and thus am unavailable from 10 PM until 12 PM (at the earliest) the following day. This allows me to go to my second job and get a good morning’s sleep afterwards. It allows me to be flexible in scheduling appointments and I can “get up early” if necessary to meet an appointment. They know to request my time in the afternoons or early evenings. By scheduling a time beforehand, it also allows me to keep my commitment to spend time with my wife when we are at home together.
Flowing out of this is a principle I have seen quite frequently used by counselors and pastors: give people a number/email/etc. where you can be reached in case of “emergency.” I am available 24/7 to my people for this reason by way of my pager email. Our members know that all they have to do to get hold of me is send an email to my pager. I always check my pager when I get up in the afternoon and before I leave for work in the evening. In between I will regularly look to see if I have any messages. I can respond as soon as I see the message, telling them to “come on over,” “see me at church on Sunday/Wednesday/etc.,” “I’m on my way,” and so on.
What this principle described in the above two paragraphs does is it serves as a filter for non-emergency situations. If the situation is really that bad, the person will set an appointment or send you a message. This will bring you relief and allow you to focus on the true emergencies. More often than not, if a situation is not that important it will wind up forgotten and the person will not bring it up again. I think this principle is the only true hard and fast rule we can set in determining a non-emergency.
Can we, instead, set flexible rules about our hospitality when there is a non-emergency? I think we can. We must follow our priority list of God, spouse, children, family, and church. We begin to practice a “hospitality triage” when we set these situations against our priorities. Here are questions you can ask yourself when following the principle I have suggested above:
- Will this non-emergency cut into my time with the Lord? Will it distract me from spending time before His throne?
- Will this non-emergency take away time set aside for my spouse and my children if I answer it immediately? Will it take away you away from a date with your spouse? Will it prevent you from otherwise being present at your children’s activities?
- Will this non-emergency interrupt family time? By this I mean will it interrupt your family worship times, meal times, fellowship times with your extended family, etc.? Usually we can excuse ourselves from a meal time here and there or events with our extended family without harm. But your immediate family is a God-given responsibility that cannot be neglected, unless of course the situation is an emergency. Family worship, in my mind, should never be interrupted by a non-emergency. Perhaps a better way to state the question is to ask, “will this non-emergency become a barrier to my family time?”
- Will this non-emergency prevent me from fulfilling my responsibilities to my church? You should never allow a non-emergency to prevent you from doing something you are supposed to do as a minister of your church. Especially if you are paid staff. I have been paged just before I was about to preach requesting that I give someone a ride somewhere. Once I was asked to mediate a dispute when I was about to meet with my pastor for a regular “pastoral staff” meeting. Another time when I worked at FBC-Woodstock, GA, I was asked to take someone to the store and to the doctor when I was about to go and make required hospital visitation rounds. I have even been asked to spend an entire day with a person instead of going to my seminary classes. But again, non-emergencies do not get special treatment over the church that you minister to.
What do you say should a situation violate one or more of these priorities? The following statement should be sufficient: “I cannot meet with you right now. Would you like to schedule an appointment with me? If that won’t work for you, would you like me to contact you as soon as my other responsibilities are finished?” More often than not, you should find that the person involved will agree to an appointment or to meeting with you at a convenient moment. I have found that in these situations the person is appreciative that I am taking their problem seriously and am willing to spend time with them at a moment when I can give them my full attention.
So, as we have seen here today, we cannot truly say “no.” At best we can probably deflect unnecessary upsettings of our priorities to a more appropriate time and place.
Next time, we will discuss the type of situation that prompted this mini-series, “How to Handle The Pit-Stop.”