This week’s question arose out of conversation during a pre-ordination retreat; but I’ve heard it from more than a few long-serving clergy, and indeed it has arisen for me also. I suspect it may be just about endemic to our experience across genders and across the denominational spectrum!
Our enquirer asks:
I have come to ordained ministry later in life, and have been surprised at some of the issues which have arisen that were never a problem while I worked in my former profession. I am wondering how to reply gracefully and appropriately to family and friends when they want me to function as their own clergy person. Most of them are not practising members of a congregation; but they seem to think that "of course" I will preside at funerals, weddings, baptisms and provide prayers at various functions. When, if ever, is this appropriate? And how do I respond to them when it's inappropriate?
Here’s a response from Heidi who blogs at You don't have to listen. I just like to talk.
Dear Pastor Ma'am,
This is a BIG question which may explain why I have a LONG answer.
For me, the first issue is whether or not you ever do non-member weddings, funerals or baptisms. Take the question out of the personal realm. If I showed up at your church would you baptize my child, knowing that you might never see us in church again? Will you do a non-member wedding? If a funeral home calls and says they need someone to do a graveside service, will you do it? Some of this may not be your choice to make. Does your congregation or denomination have policies related to such activities? If they don't then I think you need to set a policy for yourself. Having said that, since it's your policy, you can always change it. I know I did.
Number two: will you do these services for family and friends? I have done weddings, funerals and baptisms knowing that the people involved were not committed to continuing their relationship with my congregation or any other. And that's okay with me. I performed those duties with the same care that I would have taken with a devoted church member. I was clear in explaining that this was a service of the congregation and I would behave just as if they were members. It took me a while to get to that point. What has always made the difference for me is that by serving in this way, I got to represent a God that says, "Yes, I love you, even when you don't come to church every week. Or even every month. Or even every year!"
Third, when the answer is "no," I think you simply tell them why you cannot or will not be the pastor at a function and give your reason. If you were a doctor or a lawyer or a realtor, you wouldn't automatically say "yes" to every request. Friends and family need to know however, that we take their requests seriously and that there is a reason for declining.
As you may guess, there have been days when I have wondered if I made the right choice. That was going to happen if I said "yes" or "no." I just decided at a certain point to say "yes" believing that a positive response offers more opportunities to bear witness to the love of God.
Finally, I think praying in public or at family gatherings is a completely separate issue. You are going to be asked to pray at meals and gatherings, thousands of times. Sometimes the invitation will be awkward and sometimes it will come with great honor. Don't say "no." Not ever. Praying is something we're known for so claim it! Be yourself. Tell the truth. Even if it is an ugly or stupid request, it's just another chance to honestly talk with God. And when is that ever a bad thing?
Best of luck!
Heidi aka RevHRod
And more wisdom on the subject, from our Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness.:
Ohhh, a toughie question! Since none of my family has even heard me preach in my 30 years of ordination, I am not quite the one to ask BUT.... First and foremost you cannot be the priest/pastor to your own family. They need their own pastor. In small towns it is important to have colleagues that can be this for your spouse and children. Sometimes it may be someone of a different denomination or in a different town. This is especially important for children. It is so easy to confuse the role of parent and pastor that the spouse or child misses out on both accounts.
If your family is unchurched, as is mine, they will consult me when it comes to funerals, baptisms or the like but I generally handle it by giving information only--not counsel.
Depending on how involved your family is in your vocation, a discussion with them about what they want from you might be helpful. It is important to discuss what you are willing to do and what you aren't. Everyone wants to hatch/match/dispatch the members of one's own family. But I would suggest that premarital counseling should be done by someone outside of the family and perhaps the wedding planning done by a colleague if the pastor is heavily invested in the service (i.e. mother of the bride, etc.). This allows the couple to have some freedom to express their desires.
It is impossible to be pastor to your parents. But often that is as much a desire on their part to be a part of your life now that you are grown up and "important." I believe my mother was a bit jealous of the intimacy of counseling that I had with parishioners. But we both knew that she wasn't about to heed anything I was going to say--I was her kid! She would often ask me questions about faith, but they were mostly informational rather than discussions of the faith journey.
Hope this helps.
Muthah+ (AKA, Lauren A. Gough)
And finally – from Jan, blogging at A Church for Starving Artists.
Dear Family Pastor,
My husband - who is also a pastor - was asked to baptize a friend's infant without mentioning Jesus and he simply said he couldn't do it. The baby was going to be raised Jewish like his mother. But the baby's father was vaguely Christian - and my husband's oldest friend.
The issues we face as "the personal pastor" involve
- our time (we might not be able to do it for reasons of date & time)
- our theology (we can't baptize a baby as a sentimental act)
- our work (if we are the officiating clergy, we are working rather than enjoying a friend/family event as an invited guest.
This can also get expensive. If we were planning to go to a cousin's wedding across the country anyway, there is no extra expense. But if we didn't plan to go and then we've been asked to officiate, we will be spending big bucks to travel, stay in a hotel, etc. You then have a business arrangement on your hands. In my opinion, the friend/relative must pay your way.
Blessings & be strong!
A Church for Starving Artists
…And what do YOU think? Lots of wisdom here – any alternative points of view out there in the ether?
We have just one question in the queue at this point – always happy to receive your quandaries and conundrums at firstname.lastname@example.org!