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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ask the Matriarch: Boundary Waters

Lead Us Not Into... writes:
I have a very rich congregant. The family owns three homes and a large boat. I helped the wife with her husband last year; diagnosis, hospice, funeral. She’s almost embarrassingly grateful. She wants me to use her lake house and her beach house, and I really could use a vacation.

I wouldn’t hesitate except for some of the language she’s used, calling me her own personal priest and asking me to help her go to her financial appointments. It feels like she wants to cross a boundary.

Do I dare use the lake house? Or do you think it could be a slippery slope and she will use it as a hook to get me to do more and more and more personal tasks that really should be done by her daughter (who is a real good-for-nothing, btw)? Can I use the house and maintain my integrity?

How do I turn it down when my family REALLY wants me to say “yes,” and still be gracious?

Is anyone else hearing the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” all of a sudden? This is truly one of those situations where ambivalence will lead you around and around in circles worse than the most complex labyrinth. But if there is one thing I have learned in interpersonal relations, it is that I should trust my instincts—and apparently, I’m not alone. “I’d say when you feel like a boundary is being crossed, it probably is,” writes Karen. “The question isn’t whether it is ever permissible to accept offers like this from congregants, but whether accepting in this situation is going to set up a quagmire of unhealthy expectations for the congregant and a feeling of obligation and indebtedness on your part.”

That’s not to say that she’s not genuine, as Jan points out. “It’s quite possible that this parishioner is both 1) appreciative of your ministry and 2) somewhat needy now that her husband is gone. She could be offering her vacation homes to you with pure intentions. Or she could be hooking you subconsciously.”

And there is the count-your-blessings caveat. “It’s wonderful that your congregant is grateful to you for your pastoral care during her husband’s illness and death. Some congregants can’t even spell gratitude, much less express it,” notes St. Casserole.

Be demure
Turning someone down while being gracious about it is certainly a challenge. I’m reminded of a certain out-of-the-blue marriage proposal from a very wealthy but very not-Gallycat’s-type acquaintance. That discomfort can carry well past the actual turn-down, and she may think nothing of it even though it lingers with you. But here are some possibilities that might help ease the moment, at least:
  • “It’s so thoughtful, but I simply can’t accept.” No further explanation is needed.—Jan
  • “What a kind offer! My vacation time is pretty booked already at this point, though. Let’s talk about this again some other time.” Then try saying “no” to some of those favors she’s been asking for and see what happens. If that seems to establish healthy boundaries and the relationship continues to be cordial, you may think about accepting at some point.—Karen
  • Compromise— Would it be better for you to accept an occasional lunch than a vacation place?—St. Casserole

Decline the offer; accept the compliment
Now I’m having another song moment, with “Personal Jesus” rattling around my head—but then, I am a DJ. But you’re not the only one spooked by that choice of words. Jan notes that the “personal priest” comment alone would be enough to make her back off, graciously.

But both Jan and St. Casserole point out your parishioner’s possible loneliness. “You may appear to be just the daughter she wishes she had combined with God stuff—what could be better in her eyes?” writes St. C. “You are wise to wonder about her language of “ownership.” I assume she means well but that language is awkward. What she may be trying to say is that she feels close to you.”

But you can draw that boundary pretty easily without dismissing her out of hand. “If you aren’t a former banker, financial planner or CPA, I don’t think you should go. And even if you had one of these jobs in your former life, it’s still not your place to give investment advice,” writes St. C. Someone with a securities license, who has a membership with a professional association for financial advisors with a code of ethics—now that’s the right person, although I think I’m mixing this up with my day job, now.

But it’s not just about the advice. It’s also the time, the implied quid pro quo that might tie you to her beck and call if you do cross that boundary. “You are first and foremost her pastor, not her driver/nurse/friend/granddaughter,” writes Jan. “There are many others who can serve this purpose, and if not, she needs to discover others who can provide such a role. She probably feels comfortable with you since you’ve gone through a difficult milestone together, but your role is to be her spiritual leader.”

And there are other things to consider, as St. C. writes: “Would we have the opportunity to pay for the maid service? What if I broke a dish or the dishwasher? Would I be allowed to pay for the repairs and how would I feel about the long distance repair arrangements? Would I be comfortable if the congregant dropped by during my visit to stay a few days with us? What if one of our children poured red soda on a $300 bedspread she’d ordered from a catalog three years ago and that matched the drapes and was therefore, not easy to replace?”

Uh-oh, St. C., I think I’ve been that child. Except it was butter. And my uncle’s favorite chair. And it was some years before our family was invited back to his West Palm Beach house.

What to do
Ultimately, it’s probably best to take the offer at face value as if it’s genuine, but decline with a smile and perhaps suggest an alternative but less extravagant thank you—coffee, lunch. St. C mentions that continuing to call on her to see how she’s doing is one of the most helpful things you can do. As Karen notes, you can turn down some of the above and beyond requests and then see what happens. “If she withdraws or pouts or keeps pressuring you to do stuff, you won’t have put yourself in the awkward position of having accepted a major personal gift from her.” Or, as Jan says, “If, after you leave that parish, you find that you are still close to this woman, then it would be fine.”

For now, Jan adds, keep clear boundaries and remind her that there are others depending on you for pastoral care too. As St. C. notes, “It's flattering when congregants think we are the best priest or pastor they've ever known. Our response is to not fall into thinking we are special while offering them the same loving attention we give to all of our congregation, even the difficult members.”


  1. I found this whole 'ask the matriarch' a bit bemusing. Maybe it's cos I'm not in the USA - but here if someone offers you the use of their summer cottage as a retreat / much needed vacation time for your family - the motives of the person offering are not questioned.

    I'd say yes and take her up on her kind offer. To be honest we all need to learn to receive more easily!

    But I would say no to accompanying her to the bank. It's not my area of expertise and I'd point that out and recommend her taking someone else. And having lunch or coffee, offering a friendly ear is what we RevGals and Pals do best ... so that part is clear

    I realise I'm not a pastor and not in the US, so I might be looking at this through rose-tinted glasses, but thought I'd risk adding my 2c worth.

    interesting dilemma. Thanks matriarchs for giving your views.

    Hope whoever asked it can really get a holiday. Down time, and time with family are very important - esp for those in ministry!

    be blessed

  2. I agree that it's very hard thing to be in this position, but the words she used could mean this is only the beginning of what she may call upon you for.

    Gentleness is called for but being as honest as possible too. Visit as often as you are able...let her know you have "a prayer contract out on her", which means she will know you are intentional in your praying. The term came from a colleague and I felt "looked after' just with the words of intention spoken.

    Trust will build and once you have more of an idea of where she is coming from, it will be easier to discern what to do.

    But, go with your gut feeling for now and bow out of the offer as graciously as possible, while letting her know you are making plans to follow up with her.

    Peace to you in this matter, I will hold you in prayer....both of you.

  3. I think the pstoral ministry has similar boundaries to those who are involved in the counseling ministry, in which case, mixing metaphors, so to say, business and pleasure, is not wise. Down the road, if the relatinship sours she could cry out that you have taken advantage of her good graces. My vote is graciously decline.

  4. The especially concerning thing is the language about being her "personal priest." That suggests rights to the pastor's time that no individual parishioner owns. I think there may be situations where it's okay to accept an offer to use a cottage or something along those lines, but I also concur that you have to think about what's behind the offer.

  5. I would agree; if you are uncomfortable, don't do it. I have taken up a parishioner on the use of a beach house -- this summer, in fact BUT my family was only one of many that used this house (there seemed to be an entire parade of people from the church to the beach ... like a line of ants.) I would examine the motives -- or rather the need -- of the congregant and meet her need for companionship and say "no, thanks" to her offer.

  6. Gut instinct - women have it and we need to trust it. I agree there is not a blanket need to decline, but in this case it sounds like the gut instinct is right on.

    The perfect scenario is staying in touch with families who have those beach homes after you have moved to a different parish. I would say more about that, but I am busy packing to go to just such a place.

  7. Well written, well answered, and I love the comments.

    I think in the beginning of grief, people say rash things, make rash decisions, do rash things. It is a good idea to slow this person down, and then later if she brings it up is another thing. I have gone to a lake house of a former parishioner, but so have other ministers, and it was meant that way. A way of ministering to the minister.

    But as all have said this is different.

  8. Well written again, Galleycat,
    I especially like the use of songs.
    And what a difficult one to write.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. This is such a helpful take on such a tricky topic - thanks so much! Thursdays are quickly becoming my fave RevGals day....

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