5 Pastoral Emergencies That Aren’t Emergencies

Pastoral emergencies

If you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you know the challenge of trying to move the mission forward and handle the pastoral needs of a congregation at the same time.

One of the most perplexing problems pastors and church leaders face is how to handle ‘pastoral emergencies’—the crises that come up in the lives of people that they look to you to help solve.

The challenge in many churches is that more people = more crises.

This dynamic stresses many pastors out, and it’s hard to know what to do. You’re working on your sermon or some long-term planning and your phone buzzes, letting you know that someone just got admitted to hospital or that a couple needs to see you NOW for marriage counseling.

What do you do?

Most leaders respond immediately to the need (because we’re pastors, after all). And that leaves the sermon prep or project to the next day.

Which also gets interrupted by a new crisis. Which moves your work to the evening, or the weekend, or into family time. And soon, you only write your sermons on Saturday night.

The Pastoral Care Trilemma

And this is what breaks many church leaders.

Eventually, you just can’t keep up. And, predictably, three things happen:

  1. You get completely overwhelmed, and maybe even burnout.
  2. The congregation gets upset with you because you’re not as responsive as you used to be when the church was smaller.
  3. The church stops growing, because few human beings can sustain that level of pastoral care beyond 200 attenders, and many burn out trying (see point 1).

What seemed manageable when your church was just starting or was smaller,  feels completely out of control as your church pushes 150, 200 or 300 in weekend attendance.

Responding to every emergency just doesn’t scale.

The good news is that pastoral care is something that can be scaled to help your church reach hundreds, and even thousands, of new families.

But what do you do in the meantime with the seemingly endless emergencies?

One step you can take is to decide whether something is actually an emergency.

Just because it’s an emergency to them doesn’t mean it has to be an emergency for you.

While there are some pastoral emergencies that are true emergencies, here are 5 pastoral emergencies that may not be.

1. Marriage Breakdown

We’ve all received calls where someone needs to see you right now because their marriage is in trouble.

The pain is real, and I’m sure they feel like it’s a five-alarm fire.

But the reality is that their marriage didn’t go bad overnight. In fact, it’s likely been bad for months, or maybe years.

You can easily set an appointment to meet with the couple at a time that works for you.

Instead of saying “Yes, I’ll be right there in the next hour,” why not say “I’m so sorry to hear about this. I’d love to meet with you. Can we get together here in my office on [fill in time that works for you]?”

You know what will happen? Most reasonable people will say yes. That’s what will happen.

If they push back, just tell them you can’t meet right then but would be glad to meet them [fill in next available time].

Again, most people will be delighted you’ve made time for them.

If there’s abuse or violence, that is an emergency. But there are shelters, professional counselors, and law enforcement officials who are well equipped to deal with that in the moment. You can come alongside shortly after or at the earliest opportunity.

And if you have a great group structure and counseling referral network, you might soon discover you’re not needed nearly as much as you used to be.

2. Money Problems

Like marriage, money problems rarely happen quickly. They’re usually a long time coming.

People present money issues like emergencies because they feel like emergencies to them. The credit cards have been maxed for a few months, but suddenly they can’t make rent.

A few thoughts.

First, a short-term cash infusion is not going to solve a long-term money issue. Most churches have money available for a financial crisis.

But even if you had, say, $5000 to give someone to help them clear their debt, your short-term help rarely solves their long-term pattern of mismanagement.

I’ve come to realize (sadly) that sometimes giving to someone who doesn’t manage money well just makes more money disappear faster.

These days, we point people to long-term financial management seminars to help them get the fundamentals of their finances right (giving, saving, living on the rest).

We’ve helped almost 1000 people with restructuring their personal finances to live with margin and live on mission. An ounce of prevention or change is worth a pound of cure.

3. Interpersonal Conflict

Get two people in a room, and it’s only a matter of time until they disagree.

Many pastors spend a lot of their time resolving conflict between people in the church. While this beats avoiding conflict, it’s hardly a scalable system.

First, as adults, we should be at least half decent at resolving our own conflict. Train your church that way.

The number one question I’ve learned to ask when people ask me to step in to resolve conflict with someone else is “Have you talked to X about this?” (That’s Matthew 18, by the way.)

The number one response is “No, I haven’t.”

Well, that solves the problem most of the time.

And even if it’s gone beyond that and you need to get involved, just because it’s presented in the moment doesn’t mean you need to respond in the moment.

4. Staff Issues

It’s so important to take staff issues seriously. Healthy teams produce healthy churches.

But again, many leaders as they add staff end up fighting fires every day.

First, if the issue is interpersonal, follow the practices in Step 3. That will resolve much of it.

But second, in your weekly one on ones with your team, start by asking how your staff are doing before you ask them what they’re doing.

You’ll be amazed by what you discover, and second, you will diffuse most problems before they erupt into something bigger.

5. Frequent Flyer Issues

Let’s be honest (we do that well around here, don’t we)? Some people are always going to be in crisis.

I call them frequent flyers.

Frequent flyers always have a problem, and they always want your time. It’s how they live.

Last week it was a problem at work, today it’s a problem with their kids, and next week it will be a new rare medical condition they think they have that no one can quite diagnose or a new thing that’s wrong at the church.

Frequent flyers will ask for your time again and again. You’re foolish to give it to them.

Some people don’t want to get better. They just want your time. Don’t give in.

Don’t give in. You’re not helping them. And if you keep giving them time again and again, you’re not helping, you’re enabling.

Any False Emergencies You See?

What’s your experience with this?

Do you deal with any false emergencies? How have you handled them?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

5 Pastoral Emergencies That Aren’t Emergencies


  1. M.D. on November 15, 2019 at 2:02 pm

    While I understand the need to not abuse pastor’s time (and for pastors to set boundaries to avoid burnout) post makes it sound like no crisis is ever an emergency. Encouraging pastors to ignore and neglect situations that could be true emergencies just to avoid burnout is a poor approach to ministering to the “least of these.” This post shows a lack of knowledge for being able to discern emergencies in marital situations, and a lack of compassion in the narrowly defined “emergency” acknowledged (just send them to the world – the world is standing by ready and waiting to meet the need!)

  2. Rev. Jack Koehn on February 26, 2019 at 1:33 am

    I would add when you have that one church leader who demands you immediately respond to every concern he has as if everything is an emergency.

  3. Rev Hector Torres on February 25, 2019 at 9:49 am

    How about a person that dies and you are out of town? The family expected me to cancel everything and fly in to be in the funeral services. It was almost impossible for me to drop my family (wife and a 6 and 4 y/o ) so I called a fellow Pastor and our local church leaders to attend the situation. They handled it well.
    The family is still offended at me a year later.
    How can I predict when people are going to die to plan my family vacations around it? If someone has the formula…
    Good article!!

  4. ELMER BATTUNG on February 21, 2019 at 2:32 am

    Carey, thank you for this. May God continue to bless you and give you wisdom.

  5. M. Kolade on February 20, 2019 at 2:56 pm

    Awesome counsel! Many thanks sir.
    …especially as these non-emergent-emergencies tend to attack the time set apart as time alone with God- in prayer and the Word!
    Real time stealers!

    Thanks again sir

  6. Jaimie on February 20, 2019 at 10:55 am

    I had to deal with 4 emergencies just last week: one young woman who needed to be immediately admitted to a psychiatric hospital; so I would add “mental health emergencies.” This is probably the 3rd person who has needed help like this in the last year.

    Second, someone who was immediately homeless. This has also happened a few times in the past year.

    Third, dealing with death. We have a lot of older people in our congregation, and every month somebody passes away, and it creates a few emergencies to deal with: emotional, financial, and sometimes housing.

    Another one is medical emergencies; people who need a pastor to visit someone in the hospital because they are going through an emergency health problem.

    We don’t have an official system in place for who handles what, but I’m thankful that among the 6 pastors of us on staff we are able to distribute these needs out and see who can respond to what need. I have learned to turn off my phone at certain times, and if someone can’t get a hold of me, they will reach out to another pastor who will be available. We also have a “pastor on call” system where we rotate every 6 weeks.

    • Connie Kreese on April 4, 2021 at 5:44 pm

      Yeah I am physically sick with chf plus so much at once. The guy above would call me a frequent flyer but I have lived w no support system my whole life etc but now I will be in need very often I don’t even want to call for prayer for fear they think I just want money etc

  7. PJ Murray on February 20, 2019 at 10:41 am


    Great information!

    About two decades ago when I was just starting out Ministry administered in a poor inner-city area. Most of the people I minister to were on some form of public assistance somewhere drug addicts and there were a lot of personal needs going on the families.

    I quickly learned that I needed some strategies to help me survive this never-ending flood of phone calls for everything free rides to problems with the police to problems with child protective services and I learn to strategies that helped a great deal.

    First I would tell them that I would call back in an hour. It’s amazing how many crisis we’re totally negated by time an hour went by. All they needed was for me not to say “I’ll be right over and take care of it”.

    The second thing I did was I wrote time with my family into my calendar. I scheduled everything. It amazes me how if I say to someone I have an appointment right now and I can’t respond to you at the moment that is perfectly acceptable but if I say look I’m spending a few minutes with my children at the moment that is totally unacceptable to them. Scheduling family time and speaking about it as an appointment help people to give you permission to do those things that give you health and vitality.


  8. Peter Damaska on February 20, 2019 at 9:26 am

    Carey – thanks for helping us breathe-in/breathe-out when the crisis call comes. I’d love to know more about the Financial Learning Experience that Connexus offers. Is that info shareable? Regardless, thanks.

  9. Rev. Allison on July 20, 2018 at 9:35 am

    I had a call from a city official who indicated a man had walked into their offices and asked for a specific denominational pastor and I was the closest to that denomination (thus the phone call) and the man’s issue was that his wife had recently died and he was having a tough time with his grief and could I meet with him. This was on my day off and I was an hour away. I suggested that he attend our grief group on Tuesdays or that he could phone me (I gave the city official permission to share my number) and I would be happy to consult over the phone. He never called or appeared at the grief group. It is hard but necessary to do our best to maintain boundaries with our time off.

    • Randall C Wiggins on November 23, 2021 at 10:16 pm

      While I believe that there is wisdom in what has been presented, obviously some will take offense and it may take some time to implement these rules. Nevertheless I believe the rules are sound.

  10. Sharla on July 19, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Most memorable non-emergency emergency I ever had… a woman in our community who had bipolar disorder called me at 1:30 in the morning. She was listening to a recorded sermon and wanted to talk to me about it. As soon as the adrenaline rush of a phone call at 1:30 in the morning wore off, I said, uh…it’s 1:30 in the morning. She said, I know what time it is, and then went right on talking. I told her to call me after 9 the next morning and I’d be happy to talk to her. She never did. I got caller ID the next morning, too.

    Then there was the one where a woman was in the hospital four hours away. Her daughter called me at 2:30 a.m. to tell me her mother was dying. She called again at 5:30 to tell me her mom had died. In neither of those cases was there a single thing I could do other than pray for them. Even if I had jumped up and driven four hours, which I would not have done, I wouldn’t have made it before she was gone.

  11. Don Holt on July 19, 2018 at 6:49 am

    Carey: Spot On even/especially for laypersons such as myself. I’m currently trying to live by the discipline of first, praying for the situation and involved persons as they are described to me, then asking God, “What’s my role in this?”, then, “If I have a role, what is the next step I should take?”

  12. Pablo on July 19, 2018 at 5:45 am

    Gracias! Very real, very useful

  13. Phil Nelson on July 18, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    I am blown away on how spot on are these principles. Thanks so much Carey for addressing Real Issues in a very Real way!

  14. Sunganani on July 18, 2018 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you for the strategies of dealing with the tyranny of “the seemingly urgent”

  15. lyall phillips, Port Vincent, South Australia 5581 on July 18, 2018 at 6:11 pm

    My wife had a stroke in Dec 2014. Apart from one elderly person and after three years an elder; no one from our church has bothered to visit her. Not even the pastor and it is now four years. I find it incomprehensible behaviour. Am I expecting too much? – Lyall Phillips, Australia

    • Sunganani on July 18, 2018 at 9:47 pm

      No, you are not expecting too much. A stroke is by no means an easy thing to happen to anyone. Here is what I have experienced as a pastor in issues like these: the pastoral staff just don’t know about it (not just sicknesses). If you did tell them and there was not visit then there are issues there but if they don’t then you need to get word out about pastoral visit…specific, word about the need for a pastoral visit. See James 5:14

    • B on February 21, 2019 at 10:49 am

      Mr. Phillips,

      I’m sorry to hear about your wife, and feeling ignored by the church must be gut-wrenching. My suggestion is this: if your pastoral staff and church members are not meeting your expectations, discuss it with them. Call the church office and ask if you might arrange for a pastoral care visit at regular intervals to visit with and pray for you and your wife. You may not feel that you should have to ask, but after this long, it’s clear that you do. Don’t be too proud to ask for the spiritual support you need, and I hope that you can forgive those who you feel have wronged you.


  16. Magdalene Olawoyin on May 17, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    Not a pastor but from my own experience as a Christian who served faithfully in my church l can testify to the information as 100percent true and relevant thank you am blessed reading

  17. Rev. Karen Doucette on January 8, 2018 at 7:55 am

    Sadly, there is a mentality among older established congregations that the pastor is an employee of the church. The problem with that is the pastor now has dozens (or more) bosses. And every one of them wants their pastor to do his or her bidding, the way they want it done. If a parishoner’s grandmother has a cold, (“ooo it’s not good”) the pastor is expected to drop everything and go visit her. If something is forgotten during the worship service, like a thank you card is not read, the pastor is in big trouble. If the pastor has an opinion during a business meeting, that’s a no no. (How dare you tell us what to do). Those attitudes have to go in order to break the 200 mark while not breaking the pastor. Unfortunately, in many situations, we have to wait for many parishoners to go home to heaven first.

  18. Jim on September 25, 2017 at 11:41 pm

    Very good post. I pastored for nearly five years and found that the biggest obstacle pastors face is that they are trying to do all the things you mentioned by themselves. I really don’t think the New Testament church governance is supposed to be set-up this way. I believe every church should have men of equal responsibility and to do so would benefit the church tremendously. Imagine how healthy our churches would be if multiple men carried the burden of visiting the sick, counseling the young married couples, conducting marriages, etc. I realize our churches are established like the Old Testament Levitical priesthood with one man ultimately in charge but it shouldn’t be this way in the New Testament church. This is not a popular concept but is one that needs to be considered. I pray that more and more ministers will realize this and set their churches up this way, I think it would cure a lot of burnout in our leadership. Study the New Testament and you will not find one man in charge, in fact, it says of the church that Christ is the Head and the rest makes up the body. God Bless.

    Jim Munoz

    • Rev Joy Harris on February 26, 2019 at 1:36 am

      And women Jim 😁

  19. Peter Schmidt on September 25, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Great post (as always). I would only add that sometimes our sinful human nature has a tendency to enjoy being the greatest in the sense of being the one who is so indispensable that only we can solve the problems. Immediate response to non-immediate emergencies fuels our ego and allows us to find our identity in ourselves rather than Christ. I like asking myself the simple question: For whose benefit am I acting the way I am? Fortunately, I am blessed with an excellent woman of God for a spouse who helps me keep things in the proper perspective.

    • Dwayne on December 21, 2017 at 9:46 am

      Pete, an honest reply. You have my respect.

  20. PHILIP WONG on September 24, 2017 at 5:41 am

    I have been a Family Physician for almost 40 years and a full-time teacher of Family Doctors for about 30 years. I almost became a pastor before I decided to be a doctor but I was told by my pastors that I’d better be a doctor and I know they were right. However I feel like almost a pastor as a Family Doctor and I face emergencies and false-emergencies all the time. Family, interpersonal, and staff issues are all too common in family practices and we all see a few frequent flyers among our patients. We do need to “triage” them and decide which are true emergencies so we can mange them appropriately, like setting appointments for some, sending some to Emergency Rooms, and referring others to counselors or other specialists, and so our insanity and our personal/family lives are protected. We cannot take care of others if we cannot take care of ourselves. Jesus would leave the crowds and go up the mountains to have His quiet times.

    • Volker Rininsland on July 22, 2018 at 6:39 pm

      Good one Philip! I am a FP in a small town and spent a lot of 5 pm to 6 pm time slots in the office counselling the “frequent fliers”. It affected my marriage and my ability to raise my children and put me in a chronic burnout patter from which I still struggle to recover ( this is my 36th year in practice). Funny thing I see the people who I invested so much time in and they are still dysfunctional. Most of them have moved on.
      Never the less it is difficult to balance self preservation and ministry.

  21. Luke on September 23, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    You really have some great questions here and I hope Carey addresses them too. For me, there are a number of thoughts I have.

    1. There is no question, a church should take care of the sheep. However, The question I like to answer is, what’s best? For example, is it best for a single person (the pastor) serving 200 people, managing the church, leading the staff, writing sermons, planning worship and ministry, and the list goes on? Churches need a lot of these services and if a single person or on a team which usually ends up being 2 or 3 (for a church with 200 specifically) really can’t do all of that in a typical week. It takes the whole church, not just the pastor(s). I like small groups to help with this.

    2. Carey never said pastor’s need to ignore all of these. He simply said they’re not all emergencies.

    3. Keep in mind too, the emergencies you list (death) are not on Carey’s list and he does say there are some life events that are true emergencies.

    4. I think too, the Scriptures tell leaders to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Would you say your list of things you’d like pastor’s to do is “work of the ministry”? If so then you’re actually putting the work of the people solely on the shoulders of the pastors. For me, I prefer the idea of pastors and other leaders equipping the saints to do that ministry work.

    5. Finally, the reason a conversation about breaking 200 is necessary, is because there are tons of churches that swamp their leaders with a whole bunch of things that are quite a bit outside of the realm of what leaders are actually called to do. The reality is, when leaders shed tasks that are less necessary, or avoid non emergencies as the article suggests, equips the saints to do the work of the ministry and make disciples, the church has a tendency to grow if God is willing.

  22. Jon Perrin on September 23, 2017 at 12:00 am

    Great article, Carey! My pastor taught me not to pay $50 for a $5 problem. I had to teach our staff the importance of creating healthy boundaries around their time, emotional attention and resources. Every church has emotional vampires that will suck you dry, if you’ll let them. The trick is determining if someone is truly hurting or not. You can’t make an unhappy person happy, but God calls us to help the truly hurting.

    • Mary Sweet on February 20, 2019 at 9:11 am

      Great term – ’emotional vampires!’

  23. Vaughn Fahrenbruck on September 22, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    This is always a great reminder for pastors that not all “emergencies” are emergencies. We need to learn how to discern and properly manage our time. In my own experience, it’s been very helpful to utilize other people to help with urgent requests and meeting the needs. Not only does it help with my time, but it allows me to empower other leaders in the church. Great stuff Carey!

  24. Debra on September 22, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Why does everyone want to ‘break 200’ when for centuries that was how a Pastor could effectively shepherd the flock God had given him. Having been in both types, understanding the pros and cons, if you were a chicken would you want to be free range or in a corporately managed conglomerate? Most of us, as people, want to be treated humanely, meaning being known, cared for, and not just given a plastic smile, and a hand shake on the day we sign on. That doesn’t cut it when your husband dies, or you’ve just lost a baby. Sure, growing a megaplex is trendy, but how well does it make authentic disciples? Where is the pathos you read in Paul (I cared for YOU like a nurse her child), of Peter (I have endeavored to teach YOU the whole counsel of God that after my decease you may always have these things in remembrance? I’m asking because I truly want to know the answer to this question. It troubles me.

    • Mags Lewis on September 22, 2017 at 2:14 pm

      Dear Debra
      In an ideal world there would be one pastor for every two hundred sheep but sadly most pastoral boards wond supply that quota so the owners lay with the committees and decision makers often because of finances one pastor has to be spread very thinly or like me and my husband they got two for the price of one . So where you’re basis is scriptural it’s sadly not feasible nowadays . Most pastors are also judged on how they are growing the church and like football managers they can be replaced every season if they do t come up to scratch ( sorry I’m English and we play football here )
      Hope that helps to answer some of your question xx

      • Volker Rininsland on July 22, 2018 at 6:43 pm

        I love how respectful, helpful and Christian the dialogue here is. So different than on a lot of other sites. You guys ALL rock.
        God Bless

    • Brandon Stiffler on September 22, 2017 at 2:22 pm

      Deborah, those are all true concerns, and healthy ones of that, let me try and give you a perspective on some of them. Paul, as you mention, was writing to churches as a whole, which were actually led by other leaders, whom Paul was leaving. Paul did not personally invested and everyone in those churches because it would be impossible for him to do that, just as it is impossible for a lead pastor to do today. Carey is not advocating forsaking care of people, he’s advocating for doing it in a healthy way and not being swayed by everyone’s demands, if you have a good structure in place there are people there to care for them even if they are not the lead pastor.
      I also filled is a common misconception that all churches have been small throughout the ages, Timothy pastor at the church in Ephesus which Matt at the amphitheater there, And probably many thousand. The disciples them selves picked people like Stephen to wait tables into manage giving out food and taking care of widows because they could not do it themselves in Jerusalembecause the first day the church grew by 3000 people want to continue to grow. For these reasons I feel what Carey is saying is actually very biblical. I hope this sheds a little light on what was being said and what has been said, and gives you some of the answers you were seeking, God Bless!

      • B on February 21, 2019 at 10:57 am

        Paul, first pastor of “One Church, Multiple Campuses” LOL!

        Instead of simulcasting, he wrote his sermons and had them delivered. 😉

        Insightful reply, Brandon

    • Laura Mullis on December 21, 2017 at 9:23 am

      Debra, I have the same question. Why isn’t there more talk about “going deeper” instead of so wide in leadership. When deeper into God’s abiding is reached as John 15 teaches all believers, isn’t it then that people make true disciples and God is glorified? When we stay on outreach incessantly, we see numbers but alot of “revolving door” ones and shallowness can set in & burnout. Is it true that we fear that the Lord won’t provide adequately for our church and missions if we do this?

      • Kathy Nelson on July 18, 2018 at 9:09 am


        The principles Carey lays out actually enable the church to go deeper while also growing wider. I can attest that there is not much energy left to spent adequate time taking people deeper in discipleship when everything is seen as an emergency by congregants when in reality those issues can be taken care of by their own seeking of God and his transforming work, and/or by lay leaders who are gifted in walking with people through different issues. Not every problem requires the attention of the lead pastor. When that attention is demanded it is almost always detrimental to the pastor and the church body. There are times when the pastor needs to be there. There are more times when the body can step in and be disciples who make disciples by coming alongside in times of trouble. This deepens the faith of the one helping and the one being helped. Discipleship and outreach go hand in hand. Jesus said, “Go” that is outreach. He also said “and make disciples” that can’t happen if you did not go out and make a disciple of someone who was not a disciple before you met them.

        Just my thoughts

  25. Mags Lewis on September 22, 2017 at 1:41 am

    I’ve worked on staff with my husband who has been lead pastor in several churches and I’ve ran pastoral team and your description and advice is so valuable I would recommend hit course to anyone in pastoral ministry or thinking about it because until you’ve been in itvyiu havnt got a clue what goes on ! The pressures have burnt us both out twice and the expectation that others put on you to meet the needs of all those so called merge cues and frequent flyers is immense. Thankyou for taking the time and effort to do this it’s so important if pastors , wives and leaders are going to survive !

  26. Johnny on September 21, 2017 at 9:58 am

    I am the worship pastor. I am going to recommend your course at our team meeting today. Sounds like it’s just what we need.

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