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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Responding to Parishioner Hospitality

Life as a pastor means fielding a lot of social invitations. What are the expectations for how we express appreciation for such hospitality, and what are the rules for reciprocating? Our question this week comes from a colleague sorting these issues out and looking for input. Read on:

So far, we have received a lunch or dinner invitation each Sunday.  I know it's a bit of 'let's meet the new pastor and her family' thing and the invites will decrease soon.  We've accepted each invitation and profusely thanked our host(ess) after each meal.  Still I wonder if I should also send a thank you note as well.
There are a couple of families that have been particularly helpful (beyond a invite to lunch) and we feel that we should do something for them in return.  And there is a family that I could see us spending additional time with, as they have a son close to our son's age (one of the very few kids his age).  This is a very small community and I am aware that my spouse and son will most likely make friends with some of my parishioners - if they want to have social contacts, there's just not much of a choice.
So I am seeking advice.  What is appropriate to express appreciation for an invitation to a meal?  Should we plan on issuing a return invite (hubby likes to cook, so having people over for dinner is not a burden)?  How do other's handle favors/gifts to the pastor?   What are the pitfalls of accepting meal invitations and socializing with parishioners?  

Muthah+ responds:
Socializing with parishioners is both a blessing and a curse.  In small communities Sunday dinners are the way that new people are brought into the community. Invitations are important to accept and enjoy.  You also want to encourage the kind of hospitality that they are offering but there are several points you need to consider:
  1. How much do you want your family to be an extension of your ministry?
  2. How do you plan to set up the boundaries for healthy pastor/parishioner relationships?
  3. How much privacy do you and your family need to maintain good mental health?
Everyone has different needs.  As your newness wears off, these invitations will die down but enjoy them if you can.  You may reciprocate if you can, but perhaps an invitation to several families at once for a backyard supper might help. It gets costly to reciprocate to every invitation.
If you need to say to an invitation, "Can we do that at another time?  My family needs to have a Sunday Dinner at home.  You are also telling your flock that you do have boundaries and that YOU will set them. 
Remember that when you are making friends in the parish, when you leave that parish you will need to leave your friends too.  This is extremely hard. And it has been the hardest thing I have experienced in parish ministry.  If you can, cultivate friends outside of the parish too, it will help.  I have found that friendships with the families of other clergy in town were ones of long-standing. 
In my first parish I lived right on main street in dead center of town. All clergy become "our" clergy in small towns and it doesn't matter whether people are members of your particular church. I was fair game to anyone who walked by even when I was working in the garden or in the grocery.  Finally, because my tradition wears clerical collars, they began to understand that if I had my collar on, I was "working" and if I didn't, I wasn't.  We would laugh about it, but it was one way to set some boundaries for myself.  Being a cleric in a small town does mean that you live in a fishbowl.  But fishbowl living isn't hard when you have nothing to be afraid of in Christ.
Thank you notes, I think, are age related:  Older folks appreciate them (and are often sticklers about them); emails work just fine for younger folk.  But an attitude of gratitude is always important with your parishioners.  If they know that you are happy about being in their town, folks will generally do back flips for you.  But always remember you are an outsider.  They will ALWAYS see you as such--even if you are there 30 years.  But that is the value of clergy--we ARE outsiders, but trusted outsiders.  We bring newness to them for their sakes.
Take time to look at your family's needs and wants so that such invitations do not cut into your own need for family time. And enjoy your first cure.  They have much to teach you--more than you have to teach them at first.  They have generally been Christian in that place for generations and you have to find out just how they have lived their Christianity so that what you bring may be accepted.   

And Terri writes:
It is my practice to write a handwritten thank you note to parishioners who have had me over for a meal or a gathering, or done something for me. I think it goes a step further than an email or a verbal thank you, especially in the early days of a new call. I also use really pretty note cards for the thank you. I keep it brief, but gracious. 

Secondly, I like to entertain and have members over to my home every now and then. I have done this when I live in a rectory (manse, parsonage) and when I have lived in my own home. I often invite parents and their children since it is a better for the kids to get to know me, and me them, in a smaller setting. I also have leadership groups over for a thank you dinner, at the end of a program year. And this year I plan to have a Christmas open house with Christmas tree decorating for the kids. Tentatively I am planning a family time with hot cider and cookies and then an adult time later with mulled wine and cheese. I'm thinking about a Sunday afternoon from 2pm-5:30pm with families from 2-3:30, adults from 4-5:30ish...a stop in, visit, come as you can.

Lastly, I have had members of the congregation who are friendly with me and friends with my husband and kids. It's worked out well, with only a little effort on my part to reinforce good boundaries. By this I mean I do not share personal details of my marriage and family with members of the congregation, as I would a friend. 

I hope you and your family find living in this community to be delightful and that you are able to find appropriate friends and colleagues for you, even though those folks cannot be members of the congregation!

Thank you, Matriarchs, for sharing your wisdom and your experience! What about the rest of you? What thoughts would you offer in response to these questions? Please respond in the comments, and, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, drop us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I second the idea of issuing return invitations "in batches" -- George Herbert (almost 500 years ago, but who's counting) said that the country priest should entertain ALL his parishioners. And he meant ALL. Easier to do that in batches.

    And I second the hand-written thank-you's too. To everyone, for everything. I knew a curate once...being forewarned to have appropriate stationery ready for Christmas (the parish gave a lot of Christmas gifts) and curate's expectation was that thank you notes were only written for "BIG" gifts. A teaching moment.

    Also not forgetting CHILDREN. I remember dragooning a couple of young siblings at the last minute into our Christmas pageant...and their Mom told me later they were astonished to receive SEPARATE thank you notes.

  2. We have delighted in entertaining many members of our parish with what has become an annual tradition: a "Leftover Party" the day after Christmas. The timing is sort of insanity in that I'm darned tired on that day, but on the other hand, no one expects much of me or my house! We invite lots of people and usually have 30-50 come; the numbers also help ease the cleaning burden, as it's crowded enough that few really notice the stuff around. It's a potluck for which we provide the drinks (though folks often bring those too), paper goods, utensils, and either a bbq'd turkey or a ham. The invitation specifically encourages bringing leftovers, in any amount and in foil, saran, half-full serving dishes, whatever. The point is fun, fellowship, and ease; it must be working, because one year when we went away on the 26th, there were a lot of disappointed parish folk.

    So, that's simply to describe one way we've found to welcome people to our home, in recognition of their friendship and kindness toward us, without overwhelming ourselves.

  3. Betsy! Very brainy solution! Thank you!

  4. i've been in the same small town for quite a while now, but i still send handwritten thankyous for gifts... always!

    when i was new, i hosted front porch coffees once a week in the summer as a "get to know you" group thing... and held an annual Christmas open house. the parish had extensively remodeled the parsonage so it was my way of letting folks in to see it all dolled up for the holidays and to let them know i was taking care of it...

    i think the boundaries are the toughest thing... it's important to know when you and/or your family need your own time... which models for the congregation, good self care.

  5. I write thank-you notes, but I almost never entertain parishioners in my own home. In my previous parish I did, as I had a nice parsonage for entertaining. My home now is significantly smaller than that parsonage (almost by half) and we haven't felt like we could entertain very much - our house feels shabby and cramped compared to the houses of those who have us over. It's a loss, for sure. I would love to be one of the pastors who has a Christmas Open House or some such. Maybe some day I will be, but for now I have had to be content to receive the hospitality of others without reciprocation, but with gratitude.

  6. I used to host a "day after" turkey dinner AT the church -- Dec. 26th, Easter Monday, Thanksgiving Monday...I would cook the turkey (actually, 2 turkeys and a ham), and other folks brought everything else. Usually about 40-45 people. I thought at first it might gather and comfort waifs, strays, and loners, but families came, it was always a very mixed bag and very festive and happy.

  7. My favorite leftover was the friend who brought the half-burned candles from their Christmas dinner table :-)

    We used to have a Labor Day potluck in our backyard for families with small children; we provided taco shells, tortillas, and meat, and we asked them to bring the toppings. Made for a very kid-friendly meal and environment (one bathroom was available, but other than that the house was off-limits), and--like the Leftover Party--allowed us to invite many people at a time.

  8. Great ideas, especially as we consider how to entertain in our new call. Love the Leftover party!


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