I have a general question about appropriate ways to support parishioners when their family members (in this case, members of other churches) are sick, dying, or have passed away. I imagine there's a spectrum from personal presence and listening and supporting all the way to some sort of participation in services. Perhaps this is always a case-by-case basis, but any words of wisdom you might have would be helpful. I'm always worried about stepping on other pastors' toes if I do too much, or not providing enough support to the folks from my own congregation if I don't do enough.
I believe that you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes when you’re concerned about your own congregation’s needs. Pastoral care for your congregation’s members is always appropriate, but unless you’re asked by the family, I don’t think you need to visit the person who is ill. Prayers on their behalf are always in order!
If you’re wondering about participating in services conducted in other churches or settings, if the family wishes you to participate in the service, the invitation should be cleared with (and should really come from) the deceased’s clergyperson or religious leader.
When local, I try to attend the service or visitation for a member’s family member. Again, I feel as though that’s my pastoral care for those who are part of the congregation I serve.
It is difficult to walk that line of caring but not overstepping boundaries. It is difficult to generalize, and it always seemed to work at on a case by case basis, as you mention. If a family member who was part of my church requested I visit their loved one in the hospital, nursing home, etc. I did so. Sometimes, depending on the relationship I had with the ill person, I would comment about their pastor, or some related comment, especially if members of the patient's congregation also happened to be in the room! Showing up at a viewing or even a funeral is always fine, in my opinion. Just being there is something any caring person might do. If actually asked to participate in the funeral, I would let it be known that it is really the call of the family member's pastor. If that person was fine with it, I participated to the degree appropriate. I only recall one instance where the other pastor seems miffed that I was even asking, and I bowed out of participating--which was sad because I had a connection to the deceased that her pastor, sadly, did not.
And mompriest offers:
I always ask these two questions: "What can I do for you?" "What would be helpful?" If they look like they are, or will be, completely overwhelmed by that question I say, "I'll pray for you and your family." and "Is your loved one being visited by clergy in the hospital/home? Sometimes, as appropriate I ask, "Who is their pastor, maybe I'll call and see if our church can be of help during this time." Or less frequently, but as seems useful, I may ask, "Would a visit from me be helpful?"
After asking those questions, as relevant, and depending on the answers I may call the pastor of the loved one's church and have a conversation, perhaps offering to help with the visitation schedule to this parishioner. This is particularly helpful when I live closer to wherever the patient is located than their church clergy/congregation. Often that church/clergy appreciates sharing visitation - I may offer to go once a month or more frequently, depending on how critical the situation is. Or maybe I find out that the person is being visited often enough and then I can assure the family of that and then help my parishioner with their grief and stress.
I also send my parishioner a card and call them during the week. Sometimes people are more willing to accept help .
As the situation unfolds I stand ready to help as is helpful but mindful - as assessed by the answers to my questions - to not interfere. At the very least I will try to go to the wake if there is one and or the funeral, where I will sit in the congregation unless asked to help in some other way.
So those are the helpful answers from our matriarchs. What about the rest of you? Please share your thoughts and experience in the comments. And as always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to address, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.