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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - The Newly Retired Pastor

We've all heard the stories (or dealt with the situations!) of the retired pastor who sticks around and makes things difficult for the long-suffiering current pastor. Today's question comes from the other side - what happens when we are the ones who've retired? Our colleague has retired and she is not involved in her previous parish, but she is still in the community and wants your advice:

I would love to see some discussion of this one:  what are the best ethical and collegial guidelines for a RevGal who retires from her parish and from full-time regular ministry but remains in the (large -- 700,000) community, and whose children continue to worship at Previous Parish?

I think we all know about retired/moved clergy who make nuisances of themselves with or without do we not become them?

Yes -- it's my own situation!  I think I've avoided some of the hairier traps...but I would really like some other minds on this one, because it's a much bigger and subtler challenge than I imagined it to be.

[My children suggest I just send a pretty card to the Rector who preceded me, with the message: "I take it all back."]

Sharon Temple responds:
This is a great question, and one that I am so happy that you are so conscientiously asking it.  Here are my suggestions:

Take the new rector to lunch, the only agenda being to let her/him know that you care about her/him and the congregation and that you support his/her ministry in every way.  Be a caring colleague to him/her.  Welcome him/her to contact you at any time if there is anything that you can do to show her/him that support.  If you truly are social friends with one or two people in the church, reveal that at this time, and the two of you agree on boundaries.  Everyone, especially the rector, needs to know that your responsibility, if there is one, in that church is to support the current rector and that you and s/he are on the same team. 

I would only go back to your former church for family baptisms or other rites, and for the occasional very special "performance" if it involves your  child or grandchild. Be simply a person in the congregation.  Consider not staying for any after-party.  Don't accompany them to the church picnic or annual (whatever big event).  

I would encourage you not to call anyone in the congregation for any reason -- including births, deaths, major tragedies, etc.  Don't go to funerals and funeral visitations.  If you feel you must respond to something big, send one card, signed with simply your name, no "Rev." or "Pastor."  

If you get a request from a former parishioner, tell them to talk to their rector, and then you yourself call him/her to let them know of the conversation.

And if you get any complaints from anyone about the new rector, your first response will ideally be:  "Have you talked to her/him about that?"  The next thing you say will ideally be:  "You need to talk to her/him about that."  And don't call the rector to report this.

Karen Sapio writes:
I'm on the opposite side of that equation.  There is a large, church related retirement community in my town so there are several former pastors and/or their widows who live nearby.  (Although my immediate predecessor lives a few states away). 

I would suggest inviting the new pastor for coffee/lunch whatever and having a frank conversation about the potential pitfals.  Explain that you are trying to do this right, that you will decline requests from active members to perform pastoral functions like weddings and funerals.  Ask her/him to call you if he/she perceives any problems brewing and promise to call him/her if you find yourself in one of those "gray areas" of relating to a former parishoner and need input.  Gray areas might include: visiting friends (who happen to be church members) in the hospital or at home after surgery or chemo, weddings for young adults who grew up in the church and don't know the new pastor who now live elsewhere and want you to perform their wedding in their town, etc.

Muthah+ offers:
Dear Sistah Retiree:

Ohh, Sistah, I understand totally!  We may be retired, but God isn't done with us yet! 

First of all, you have never been pastor to your children.  Your former parish understands that.  Best bet is to make friends with the present rector.  Explain to her/him your situation and that you agree not to meddle in the parish and that you will take directions from him/her.  As long as you are open about your 'noninvolvement' in the parish, your statis will be that of 'rector emeritus' rather than 'that meddlesome priest.'  You make it clear to your children and your former parishioners that you visit as family, not as pastor/priest. You also make it clear that you will not visit in the parish without contacting the present pastor of your presence. Transparency, a real desire for the present rector to suceed, and a well-worn collegiality can assist the present pastor to the place of real leadership. It helps keep your eye on Christ's ministry in that place rather than 'your' ministry, 'my' ministry, or some previous rector of 30 years ago.

When visiting the kids, make it a point to visit with the present pastor to chat about the parish, about all those *&%*% individuals who were problems, laugh and help him/her to laugh at the sticking points in their ministry.  Be a wise colleague rather than someone who can fix present problems.  Be an ear and a comfort rather than a problem solver.  Remember, your successor knows your ministry and your faults better than you do.  Own your faults and bless the present pastor in being the one who will correct them. 

If there is anything that we retired women clergy have to offer those who come after us it is friendship.  All too often we have been caught up in the 'competition' for jobs, 'competition' for success.  With retirement we can truly become the glue in our dioceses, synods and conferences, offering steady friendship, a ministry of presence and a witness to faithful leadership that is not based on self-interest.  Even if you think that the present pastor is a total dolt, offer that colleague unwavering support and collegiality. 

Another important part of our vocation is to be intentional in our present ministry.  Just because we are drawing pension does not mean that we do not have a significant ministry.  Be clear and claim what you want to do and do not want to do.  Be clear with the rector of the parish which you attend about what you want to do.  I attend a parish where the rector lets me preach occasionally and I teach adult ed. courses for him.  He loves having someone who will let him let his hair down and shoot the breeze.  We've shared our faith stories and are learning what each other needs to be faithful to Christ in our work together. 

And Terri counsels:
I like what your children have suggested, not that you need to do it, but the suggestion makes me chuckle.

The most important aspect for the wellbeing of the congregation is to make certain that you do not become triangulated into congregational concerns. This means: make certain that the current pastor trusts you and knows that you have her/his back by not saying or doing anything with members of the congregation that relates to the life of the congregation; call the current pastor if you hear things that are of concern - in other words if you do get triangulated do what you have to do to de-triangulate yourself by going to the sources and sharing information - don't carry the anxiety, it's not yours; tell members of the congregation that you will not discuss congregational life other than simple stuff like "Oh, there's a whatever event?" Or "Thank you for letting me know about the funeral,wedding, baptism, but I cannot attend." ; if you bump into members of your fomer church - or if after a time (a year of being gone) you have coffee or lunch with one of them - steer the conversation to your personal lives not church suff; boundaries are so important. But mostly, if/when members of the church talk to you about "issues" that are rising in congregational life don't comment on them - refer people to back to who ever is part of the issue - encourage them to talk to each other, not you. You do not need to be the one who carries the anxiety, instead be one of the voices that encourages the membes and leaders to work things through for themselves and with each other. This is especially important with your children who remain in the parish - a fact which automatically keeps you a part of the life of the congregation - and requires you to be very clear about what that means. Hopefully the leadership at the church is healthy and you can support the leaders and remain an intentionally self-differentiated former pastor. If it's not healthy you still need to remain differentiated, not part of the system, by encouraging the leadership to work things through themselves.

One way to know if you are getting involved is if you begin to feel "anxious" (or invested or concerned) about what is going on and have the impulse to do something. All you can or should do is encourage people to work out their own anxiety and work on yourself (with a spiritual director/therapist?)  so that their "stuff" is not your concern.

Also, when you bump into former members be authentic. You can still care and share stories about life - you just don't want to fall into the role of pastoral care or directing a course of action. Listen, and say you'll hold them in prayer, and make sure they have told the pastor and leadership team.

Lastly - I hope you have the means to travel and leave the area frequently. It will be good for all of you.

Primarily, I hope all goes well and you enjoy your retirement.


Great question and fantastic answers. Thank you, Matriarchs, for sharing your wisdom!

What about the rest of you? What experience or advice would you offer? Please share your thoughts in the comments section. And, as always, send your questions to us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I've been on the "still there" side of 2 rector retirements, once as the interim and once as the continuing assistant.

    In the first case, which was well done, the rector told me from the get go that I was welcome to invite him to participate in any event that anyone wanted me to invite him to...and he would always be unavailable! He was good to his word, too :-)

    The second one did not go as smoothly. The rector still lives in the community and did not make the break cleanly. Twice I caught him (and that's the only word for it, because of the look of guilt on his face) in the elevator at the hospital, in his clericals, visiting parish members. Instead of taking responsibility for separating himself from the congregation, when asked by a member about participating in something, he'd say, "Well, I'll have to get permission from the interim [not me that time]." It didn't help that one of his adult family members continued to attend and to host a weekly group in their home, and he would visit with those folks each time :-o Several years later, everyone knows he would still like to come back to worship here, and it still would be inappropriate. This was a fairly healthy rector who retired on a positive note, but he just hasn't ever completely separated.

    My suggestions: painful as it may be, the new rector may not even want to have lunch with you, and not necessarily for unhealthy reasons; make the invitation, but in a friendly note, not a phone call. If s/he chooses to call, fine, and if not, okay. That note is a good place to indicate, as someone else suggested, if there are a handful of people with whom you are likely to maintain social contact, just so that Mother New doesn't wonder what's going on when she runs across you having lunch with said person. Find another church and get involved there, so it is clear to all that you have a new church home. Even if it's what you would desperately love, don't indicate to anyone that you are waiting for the time you can come back to St. Former's, because then there will be people waiting with you.

    I have seen that it is really hard to leave for retirement the people in whom one has invested so much time, energy, and life. Take time to separate and grieve, and to acknowledge what may be a sense of rootlessness for a while; retirement can be a challenging change of roles for anyone, and especially so for clergy.

  2. I think if you get any requests you should gracefully decline. Do not tell them to ask the present pastor. What is that pastor going to do --Say no? It puts them in a bad situation. Don't ask if it's okay with the present pastor. Even if it is, it's a bad precedent. Just say no.

  3. Dear all -- thank you beyond words. A lot of good confirmation of what I thought was so (always encouraging!)
    I admit I have "stepped in it" once or twice in the last 15 months, acknowledged it, and have been graciously forgiven.
    But doggone it is hard when you hear "My dad's dying and he really really wants to see YOU."
    Still working on it, much more happily in view of the e-company I keep!
    blessings and hugs!


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