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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ask the Matriarch -- When your Family and Friends Want You to Be Their Minister....

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! 
Jan Edmiston 
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!

Crimson Rambler


  1. Sally Lodge TeelJune 20, 2013 at 7:54 AM

    Great answers all.

  2. We're having our own busy family week, so I was too late to answer above.
    In an ideal world, all the people we love (or are related to) would have their own church homes, so these questions would not arise, but since the world is not so ideal, here are a few thoughts:
    1) I have not been in this position much. A relative by marriage asked me to preside at a graveside, which I gladly did without asking too many questions. I could see I was viewed as "family chaplain," and I received that in the nicest way possible. The woman who bred one of my dogs asked me to do her wedding; I said yes to that, too. In both cases I made sure there was no other clergyperson I was pre-empting. For the funeral, this was an interment in Maine, far away from the actual memorial service in Florida. For the wedding, the couple had a church background, but no current church membership.
    2) I get asked to pray a lot. I always say yes. Maybe because I grew up in a tradition where there was a lot of off-the-cuff prayer, it comes naturally to me. I'm delighted to do it, because I'm delighted to share my love of God and God's love for us in settings where neither might otherwise be mentioned.
    3) I agree wholeheartedly with Jan about situations that involve travel. If they aren't offering to pay expenses, and you wouldn't be going, say no.
    4) And if the request really doesn't sit right at the gut level, for whatever reason, say no, graciously but firmly. My non-church-attending brother had his first two children baptized by relatives of our father's. His youngest child came along after our father died and before I was ordained. He asked a family friend who had been among the clergy at our parents' funerals to baptize her, and the friend, an Episcopal priest, said she could not. She recommended my brother and his wife find a church home and have a baptism there. This ticked off my brother's wife, especially, but I totally understood. They wanted to have the baby "done." I think it was easier to say "no" as a family friend at a generational remove from my brother. As his sister, had I been asked, I probably would have gone along with it, leaving it to God to sort out the finer points of theology with them later. I take a pretty low barrier view of the sacraments, though, so your mileage may vary. It's not a low view of the sacraments, to be clear; it's because my view is high that I hesitate to deny them unless I can feel sure it's a travesty.
    5) Last, in response to Muthah+, where the immediate family is concerned, that's an ideal most of us can't accomplish. When I was a new pastor, I was the only driver in my family, so if my kids were going to church, it had to be with me. We gained a lot from being together. What that will mean for them when it's time to marry or baptize a child is a good question, one we'll address when it happens. I've confirmed all three of them, which was an honor and a blessing.

  3. I agree with everything Martha has said, and she has said it so well.

    All I want to add is that probably the first inkling of my calling to ministry was in the form of being invited to pray at family meals and gatherings. I think my family saw something that none of us was yet able to name. So now, when I am called on to pray, whether by family, friends, or acquaintances, I take it as an echo of that first recognition - that this is what I am called to do, to be a pastor, a parson, a priest, wherever I am, not just in church.

    (Which is not to say that only pastors are called to pray. It is just to say that in my family, where I was the first person ever ordained to pastoral ministry, the fact that I emerged as the one who wanted to pray and whom others asked to pray - this was a kind of marker or sign, a little hint of what I soon found myself feeling compelled toward.)

    So now, when I am asked to pray, I take it as a kind of affirmation and compliment, and I am happy to do it.

  4. As a caveat to what I'm about to say, I agree with Martha about the "gut check." My calling is from God, not Great Aunt Myrtle's stepson's niece who needs somebody to make her wedding "legal."

    That said, I generally tend to go along. I didn't feel that way early in my career, because I objected on principle to cheap grace, but I've come to understand that often, these people are asking me to "bring God" to their event. You and I all know that God doesn't need a ride, but I still see their awareness, however small, as a good thing. I make sure they know I will be acting as a Christian minister. If they don't want that, in my state anyone can sign a marriage license, and I am a firm believer in the priesthood of all believers. I will pray nearly anywhere, but those who ask me to need to know that the Holy Spirit and a lifetime of faith in a very specific God inspire the words of my mouth.

    1. If this were Facebook, I would click "like."

  5. I have not done last-minute weddings because I didn't have a good feel for how the bride and groom had thought through their marriage decision (i.e. right before shipping out, they decide they HAVE to get married... for no reason that they could explain.) I have done weddings where the persons involved don't have a church home and are staff at the hospital. I do explain that I don't do non-religious or non-Christian ceremonies and I give them the option of going to the courthouse. As far as baptisms go, as chaplain I baptize at the hospital, but only because the babies are not well enough to be sure to be going home soon. For some families, there is a lot of peace in knowing the baby is baptized. (Some of them then go home to their parish have another baptism... which is not exactly kosher, (ha) but I figure that's between them, God and their pastor.

    I do not do the funerals of close family members because I know me. I couldn't keep it together. And I tell them so.

  6. I'm in a strange position right now, not currently serving a church. A situation came up a couple of years ago that I didn't anticipate, when a friend of mine (actually the woman who at the time was my manicurist) unexpectedly lost her mother, with whom she was very, very close. In fact, the friend was accompanying her mother to a routine doctor's appointment when the woman died in the waiting room.

    The next day my friend called me to ask if I would conduct her mother's funeral. The decedent was a 'lapsed Catholic' and my friend and her husband had recently joined a new non-denominational megachurch, but didn't know the pastors there very well.

    My friend had sat across a table from me, literally holding my hands, every two weeks for over seven years. We'd talked about a lot of things. She knew my theology probably better than any of the people I'd served in congregations.

    At the risk of stepping on those male mega-church pastors' toes, I said yes, of course. It helped that the service was held at the local funeral home and not in a church. It was one of the most touching services I've ever had the privilege of being a part of, even though the crowd was almost completely "un-churched". If I'd stuck to the rules in an overly cautious manner, I would have missed out on the chance to demonstrate God's love and the hope of the resurrection to a crowd that probably hadn't heard that message in a while, if ever.

    Your mileage may vary, but a spirit of openness can be a very good thing when you least expect it.

  7. I'm thinking we DEFINITELY need a "likedy-like" button in the Comments section! Thank you for all these very good perspectives!


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