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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Welcome Back?!?

This week's question isn't new...and it isn't an experience limited to clergywomen:

My question is about clergy ethics. I pastor a small church that is celebrating with an Open House in a few months. The people in charge invited a former pastor to preach without asking me. The people in this church are very used to doing things themselves and they just didn't think of it, and at a planning meeting when I found out, someone finally thought to ask me if it was okay with me. I told them it was, and thanked the gentleman for asking.
Now my question- the former pastor has accepted the invitation and sent in the title of his sermon and Scripture verses- and he also has not asked me if it is okay. He did tell them he wants to talk with me and asked for me to call him. This is not okay in my tradition (and I am guessing in others), and while I understand my congregation not thinking this through, this guy knows better. I was recently given his contact info, and now I am wondering if I should say something about his neglecting to work the process as he should when I call him. If he wants to talk with me and ask my permission, should I say something about him being a bit late in asking? Or if that is not what he wants, should I remind him of his duty to check with me first?

Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart, responds:

Questions around boundaries with predecessors can be tricky, can’t they?

Does your denomination or governing body have a written policy about boundaries with former pastors?

I’d suggest responding to the former’s request to meet with you and to try to be very cordial and hospitable and have a copy of the boundary policy with you when you meet. “Let’s make sure we’re both clear about what this policy means to us…” seems like a great way to start that part of the conversation.

Mompriest, blogging at Seeking Authentic Voice, adds:

Oh my goodness. To me this is unfortunate on so many levels: that members of the congregation asked the former pastor without consulting you first BUT worse that the former pastor accepted without consulting you; and third the former pastor has asked that you call “him?” I wonder if this congregation and this pastor have let go of the relationship they had? There is such a thing as a ghost-pastor... I wonder how you will become the pastor to this congregation in their eyes and heart? Sometimes it’s a matter of time. But it may be impossible; particularly if the former pastor is noncompliant with all the good boundaries that are supposed to be put in place around former clergy and congregations and new clergy. But that’s a potential bigger issue, if it’s even an underlying issue at all, than addressing your question and how to go about this part of the problem.

I suggest you call the former pastor and arrange, if possible, a meeting - soon. If meeting in person is not possible then you have to do it by phone. In that meeting/phone call you need to set very clear limits but with grace and without anxiety (or at least don’t let your anxiety show and rule what you say). Say something like, “It’s gracious of you to accept the invitation of the congregation to come and preach on this occasion. I’m looking forward to spending time with you and learning more about your time with this congregation. However, I hope, out of courtesy to me and the congregation, that if you are ever invited again that you will call me FIRST. We both want what is best for this congregation and need to work together to help them move, in a healthy way, into the future.” (I’d probably not be that blunt, or that short, but I’d make sure I got this boundary setting part in during the conversation....)

Secondly I’d do everything I can on the morning that the former pastor is there to ensure that I, the current pastor, was in charge of the morning, to the degree that my denomination will allow. So for example, open the service, welcome the former pastor, say something gracious about the past and something hopeful about where you are going with the congregation. Make it clear that this pastor is there with your blessing but also within limits.

Third, I’d let the leadership team, the ones who contacted him, know that what they did, or at least how they did it, could have been managed better. Transparency is always good as are open lines of communication. It’s what helps to build trust and mutual respect. You may want to wait until after the former pastor comes. Or not, it depends on how defensive they are and your relationship with them. The goal is not to make them defensive or for you to seem hurt/insecure/defensive/etc but to emphasize healthy communication and good boundaries in congregations. There are some good resources at the Alban Institute on healthy congregation/clergy dynamics and communication.

I hope all of this is just a short blip in an otherwise healthy pastorate for you and the congregation, a learning experience for all. I hope my concerns are just concerns and not a reality. Blessings for you and this congregation.

From Muthuh+

This is a very worrying situation. Parishioners do not understand how difficult returning pastors can be when they are forced upon the sitting pastor. But the dynamics in a parish can cause a major problem in the congregation. When this happened to me, I was able to turn to my juridical authorities and the invitation was revoked without me having to be the “bad guy.” It is often, not always, a move from members of the congregation to manipulate the power issues in the parish. It is incumbent on the visiting pastor to contact YOU, not the secretary or the people who are inviting him. If he does not, and I am guessing that this is a HE, then I would have no problem with rescinding your permission.
One of the things that I am sensitive to is that often male pastors who are followed by women are more likely to ignore clergy etiquette than women. I am not sure why this is true, but I think it has to do with the general understanding that we are less likely to stand up to guys. Most of these guys would not think to encroach upon other men’s turf.
If you are of a tradition that has a juridical structure that enforces such rules, I would contact your bishop, superintendent or whatever and check on how to address the issue with the visiting pastor.
However, I think that you need to consult with your board and see what they think too. You need to inform them that this kind of permission is not proper. You can access to their desires THIS time but you need to make it clear that this is not respecting your role of called pastor in your church. You also need to find out what is encouraging those in your parish to make such an invitation. This is one of those places you can be assertive and you should because if you do not establish the boundaries, they will continue to encroach on what is properly the role of the pastor.

And from Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming:

In my denomination (United Reformed Church in UK) we have just adopted some guidelines to help ministerial colleagues to treat each other’s ministry with respect.
These include:
All ministers:
· To strive to protect colleagues from prejudicial discrimination on the basis of gender, race, age, disability or sexual orientation.
· To consider very carefully taking any position of responsibility in a pastorate served by another minister and to support the direction of church life initiated through the leadership of the pastorate.
· To respect the work of predecessors and successors and deal honourably with their record.
· To consider carefully the location of retirement housing and try to avoid living in the immediate area of past pastorates.

We have felt the need to spell these out because there are, sadly, instances of people not respecting that another person is now minister of that church: it is not OK. This person’s treatment of you is not OK – I would encourage you to speak out assertively and calmly.
I hope it is received with grace.

Finally, Earthchick (Earthchicknits) shares the following:

I have been in a similar situation to this before and I know how yucky it feels. While the congregants may not have known better than to ask the former pastor without consulting you, the former pastor certainly should have known better than to say yes without checking with you. It's possible that he assumed the congregation had already cleared it with you before asking; still, it was his responsibility to have made sure before proceeding.

That said, my personal inclination (and what I did in a similar situation) would be to let it go. I'm not sure if this the right move - other matriarchs may certainly have different thoughts and more wisdom about it than I do. But personally, I'm not sure what it serves to confront the former pastor about this breech of process, other than airing your own grievances. Are you in the right and he in the wrong? Yes. But what would be your hoped-for outcome in letting him know that? Do you want an apology? Do you want him just to know better or do better for next time? Do you just want the opportunity to let him know he's wrong? Do you want him to decide not to preach at the Open House? And if that is what you want, think through what the ramifications might be if he were to do that - what kind of capital might you lose with your congregation if he steps down and they know it's because you confronted him? If you do decide to say something to him, then I suggest thinking very clearly about what exactly you hope will come out of the confrontation.

Personally, this sort of confrontation simply isn't worth it for me. I would rather suck it up, be gracious, and move on, than risk bruising relationships with my congregation over this sort of slight.

There is a lot of excellent advice here...but we don't have the corner on the market with regard to pastoral wisdom or common sense. So please, share your thoughts and experiences by posting a comment.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. Now that I see the other matriarchs' responses, I see that I'm definitely the minority report! And I can understand from their various answers how this could be approached in a less harsh way than I was imagining.

    I think in my tradition the expectations around this sort of thing are a bit looser. We don't have core guidelines that ministers/congregations call on in these situations, and it's fairly common that former pastors would be invited back for anniversaries, etc. (though typically with the input of the current pastor).

    I have found former pastors of the places I've served to be invaluable resources. They can be supportive and can give insight into situations that I sometimes don't quite understand. So it has been important to me to cultivate those relationships. So I wrote from that perspective, as well as from my own sense that a small church is a particularly special place when it comes to relationships, and pastor-congregation relationship can be easily damaged (unwittingly) if care isn't taken.

    All of that said, I think the other matriarchs are probably more similar in tradition and expectation to the original questioner - I bow to their wisdom!

  2. earthchick, I think it is fabulous that you have a history of cultivating relationship with former pastors. From my experience that would be an awesome thing to do, although I have not had the benefit of such a relationship. I large part because of the emphasis on de-coupling and seperation. But it could indeed be beneficial. Although of course that also requires another level of good boundary keeping.

    All that said I still think the former pastor should have called the current one. And it is probably a case of what Mutah+ says about male/female pastors/respect/turg...which is just sad.

  3. Thanks for your initial post, Mompriest. Because I think we need to retain our sense of humour at all times, I can't help imagining our churches singing "How you gonna call? Ghost Pastor!".

    (If you all feel I should hand in my 'Matriarch' badge at this point, I will...)

  4. This hits a sore spot for me, for sure. This is what I learned from painful experience:

    1) Most mainline denominations have guidelines on how former pastors should/shall act in regards to their former congregations.

    2) Many (not saying all) clergy "of a certain generation" ignore them. There is a feeling that the beloved pastor who was there for 40 years must surely be the exception to the rule.

    3) It does not serve the "new" pastor to try to change the mind of an 80-year-old bully. In fact, new pastor will lose valuable cred with the congregation by trying to keep things proper.

    Sadder but wiser.

  5. Context makes all the difference!

    In one church I was not allowed to officiate *any* funerals. Only one of the clergy who did officiate made sure I was even included.

    In another church, there were folks who went to the funeral director and made sure protocol was followed without me even knowing.

    Each church is different and each situation requires you to thoughtfully consider your options. Sometimes the laity need to be taught what is appropriate. Sometimes the laity know and don't care. Sometimes you can work with the other clergy involved to change future events. Sometimes it's not worth the hassle.


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