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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ask the Matriarch -- Tangled Family Systems

tree tangle
It can be a mess when family trees and church family trees become entangled. Here is this week's question. (Get a cup of coffee. It's a long one.)

I could really use some matriarch advice.  I have a very complicated situation in my church.

In my congregation I have a mother and daughter, both grown, where I have served for two years.  They have had a difficult relationship since long before my coming to this church.  The mother is now very elderly and is beginning to show signs of diminished mental capacity.  Though she has had a long and productive history in the church, her extremely negative attitude has somewhat alienated her from the congregation, and I continually try to reach out to her to bridge the gap.

Her daughter is an active member of our church – driving the church van and teaching Bible study among her many ways of serving - and is generally well liked by the congregation.  She has been unemployed for years and lives in a house owned by the mother (without paying rent, of which the mother continually reminds me).  Recently, the mother called to inform me that she had been served with complaints regarding the property on which her daughter lives.  She has learned that the daughter is now living with a former boyfriend on the property.  The boyfriend has a very bad history with our church and had previously gone to prison.  He is now, I believe, on parole.  Certain things they are doing on the property have caused the complaints.

The mother was very upset about the complaints.  I tried to help by making calls to the county courthouse in an attempt to get answers to questions that she had.  She didn’t use any of the information that I gave her, however.  Instead, she has called a former pastor of the church (two before me, and who has deep, lingering ties) and asked for his help.  This pastor is the executor of her will and I feel reasonably comfortable with his providing legal help as he has brought their shared attorney into the picture.  When I speak to the mother, however, she continually makes references to this pastor being “first” to her, how he helps her and how much he cared about the congregation when he was here, implying that I do not do enough.  These jabs are not atypical of her general negativity, but are still troubling and hurtful.

I have called the daughter, hoping to learn more, but the daughter didn’t offer any information and I was leery of pushing too hard.  The mother says she is planning to sell the house which would likely leave the daughter homeless.  I have thought about trying to get them together to talk with me, but I believe their long and strained history would make their situation far beyond my training in pastoral counseling.  I once suggested to the mother that they bring a professional counselor into the situation, but this resulted in an angry outburst toward me.

My questions are:

  1. What exactly is the role of the pastor when it comes to the legal matters of parishioners?  I would like to help, but have little knowledge in this area.
  2. How far is too far to step into family situations?  Especially when only one party has invited you in?
  3. What is a helpful pastoral role in such a situation?  I try to lend a pastoral ear and offer spiritual support, but it feels woefully inadequate; especially when a previous pastor is stepping in to play the hero.
  4. Though our God is a God of grace, what limits do we place on those who teach and lead in our churches?  If the daughter is, in fact, living with her boyfriend, should this mean limiting her leadership role?  Like many small membership churches, we don’t have many volunteers.  Asking her to make a change could have terrible and far-reaching repercussions.  Also, it begs the question of just who among us is worthy to teach or to lead.

I would really appreciate any advice or thoughts you might be able to give on this situation.  Thank you!

Our first answer this week comes from Sarah, blogging at Sarah's Space:

I've re-read your description and questions a few times. What I notice is your own red flags being raised, I think you should pay attention to them. You seem uneasy. I think, rightfully so. I would be very uneasy. The previous pastor is executor and they have a mutual attorney. Let them figure out the legal things.

Like in most small churches, there are so many triangles here I wish we had a space to draw them all on a marker board to talk them all out over coffee, tea, or diet coke. I bet you haven't even had a chance to name them all if these are the ones you are telling us about. It's the best and worst part of small churches and communities. Everyone knows everyone. And everyone is connected to everyone. Or at least it feels that way.
I don't have solid answers to the numbered questions. Here's what I do have:

Don't hold back on the right decision because it will have negative consequences for the church programs. Ultimately, that will hurt more deeply. Do what is right because it is right. Acknowledge that it hurts. And say something like, I'd rather hurt like this now for doing the right thing than hurt more later for not doing the right thing. 

Next we hear from Muthah+, at Stone of Witness:

What a mare's nest you have inherited!  The greatest thing that I would suggest is try NOT to 'fix' this situation.  Your 'previous pastor' may have destroyed any possibility that you have to minister in this situation by over-stepping the bounds of what a pastor should do.  What the pastor is there for is not to save people from themselves.  You are there to bring the Good News that Christ saves.  The bitterness of this mother-daughter feud keeps them from hearing the Good News and that is where the rub comes in. 

In my understanding of my role, I do not have an obligation to get in the middle of family feuds. The triangulation makes the situation worse.  It  keeps them from doing the hard work of getting their lives straight.  You can listen but the thing that you must do is to remind them that they MUST talk to each other in the name of Christ.  The only legal issue you may have to attend to is when the mother becomes incapable of caring for herself and must have an advocate through the state or other agency.  I doubt if you will have to step in here as the previous pastor has already done that.  Continue to assure them of your prayer and when they are ready to make some changes in their relationship, THEN you may be able to help them in ancillary ways. 

These days I do not quibble about living arrangements.  There are too many variables.  There are too many living 'without benefit of clergy' for all kinds of reasons that I choose not to die in that ditch.  If it were to cause a problem in the worshiping community, talk it over on with your board or you pastoral committee. ( I keep thinking of the 78 yr old and the 92 yr old that are living and loving each other and marriage would change their retirement packages so much that it would destroy both of them.) Being sensitive to the financial issues in peoples lives is an important consideration these days.  I had a previous pastor force a couple to marry because they were living together; it was disastrous for them and their children.  

Sharon, who blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy, adds these thoughts:

Friedman's book
Dear Compassionate Pastor:
You have presented us a classic Edwin Friedman congregational systems situation. I highly recommend his book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  He identifies "the families of the congregation" as being one of the three critical forces in congregational life.   That is why your instincts are *right on* that this is both a pastoral concern and a congregational crisis. You do have a role to play and some effective ways to play it out.
1.  Pastors (and former pastors) have no legal role in the off-site matters of parishioners.  Your role as current pastor is to listen, ask clarifying questions, connect them with people &/or groups in the church or community, pray with them, and be the non-anxious presence of Christ as best you are able.
2. You can surely go wherever you are invited in order to provide a pastoral presence.  A pastor can also (always!) reach out to someone who hasn't asked.  If you are rebuffed, then let it go.
3.  PREVIOUS PASTOR in the mix!  Ack!  Full disclosure: This hits my buttons big time. I have witnessed a lot of damage done to congregations and parishioners and current pastors by former pastors who had every excuse for their behavior with their "friends" except a note from their mother.  I have no patience whatsoever with former pastors (professional church leaders) whose boundaries are too squishy. A pastor (former pastor included) has no business being the executor of a former parishioner's estate.  Ample evidence of inappropriateness on FP's part:  The "Mom" feels OK about saying he is "first" to her.  This is why a pastor needs to leave all former parishioners in every way, for good.
Anticipating the rebuttal:  Yes, I have a few actual friendships with people from my previous pastorates with whom I have current, outside-the-local-church interests.  These friendships are sacred and intentional.  We always start with "the talk" and it's this simple:  "[Name of current pastor] is your pastor and my pastoral colleague.  The only thing I want to hear from you about that church is all the ways you are supporting her/him in your ministry together.  This friendship cannot happen for me if I get any idea, from you or anyone, that you are anything less than her/his biggest supporter and cheerleader."  My colleague deserves that, and so do I.
Perhaps you can get help or advice from your judicatory.  Mine were not helpful in this regard, but it's worth a try.
4.  I am not an "anything goes" kind of person.  Still, you can't impose a standard that hasn't been put in place by the congregation. Minimum qualifications need to be spelled out in a policy that applies to all church leaders &/or teachers.  What about people who smoke or drink or gamble?  What about people who don't tithe or teachers who never go to an adult Bible study to grow their faith?  To those who express concern:  "Sounds like it's time for the ________ (church council, elders, C.E. committee) to talk about our policies."
These are my thoughts.  I pray that the ideas you get here today will encourage you and inspire your next steps.

Next we hear from Heidi/RevHRod:

Dear Pastor-
  1. I think you answered your own first question.  You don't have extensive knowledge in this area.  You know she has a lawyer.  It sounds like it is going to get stickier before it gets better, so keep referring her back to her attorney.
  2. If only one family member wants you to be involved, it is going to be pretty tough to make a lot of headway.  And does she really want you to take action or is she just making a lot of noise?  She seems to have an agenda but I don't think she is looking for a peaceful resolution. 
  3. Do you know what it means when a Southern woman says, "Bless your heart?"  She doesn’t mean it. It’s her nice way of telling you to put on your grown up pants and deal with it.  This is the attitude I would suggest you take with the older parishioner.  You are not going to win the popularity contest she seems to be running, and honestly, who'd want to?  I would be doing a lot of the "smile and nod" while saying, "Well, bless your heart.  Isn't it nice that Pastor Yada Yada has been able to help you with this problem." Speaking of Pastor Y, is he retired?  If he is, could you formalize the work he is doing.  If they want him to take care of her, create a format where that is a part of your plan.  If he is actively serving in another congregation, why does he think he can meddle?  I think it is time to figure out what his investment is in this relationship.
  4. If you feel it is inappropriate for the younger woman to be serving in a volunteer position given her current living situation, then you need to take action.  Attitudes vary by place, denomination and countless other variables. What might be okay at one church, wouldn't fly at another.  If you take action, make sure that it is a decision of your leadership team and not simply your choice.
And finally, wisdom from earthchick:

Wow! What a complicated situation! You are right that a professional counselor belongs in this situation, but it certainly sounds like that's not a live possibility at this point.

So in terms of what you, as the pastor, can and should do in this situation, here's how I see it:
1 - In terms of legal matters, I would say your role is necessarily limited, both because you have little knowledge, and because: it's not your job! Your job is to be pastor, not legal counsel. That the previous pastor is executor makes it seem to me that there is a history here of this woman drawing pastors in inappropriately. Trust your gut, and be wary.
2 - I would, again, be wary. Whenever only one person invites me into a situation, I hesitate with moving too far in. In the situation you describe, I would be disinclined to go any further. You have reached out to the mother - and she is already leaning on this previous pastor. You have reached out to the daughter, who has not offered much information but does remain an active member of your congregation. Personally, I would not try to get the two of them together to talk. You can't solve or fix this. If they both decide to involve you, that's different, but I certainly wouldn't initiate anything.
3 - Let the previous pastor play hero if he likes. The real role of pastor often feels inadequate. That's part of the grace of it - we are not the hero, the fixer, the solution, or the messiah. We are just the ones who listen, who pray, who walk along beside. We offer who we are and what we have - which is not professional counseling, social work, or legal counsel. 
4 - I may differ here from what others advise. Personally, I wouldn't mess with this. What you know about this woman's living situation, you know from her mother, who is known to be negative and who may not have accurately described the situation. Even if it is accurate, I would be extremely hesitant to ask a teacher to step down because she was living with a boyfriend. Unless you know the situation for a certainty, and unless there are clearly stated guidelines in your congregation about the expectations of teachers, I would recommend letting it go for now. I would focus my pastoral energy on getting to know the daughter and her situation, listening to her as she is willing to share, and discerning from there what a wise course (down the road!) might be.

This is a tough situation. Try to be clear about your own calling as pastor, which will require you to be patient with yourself and the situation, even when they are impatient for resolution. 


Readers, what think you? There are plentiful red flags in this scenario, and the Matriarchs have done a great job pointing to them. We welcome additional thoughts in the comments. 

If you have a question for our panel, please send it to Ask the Matriarch


  1. Interesting answers from everyone. One of the strengths of the RevGals and A the M is this kind of sharing. Ministry can be very isolating so A the M helps!

  2. The former pastor being the executor of the estate alone raises huge red flags for me. In my denomination at least that is a big no-no. That said, that piece is done. I think all you can do is offer appropriate pastoral support to mother AND daughter without getting pulled into the middle...easier said than done, I know.

    I also agree with those who have said they wouldn't address the daughter's living arrangements. Unless your church/denomination has a specific written policy, or it interferes in some way with the person's ability to do her job safely, not much you could do anyway, except cause more hard feelings.

    1. We had so many good answers, I did not add one of my own, but these two issues are the thorns for me. The former pastor, were he in my denomination (UCC) could jeopardize his ministerial standing through these actions. Where the daughter is concerned, there are many churches where no one would bat an eye at her living situation where the boyfriend is concerned. I've married daughters and granddaughters of the church who were living in homes bought with their partners; some even had the baby first. Better to keep them feeling part of the community than the alternative, in my humble opinion.

  3. It is not simple in a small community to remember and to focus on the role of just being the Pastor. We wear too many hats. Yet that is our call.
    Recently, I experienced a similar triangulation, very painful and the cause of much discernment. I realized that God gifts us all with specific gifts and talents because we are not called to do everything. Other professionals, police, lawyers, therapists, doctors, all have their calling as God's people and we, as Pastors, are modelling God's kingdom/community, when we connect folks with those gifts.
    I made a list of local therapists and their specialties to share with folks. I tell them, with complete sincerity, that these folks can help them be healthy and give them the focus and time that I cannot. I can be there spiritually, but I am not called to be a therapist (short term, goal focused counseling is quite different than serious characteristic/dynamics work).
    Like those above, I agree, the daughter and yourself need your own relationship apart from the mother's input in order for you to be her pastor. But I was really affirmed by the legal advice given above as I simply continued to support those who have those gifts and vocational focus; I don't, I don't want to, and I don't have to!
    finally, I think the part where you continue to deal with the mother as a pastor is important, aside from the boundary issues, your call to share communion, to pray for her needs, and to visit the sick and sheltered is intact, no matter who else is in her life. Bring her scripture to talk about, ask her favorite Bible stories, read them and then talk about them. It relieves the whole focus on her dysfunctions and brings to you gifts and blessings of her life-long experience in the Body of Christ.
    Good luck and God be with you. I truly dislike being in the position you're in...but it won't be the last time for either of us...we live in a fallen humanity. :)

  4. The problem may be that she is living with someone who has a bad history with the church, has been to prison, and is believed to be on parole now. It may be more about *who* she is living with than *that* she is living with someone.

    Regardless, the decision should be made based on your and/or the church's values not on how hard it will be to get a replacement.


  5. so much good wisdom here...I have just one sort-of thought to add to the mix. I hear your reaction to the mother's remarks about the previous pastor--I've heard similarly offensive things as I suspect most if not all of us have--and it suddenly occurred to me that what she says doesn't in fact MEAN the sense that the words coming out through her teeth are not necessarily connected to any objective reality whatever...any more than the quacking of a mallard in a pond is a reliable witness to anything other than the presence of a duck! It's just NOISE, and there is no obligation on you to internalize any of it or to respond in any authentic way -- "bless your heart" is as good a response as there ever needs to be.


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