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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Leave-taking and boundaries

Healthy ministry rests, in part, on creating and maintaining appropriate boundaries; it's something we have to continue to work on in all phases of our ministry. Our question today focuses on how we do that when ministry in a particular setting ends but the minister remains geographically close. How does the minister enforce appropriate boundaries? Our colleague writes:

I started a new appointment just 9 miles down the road from my former appointment in July.  I've attempted to do good leave-taking with varying degrees of success.  In the spring, right before I left, a family announced a difficult cancer diagnosis.  Last week, I picked up a message on my answering machine from a family member that he was on his death bed and could I please come to the hospital.  I called the senior pastor to let him know that the situation sounded grave and was going to leave it at that.  But the family kept insisting that I come and the pastor finally invited me to come to be with them.  It felt weird.  I knew right then, I had made the wrong decision.  As I left the hospital that night, I told the wife that she needed to work with the pastors at her own church from now on.  The man died the next day and then I received another call, asking if I would participate in the funeral.  I said "no.  I did have prior commitments that day."  But it felt hard.  How can I better deal with leave taking?  If I hadn't gone to the hospital, I would have felt cold and uncaring.  Yet when I got there, I knew that this family needed to have a bonding experience with their current pastoral staff because they will be the ones to care for the family from now on.  Do any of your denominational bodies have trainings for pastors as they leave their current church and move to another one?  I did not have these types of issues previously, probably because I moved 3+ hours away.

Muthah+ responds:

Dear Careful Pastor:
My last parish was just 6 miles from my very first church so I know that there is often times a bit of emotional overlap.  I think you did just fine.  You went with the new pastor's grateful permission.  You did the merciful thing for the family AND then had the graciousness for the pastor to be absent for the funeral.  However, let it be known that you are not available to make hospital calls even for all those friends in the old parish.  They will eventually get the message.
This is one of the hardest parts of ministry that I know.  I have been gone from my last parish 2 years and am 1,000 miles away but I still care about those folks and wonder about them.  I have people in all my previous parishes that I keep up with   online but NEVER suggest anything, save my prayers. Those friends know that we clergy have boundaries we are obliged to keep.  We always need to check ourselves to know if we are responding to the needs of others because of our own need or the needs of others.  All too often we are dealing with our own needs.  It is a good way to check our motivations.
I do think we can maintain 'friends' in our previous churches without adding to the pastoral burdens of our succeeding pastors.  Being clear about your boundaries is important.

And Terri writes:
Good leave taking and maintaining healthy boundaries around leave taking is, as you acknowledge, very important for all concerned. The primary concern is that members of the congregation separate from you, the leave taker, and form new bonds and connections with the existing clergy and any new clergy who follow you. When members of the congregation are unable to end the previous relationship and form new bonds conflict or other problems can arise.

That said, in cases where the congregation has formed bonds with existing clergy and or new clergy, but for whom a connection with a previous clergy person remains important in their experience of church, then some flexibility can occur in the pastoral care boundaries. This only works when there is a clear, agreeable communication between members of the clergy – the existing clergy and the previous clergy – stating the boundaries upon which the previous clergy will re-enter a situation for pastoral reasons. If I read this correctly it sounds to me like the Senior Pastor invited you to come to the hospital and visit this family. If that is correct it may be that the Senior Pastor was agreeing to your presence in a pastoral capacity. Sometimes Senior Pastors are solid enough in their role as pastor and busy enough in their schedule that they are grateful to share some of the pastoral care with a colleague they trust. This is a conversation that should take place between the two clergy members, with the Senior Pastor setting the boundaries upon which the visit and pastoral care can take place. So the Senior Pastor might say something like, “I am really busy right now because of so many other pastoral issues. It would be helpful to me, as you are able, if you would visit  this family and help me help them through this end of life time. I will participate too, but their needs are greater than I alone can give.”  In this regard the Senior Pastor sets the limits and you respond. Of course you can always say that you are not comfortable with that and decline. But the idea is that the clergy members work it out, stay in communication, work as a team, and the clergy person who has left needs to ensure that the existing clergy remain the primary clergy, they are just assisting for this one situation. Of course, you run the risk of others wanting that kind of care from you and thus stretching you between two congregations. But on a case by case basis, with good communication between clergy, and the consent (or invitation of) the existing clergy, it can be done. And, calls such as this will diminish over time, with fewer people remembering you and/or wanting your presence. I have been on both sides of this kind of situation and have known it to turn out well, presuming that both clergy members are in good communication and that the previous clergy person does not undermine the existing clergy but serves only as a temporary pastoral assistant.

All that said, it seems that in this case the family has not moved on and formed a healthy bond with the existing clergy. Therefore your presence represented the primary clergy presence for them. That can indeed cause concerns for all involved. Helping to pave the way for them to bond with the existing clergy is important. Doing so in a gentle, firm, pastoral manner is crucial. Hopefully the clergy at the church recognize that they need to do some work to engage this family more deeply and help facilitate the bond. Perhaps, in fact, this happened with the funeral planning, the funeral itself, and the subsequent care that will be needed? Regardless it sounds as if you did a lot to remain appropriate in a complicated situation. And, as I said previously, I suspect that there will be fewer of these episodes as time goes on, even though you are only a short distance away.

Now, in terms of “training” for this kind of leave taking. No, I don’t know of any training in particular. However there are lots of books from the Alban Institute, and a variety of workshops, and other sources that can help understand the process more fully. Also helpful is any kind of “family systems in the congregation” training you can find, and/or the work of “Appreciative Inquiry” and grieving.

Many blessings on you ministry.

Thank you so much, matriarchs, for your thoughtful and thorough responses! We would love for the rest of you to join our conversation in the comments section, too. And, as always, if you have a question you would like for the matriarchs to discuss, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[com].


  1. Careful Pastor, thank you for being professional in regards to understanding leave-taking and pastoral care. I wish the former pastor where I serve would be as professional.

    I can certainly understand the awkwardness of the hospital visit and how hard it is be so close and still say "no". Bless you for helping other congregations begin to understand more fully that aspect of being the Church.

  2. Careful Pastor, in the denomination I am part of we have a service of closure when a placement concludes. part of that is the minter handing the pastoral rolls back to the appropriate person.
    when the new minster arrives, the rolls are handed to them as part of the service of Induction. the service of closure also includes a statement by the congregation recognising the person is no longer 'their' minister.
    If I can get a copy of the appropriate parts I will add it later.

  3. This was a ticklish situation, to be sure. Since you were clear in communicating with the sr. pastor, I think the issue really is where you (personally) are beating yourself up because you can't do what you'd LIKE to do for this family. And you know you can't. Give yourself grace... maybe change your phone number? and keep the professional distance...

    peace to you -- I've been through this so I know it's easy to beat yourself up.

  4. I will repeat here the very wise and helpful advice I received when I retired (and remained in the community but not in the parish) -- TRAVEL AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. And Thank You to the advisor, you know who you are, Gal!!!

  5. Thanks, all, for your thoughtful input!


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