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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Stuck in the Middle

An interesting question this week: we managed to get our matriarchs on two sides of an issue. To wit, a new pastor facing an awkward situation:

I recieved a phone call recently from a member of another congregation. I believe I have met her once or twice before, at some volunteer event, or maybe she was at a funeral I participated in. In any case, she wants to talk with me about a conflict with her pastor - a colleague of mine. I don't know yet what the issue is, but evidently there has been conflict brewing for perhaps even a year. She mentioned that they had discussed a third party mediator, but that it was left in the pastor's hands and she hadn't heard anything back about it. This woman said that she was very angry and hurt and felt like she couldn't worship there anymore. But she was honest that she really wanted a sounding board right now and someone to talk to that she thought she might connect with, someone who might be able to hear her. I have agreed to meet with her and talk, but I also was honest that I hope there can be reconciliation between her and her minister.

What are the appropriate boundaries for such a discussion? Is my role in this situation to be a confidant and to keep anything and everything, including the fact that we are meeting confidential? Do I have any obligations to my colleague, to inform them that I am meeting with this person? Or should I encourage the woman to make this known herself? I'm the new girl in town, and I don't want to step on toes or be accused of "sheep stealing" when that isn't my intention at all. There has been enough divisiveness in my own congregation in the past 5 years - enough splits for a gymnastics team - and I want to work towards healing, rather than pain.

Any advice?

It may be that laypeople and clergy would have a different reaction to this, but I think I bristled at the notion that I was someone who could be stolen. (I wander a lot, and prefer shared custody among the many shepherds I know.) As one of Ann's lay contacts noted, "You can't 'steal' anyone's congregants-- that is akin to saying someone 'stole' your boyfriend. The person in question is the one who will make the decision whether to stay or go." I'm apt to add that sometimes personalities just plain clash. Will the other pastor take that personally? I think therein lies the rub.

But I'm not a matriarch. The matriarchs, however, fell squarely on... both sides of the issue. Depending on which you talk to, you definitely should or definitely should not inform the other pastor that you're having a conversation with the congregation member. Take a look at the comments from each side, and see how that informs you:

First, let's look at the "keep it confidential" arguments; and on this side come the disclaimer to not take sides and not try to advise. Earthchick writes:
In your position, I would keep the meeting (and everything discussed) confidential. I think it would be out of bounds to tell the other pastor that you are meeting with this person. She can tell the pastor herself if she wants, but personally I wouldn't encourage that (or discourage it) - I would just leave her the freedom to do what she wants. I think you are right that your role is to be a confidante. She obviously needs someone to talk to, and someone pastoral to listen and affirm her anger and hurt. You can do this without betraying your colleague. You can affirm the validity of her feelings without jumping in and saying your colleague has done anything wrong. I think it's important to make sure not to take sides in the conversation - neither defend your colleague nor support her accusations. It's important to advocate for health and healing, which you can do without advocating for any particular solution.

It's an awkward position to be in, but it sounds like this woman has sought you out because you strike her as someone who will listen and care. I think you'll do both - and that you'll do great at it!

Ann writes:
Resist all temptation to "fix" this for her. Listen listen listen, and do not give advice.

Reflect on a moment where she felt the conflict, have her tell an incident, what was she thinking and feeling? When are other times when she has the same feelings --- (throughout life - not with this pastor - other situations - not just church).

Ask her what sort of images come to mind; you will probably hear some images as she tells the incident (e.g. - cornered, trapped, left hanging, etc). Explore the world of that image. What is it like, how did it get that way, what might bring it into a better place (stay away for the original incident and explore the world of the image only), what Bible stories come to her mind that are like the image? Who does she identify with in the story? what is going on for that character? How is her life like that character's?

Often insights and new ways of approaching the conflict occur in discussions like this. If nothing else it helps to defuse the intensity so the person can think more clearly about the choices she has.

In other words, get the person talking about the problem in a context other than that of the colleague. Allow the person to explore their own thoughts and feelings, and simply listen. "I feel like I'm constantly running into a brick wall." "So tell me about this brick wall, what's it like? Can you think of another time you ran into this wall? Is there a place in scripture where someone is always running into obstacles?" Often by running with these images, a person can figure out their own solution without any advice at all.

Now, on the other hand, Singing Owl writes:
This is a tricky one and “fraught with peril.” I think it would be wise to talk with the woman beforehand about your desire to be helpful but that you also need to be bound by ministerial ethics and let her know you will be telling her pastor that she has asked to meet with you. The pastor obviously already knows she has a very unhappy parishioner. The woman should be okay with this if she really wants help since she has already expressed her unhappiness to the pastor.

It would be nice to encourage the woman to make this known herself, but then God only knows how she will put it to her pastor. It could be very hurtful or spiteful, or not happen at all in which case you have put a wedge between the pastor and you. If you are the one who talks to her pastor, you have some control over how it is expressed. If it were me, I would appreciate that a fellow pastor took time to tell me and be honest instead of just rejoicing that they have a chance to add a sheep to their flock! OF course, her pastor might say, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I’m free at last…PLEASE take her.”

You could certainly express to both parties that you hope reconciliation can happen.

And Rev Honey writes:
It’s a sticky wicket into which you are being asked to step. It is triangulation pure and simple, and it happens quite often with pastors who are new to a community. You need to tread carefully.

Can you meet her and speak with her? Yes, but I think it would be appropriate to begin by saying that while you acknowledge her hurt and anger and you are willing to be a sounding board for her, that you do so as one Christian would for another, with the hope and prayer that steps toward reconciliation may be borne as fruit from this conversation.

It would be most appropriate for you to have a conversation with her pastor, not divulging the contents of this conversation, but acknowledging that the two of you spoke. I do not think it is fair to your colleague to keep your meeting with his parishioner a secret from him. If she should decide that your congregation is a more comfortable place to worship for the time being, let her know that you expect that she will inform her pastor of that.

Hmmm. Keep the conversation confidential but not the fact that it happened. Or, keep the person confidential but not the entire conversation. Jan suggests some other "middle ground" paths:

You are a wise pastor to be cautious here. I would suggest that she let her pastor know that you are meeting together - or ask permission to let that pastor know yourself. Or if you feel too close to the situation, you need to let her know that you feel uncomfortable being her sounding board. Good boundaries are good for good relationships with colleagues.

Some other suggestions:
-Recommend a mediator
-If there is sexual misconduct or abuse of some kind going on, you will be obligated to report it
-Watch out for power struggles; is this person challenging the other pastor's authority?
-Also beware the one-person-speaking-for-many situation, in which case a communications coach might be just the thing

And a couple of last notes from Ann:
Be very clear about the nature of the meeting and expectations. Regardless of the degree to which you feel obliged to keep things confidential or not, spell that out to her, and explain that you will listen but not fix it. You can explore this with her but ultimately it will be her choice how she deals with the next steps.

Please feel free to share any thoughts you have in the comments!


  1. I'm with Gallycat on the sheep stealing issue--it's a pretty offensive way to speak about congregants. And any adult has the right to speak to a pastor of their choice without being reported to the current pastor of the church where they attend.

    Of course, any pastor also has the right to refuse to meet with someone not a member of the congregation they serve. Or to set their own conditions, which may include one or the other party informing the other pastor....As long as both parties are honest and respectful about what they are looking for and what they can give without resentment, the conversation can be productive in ways neither might expect going in.

  2. Well, we managed to muddy the waters didn't we!

  3. It's very important to be clear about your denomination's understanding of ministerial ethics. Less loosely tied groups may have a less strict point of view on a situation like this, and I believe if we were looking at the denominations of the matriarchs we might see a reflection of those differences. If you come from a tradition of local autonomy, in other words, rather than a more connectional or hierarchical structure, you may have a little more freedom in how to approach these matters.
    While it's true that any adult has a right to speak to a pastor, it's not true that any pastor has the right in return, ethically speaking. If involvement in a situation could make things worse, if we perceive red flags in the request being made, we have a responsibility to discern whether getting involved is a good idea or not.
    I would be inclined to let my colleague know I had been approached, unless I had the impression that a person was looking to confide misconduct to me. And if the latter proved to be true, it would be my responsibility to connect the lay person with the judicatory to make a report and get some help.
    Sadly, there are pastors who would use a crisis as an opportunity to win members from one church to another, or we wouldn't even be talking about "stealing sheep." It sounds awful because it is.

  4. I guess I fall into the both/and camp.

    I was recently asked to visit the mother of a member of my congregation, who is a member of another congregation in the next small town over the hill. (The member solicited the visit, not the mother.)

    And while I don't use the term "sheep stealing" I am conscious of how it would feel if I knew that another pastor was giving pastoral care to a member of my congregation without my knowledge, and so I don't do that.

    My solution was to let the member know that I would be happy to visit with his mother, just as soon as I had discussed the situation with her pastor first. He was fine with that.

  5. I've actually been in this situation. I met with the person several times, encouraged the person to return to the pastor and work it through. I did not tell the Pastor we were meeting since they were often short, five minute conversations.

    Eventually though this person came to my church and worked with me. At that point I had to have a conversation with the former Pastor about that and carefully explain why the dynamics were such that this person leaving was a healthy response. It was less about the Pastor and more about the kind of dynamic that gets put in play when there are opposing expectations, both good, but different.... (basically one person expected things would be one way and the other had other ideas of what and how to do things)... Leaving would allow the anxiety in the system to settle down. It was a sticky wicket but with a good outcome for all.

  6. My first reaction was not to meet with this person. I am only 20 miles from the last parish I served and the first six months of the new rector's tenure, there were an awful lot of visitors to my current cure. I had to make it very clear that I could listen - but not for long - but that I would not do any talking other than "give the guy a year to settle in" kind of remarks. A few did transfer but most have stayed where they are. And the ones who came in know that this is a congregation that is involved in more than weekly pew sitting.

    I'm very uncomfortable hearing someone else complain about a colleague. I got a lot of that when I was an associate. Fortunately, my then rector knew it would happen and trusted me to handle it.

    This is where having a bishop comes in handy. I would tell the woman that she needed to make an appointment with the bishop.

  7. I'm with singing owl "The pastor obviously already knows she has a very unhappy parishioner. The woman should be okay with this if she really wants help since she has already expressed her unhappiness to the pastor." since she says they have talked about meeting with a 3rd person the fact that she is seeking a listening ear should not be a problem. However if she is wanting you to be the third person then the pastor needs to be invovled from the start

    secrecy will only breed problems but it's of course important to keep what is discussed confidential. that's a different issue.

    I guess another issue is WHY did you say yes. What motivated you? How do you think God can use you to help the woman in distress? You need ot go about this prayerfully andwisely before you meet. That goes without saying

  8. Situations like this make me so uneasy. I don't think I would be comfortable talking with a congregation member who was having trouble with a colleague, no matter how I felt about that particular colleague. I would suggest speaking with the district superintendent or even the chair of the staff/parish relations committee if talking with the pastor was not getting her anywhere.

  9. I am not a minister. And I HAVE been in the situation of seeking pastoral care from a minister who was not "my" pastor. The pastor of our congregation and I worked together at the diocesan level on various matters. She really became a colleague rather than MY pastor. When I needed advice/counsel/help, I turned to another nearby minister who I trusted. I'd caution considering whether refusal to interact would, in effect, be the equivalent of denying pastoral care. And consider whether being in mediation might not indicate that the minister of the woman's congregation is no longer truly "her" pastor. Just 'cause someone is called "pastor" doesn't mean s/he actually is for each and every member of the congregation...

  10. Wow. It is a loaded issue. My first reaction would be to say that if one were to keep it in the Spirit of Matthew 18, the parishioner should go back to the (about to be former) pastor with someone else from the congregation.

    That the pastor has not followed through with the 3rd party mediator is a problem. To me, that would be the first step.

    If he was only suggesting mediation to try and intimidate (or get her to back down) perhaps there IS some misconduct on his part and she will need support to proceed.

    If it is a hierarchical church, she needs to take it up the food chain.

    If we are to be ministers of Reconciliation, between God and humanity, we have to help people "get it" between humans.

    And... it is my experience that someone who has that big of a burr under the saddle usually brings that hurt and anger in the next congregation. It needs to be worked through and healed... or she will repeat it wherever she goes...


  11. In my denomination's polity -- I would listen but not offer advice except to suggest STRONGLY to discuss her issue with the District Superintendent. That's the DS's job.

    This sounds almost like classic triangulation. Tread gently.

    And prayer is never a bad idea.


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