Visit our new site at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Out of Bounds Shut-in Edition

Here is this week's question...

Dear Matriarchs,
One of the congregation's homebound members, who recently had a serious health crisis, represents a very difficult visit for me. She is negative, needy, a drama queen - I realize how subjective and judgmental I'm being. That's why I'm writing to ask for tips for keeping my boundaries and having better visits with her. She has what I consider to be bad boundaries, gossips about other parishioners and her children in a way I find distasteful, shares details of surgeries and scars, takes things personally. It's never good enough for her, whatever it is. What really bugs me are her constant comments on my clothes, hair, earrings, weight - things I consider personal and out-of-bounds. I understand someone may say, I like your earrings, but to go on about my jewelry and such is difficult. Clearly, she hits many buttons for me. I do consider visiting an important part of my ministry; how can I stay positive and not be distracted by the desire to fix that which is not going to change?

Thanks so much.

a Lutheran in Michigan

Our matriarchs were all amazed to discover that the same dear woman is a member in all of our congregations!

Jan who blogs at A Church for Starving Artists offers some excellent advice

You are the pastor and you have enormous spiritual power. Use it.

1) Ask God to help you see this (often vile) woman with the eyes of Christ. How does Jesus see her? Maybe as monumentally insecure and needy. But it's not that you are trying to look down on her. You have simply trying to see her with the compassion of Christ.

2) Remind her, with a gentle squeeze of the hand, that you are there to talk about her life and specifically where God is in her life -- not to cover jewelry and clothing news. (With a pastoral laugh: "There must be other thngs you want to talk about besides jewelry and other people.")

3) Turn her comments on their head: I once had a parishioner shred her own daughter's reputation and choices because Daughter (who is white) married Son-in-Law (who is black) who came with 3 fetal alcohol syndrome kids. Son-in-law died in car wreck and Daughter adopted the three sick kids. After several minutes of telling me how "stupid" her daughter was to do this, I - again with a gentle squeeze of the hand - said, "I know you don't really believe that. Actually, it sounds like your daughter saved those kids' lives. You must be so proud of her." Pray you don't go to hell for making Mean Parishioner feel like crap.

4) Pray for 5 minutes in the car before going in to visit this woman. And pray that God would calm you and put the rights words in your mouth. And melt your heart towards this unhappy person.

5) Find out her favorite ice cream and take her some. Everybody likes ice cream (unless she is lactose intolerant, a vegan, etc.) It will be your own special ritual.

Elizabeth of Telling Secrets offers these strategies...

The first thing I did was to put a 20 -30 minute time limit on my visit - the first 10-15 minutes of it are clearly scheduled for prayer and the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. That means that she only has 10-15 minutes worth of 'drama' - which is tolerable.

Then, you have to train yourself to see beyond the kvetching, gossip and drama and into what might cause her to engage in these activities.

I suspect she loves to gossip because it keeps you (and her) away from what she fears most in herself. So, when she starts gossiping about a parishioner, the response is, "You know, I came to talk about you, because I really care about YOU and what's going on with YOU, not so-and-so." and then engage her in some non-threatening memory-sharing or story-telling. "Tell me about the time . . . . " "What was it like to . . . ."

Then, there's also something called 'disarming, reflective conversation'

When she says something critical about your jewelry or weight, respond with:

"You know, I really hear your loneliness." Or: "I'm sorry, but I seem to be making you anxious." Or, "It must get frustrating to not feel like you're in control." Name the underlying dynamic you see.

That often stops 'em dead in their tracks by positively regarding them while getting at the real issue, which they may or may not begin to talk about when you follow up with, "Let's talk / Can we talk about that loneliness / anxiety / feeling out of control . . ."

One other strategy: I have developed a "team" of six Pastoral Visitors. Each of the senior folk who are "homebound" are assigned two Pastoral Visitors who rotate their visits so no one really gets worn out. They are taught to structure their visits in the same way - the first 10-15 minutes in prayer / communion / bible study, the next 10-15 minutes in a 'visit'.

I make a pastoral visit once a month. So, 10 - 15 minutes of drama, once a month, is tolerable to me.

And from Kristen who blogs at Ceramic Episcopalian

This is a situation where finding out more about this person's background may help you put their behavior in context.

Find out if this person has friends in the congregation or relatives who might be willing to chat with you about the situation your homebound congregant is in...If you are able to find out more about this person's history it might give you more context about her life and a deeper understanding of why she is the way she is.

Does she have any mental stimulation? It sound like she is talking about the things that she knows or sees-- her medical issues (which some people love talking about in gruesome detail), her family, other members of the congregation, and you.

I don't know why some people managed to stay cheerful and upbeat through multiple medical crisis. I remember, as a teenager visiting "old friends" in the nursing home who were cheerful and friendly and had interests outside their own selves and I would much rather wind up like them. But I also remember visiting my own grandmother in the nursing home and all she would talk about was her latest medical crisis, if she would talk at all.

A friend of mine had a grandparent who would talk only to her because the grandparent had alienated all of her children (my friends mother and brothers) by playing them off one another for years until they caught on. For some reason she never dragged my friend into that drama, but she was paranoid and difficult.

Recently, she died, and when my friend went to the funeral, all sorts of people came up to her from the nursing home and said what a nice person her grandmother was, how she had taken time to welcome them when they arrived or had spent time with them when they had trouble making friends. It was like the woman had two different personalities and my friend didn't learn of the nicer side her grandmother was showing to other residents until after her death.

People are strange and deal with pain, loneliness, and loss of ability in different ways. Find out more about her-- humanize her to yourself. Bishop Tutu said that it takes other people to make us fully human. If she is alone and isolated, she may be having difficulty holding on to her humanity.

So...does this homebound member belong to your flock as well? Have you discovered any useful methods for dealing with her? Use the Comment function to add your gossip, er...I mean, advice here.

May you live in God's amazing grace+
rev honey


  1. My goodness, she changed denominations and moved so far away? When did that happen? I saw her just on Monday!

    Really, now, we all have this parishioner in our lives.

    Most of the dear saints at St Stoic who act like this are terribly lonely. I limit my visit time-wise, but visit much more frequently.

    Often people who are this caustic are testing out the old "self-fulfilling prophecy" dynamic. They may be afraid that people won't come around, so they make sure to reject people before they can get rejected themselves.

    For these, a once-a-month 60 minute visit is more wearing on the pastor and on the shut-in than popping in casually twice a week to say "hello" for ten minutes. They learn that the pastor is reliable, and keeps coming back no matter how nasty they are. Eventually they will soften. Or not. Either way, you have shown them the love of Christ.

    (I'm not a Matriarch, but I play one on TV.)

  2. This person is definitely "hooking" something in you - something you might want to take up with your spiritual director or peer group. That is the first thing I would do to maintain my ability to pastor this person. During your visits -- allow her to vent for a limited amount of time -- then have a time for prayers - offering prayers for all the people she mentions and for her concerns including your prayers for the Fab 5 to give you a makeover (oh -- that's a joke -- probably leave that out).

  3. I am -- ahem -- acquainted with an individual who sounds a great deal like this individual. in my situation, this lady has been a leader in the community in many ways, but a chronic illnesss is gradually depriving her of her independence. She has the insight to recognize her own feelings of helplessness, frustration and anger...but sometimes these get channeled into the sorts of behaviors mentioned. When I engage with this person, I have to remind myself to not take her "bait" of gossip, negativity, etc. I try to keep a handle on the conversation and channel it in more positive directions...which in my case I do by asking HER questions.

  4. I haven't any advice to offer, but I'd love to copy this column to share with our pastoral care group. Even tho I can't think of anyone quite like this person among the flock we visit, I'm sure we've all run into those behaviors one time or another. It will be a good conversation starter for our monthly meeting. May I please copy it?


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.