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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Won't You Be my Neighbor?

One of the most rewarding aspects of pastoral ministry is the relationships you develop.

One of the most frustrating aspects of pastoral ministry is the relationships you are expected to develop.

The question asked of our Matriarchs this week speaks to that frustration...

I am having some issues with some people in our small community, mainly women that are members of other churches.

It seems that their male pastors, many of who are quite conservative theologically, don't have a lot of time to listen or counsel them, so they are coming to me seeking this service. It wouldn't be so much of an issue, except for the fact that many of them are asking me to be a "spiritual friend" or invite me to "visit with them," even going so far as to call me at my home, and expect me to come out that very evening. (I've taken to screening my calls on my day off!)

How do I balance being a pastor for people outside my congregation (of which I don't have a lot of time available for this) with encouraging them to go to their own pastors, with gently teaching them that this young female is a pastor in their community, not a girl to be taken under their wing!

Two of our matriarchs chime on this situation. Jan, who blogs at Church for Starving Artists writes:

Ugh. I also had this experience as a twenty-something pastor fresh out of seminary. People called me "as friends" and then often asked for pastoral care, etc. One woman phoned me at midnight each night because she was lonely and wanted to talk about soap operas (and I was single and she was only waking up one person: me).

1- let the presiding officers of your congregation (elders, whatever) know that this is happening. It's important for them to know that you are seen as a person who is approachable to others in the community and that this is taking some of your time.

2- set boundaries. Let the women who are calling you know that - if they are calling you at home with a personal spiritual emergency, you can certainly talk with them, but if they are calling "as friends" they need to respect your work responsibilities and need for sabbath time.

One of the phenomena that we clergywomen deal with (and other female professionals also deal with this) is that people talk with us about professional issues as "girlfriends." They share issues with us as if we are pals rather than professionals who are "on the clock."

It's not easy to do this (strengthen boundaries) but it will make your life more sane.

Clearly you are a blessing to this community.

Singing Owl also testifies to the importance of setting boundaries:
I can relate to having women who have conservative male pastors wanting to seek you out! I face this one periodically as well, but I haven't had anyone want to be my buddy and call me at home.

My only word of advice is to be honest. It is harder to go back and fix it than if it was clear from the beginning (I say from bitter experience), but since these women do not seem to know where the boundaries are, you must tell them--gently, but firmly. If they do not know, they won't change. Screening your calls only goes so far. That is reacting instead of acting, and if you want to control your own schedule eventually you will have to "speak the truth in love" and they may well be hurt or angry. That is the risk you will take to get your badly-needed time back.

I had a related problem with a woman in the church calling me on my day off to discuss church issues. I was too "nice" and it went on too long and I got frustrated. Boundaries are hard! Eventually I said, "This is my day off. It is my one day not to think about church. Please don't talk to me about church things at home. Call me on Tuesday at the church." She was a bit hurt, but she also seemed to see the point of what I was saying. You probably can't teach them that you are not a girl to be taken under their wing—but you can remind them that you are a pastor and that means you have a limited amount of time.

As for encouraging them to go to their pastors…ah, don't you wish you could feel comfortable doing that? Sticky. It is hard to know what is best without knowing something about those pastors, and their church ladies. I wonder, do these women need a pastor or do they just need a Christian friend? Maybe something could be done to bring some of these women together? Just musing about that….or other possibilities for women who really just need to be heard by someone.

Defining your role and setting boundaries are best done as you begin life in a call and community. Readers, do you have some insights or experiences to share?

May you live in God's Amazing Grace+



  1. If there's a ministerial/pastor's group in town, you might bring up the topic of how to handle calls fro one another's parishioners. (In my own experience, the really conservative pastors didn't participate in that group, so this might not work.) But even if those particular pastors aren't there, you might get some more wisdom from pastors in the area about how they've handled the boundaries issue. (Or some good examples of what NOT to do!)

    For myself, I've learned that no one else will set boundaries for you. Like it or not, you have to do that for yourself. You will be sorry if you don't, and it will only get harder the longer you wait. Being direct and clear is difficult and painful, but it's usually the best way in the end.

  2. great question ...

    I liked the idea of pulling the women together and perhaps reaching out to other women in a sort of ecumenical gathering - but whether it would work in your setting that's only for you to know. I would also add you wouldn't need to lead it but could facilitate it perhaps.

    I do think it's great that these woman are befriending you (at some level anyway) because for me it always comes back to how would I want to be treated (and then trying to do that to others -though it is tricky) and one of the things that is hard is being a stranger and alone in town.

    But you might well have enough new relationships to find that their hand of friendship is too much

    also it's interesting that you don't want to meet them on your day off which suggests that you do see them as work, even if they are from outside your parish.

    just my musings . I'm no matriarch, or even a Rev right now so I could well we way off base here.

    Hope the boundaries get sorted out - it's never easy and worse still boundaries do change too - so recognsing and then communicating them is always necessary and tricky.


  3. What I read from the questioner is that these people are approaching her as a pastor...not as a friend. In other words, it will be all about THEM and never about HER. Probably fine boundaries for pastoring, terrible for friendship. Therefore, I think the day off should be off limits to these sorts of requests.

    I have no real business commenting...except as a lay person who has had to remove myself from "friendships" that were never going to be about me at all, not eeven 1%.

  4. I can see how things get blurred. Since you are not their pastor, you are something else-what else? A friend. And friends are welcome to call just whenever, right?

    You could look at this as if you were a doctor and these folks were consulting you for a second opinion after checking with their primary care physician. This might help you keep some professional bounderies.

    I'm wary, though, of how you could be triangulated in these situations. You, the woman seeking your counsel and their own pastor as the three points on the triangle.

  5. How about something like this:

    I really appreciate you calling me to talk with me about x,y, and z... because I know this is an important issue for you... and by you calling me... it tells me you trust me as a pastor in our community. You and your trust are blessings for me. However... you are a disciple in another congregation... which means I don't know you or your context very well... and I'm uncomfortable talking with you about this issue. What I would like for you to do is call your pastor... and set up an appointment to talk with him/her about this issue. They need to know what you are thinking and how you are feeling... so that they can be your pastor.

    If the person is unwilling to do this... then there's probably a triangle in the making.

    If the person does and gets shunned/blown off... then they get to make choices about where and why they worship with a particular congregation... and whether or not they need to approach their board/elders/council/deacons... to say... I can't get an appointment to talk with the pastor.

    If they get a chance to talk with their pastor... things might work out... and if they don't... they still get to discern where and why they worship.

    Maybe that's harsh... for some to say... or to hear... but for me... that it's the truth.

  6. BW, very interesting comments. I was thinking something like that but was too fuzzy to put it into words.

  7. Good advice on establishing boundaries: You will find that it is necessary to do this.

    This may be tangential, but I can't help wondering why these women are coming to you, and how it is that they view you. I am speaking specifically of women who are coming from churches in which it is believed that women can not be called by God to serve as a pastor.

    Do they view you as a pastor? Or as a learned Christian woman? Or...? I may be needlessly confused or confusing things, but these questions occur to me.


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