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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: The Gracious Exit, or Get Me Out of Here!

"When can I leave without seeming rude?"
This week's question builds on a Facebook Group conversation.

Greetings Matriarchs and Rev-Mothers-in-God:
As a ministry student on my final and full-time placement I find that I am now doing more pastoral/ parish visiting.  I enjoy this part of ministry immensely, love listening to people's stories, pastoral issues, etc. but... there are some folk, who, whilst being utterly fab, seem to keep you pinned to the sofa for several hours.  This afternoon, a visit to a kindly and wonderful couple saw me there for 3 hours.  Obviously, if the visit has got into very deep pastoral stuff, that is entirely different from just a 'wee blether' ['blether' = 'chat'], however, any advice regarding appropriate and sensitive exit strategies when on parish visits would be most welcome!!


It's amazing how complicated ministry can be, isn't it? As a pastor who spent her first home visit eating cake for hours with a delightful couple who swore they hadn't been visited in 30 years, I feel your pain. Now's a good time to hear what more experienced pastors also learned the hard way.

Muthah+ writes:

Most folk know that you have other people to visit.  So set yourself a schedule that allows them to know that you care but also have to do other things.  Hospital visits should be short and sweet, after all they are there to heal and rest.  Home visits really shouldn't go more than an hour unless you get into one of those deep pastoral things that you have already alluded to.  Offer to return if it is needed.  When you are a pastor in a parish, you don't have the time to give 3 hours.  

You need to be the guardian of your own time.  Some people can't wait for you to go and others will keep you there all day.  But you must set your boundaries.

And kathrynzj adds:

Here are the three things that help me: 1) When I make the appointment I tell them that I am doing visits that day or in some other way plant the seed that I'm not staying for the afternoon; 2) when I arrive I let them know that I have an appointment an hour and half from when I've arrived (these are well visits, not hospital visits so I expect an hour) - so if I arrive at noon I'll say, "I'm so glad to spend some time with you, my next appointment/meeting/picking the kid up off the bus is at 1:30 so we have some time to catch up." 3) At any point between 50 minutes and 80 minutes when there is even the slightest bit of a pause I say, "This has been so wonderful, may I pray with you before I go?"

In my experience if they are not 'with it' enough to catch those social cues then in general they are not the types that will get upset if you finally just leave. 

And then there's this...

There were certain people who I knew I could visit if I needed a safe space or a quiet afternoon. Now that I'm in a congregation where I have a different role, I miss some of those deeper connections. Sometimes it's okay to get off the hamster wheel and enjoy your pastoral role.

Ruth Everhart keeps it short, but sweet:

Dear "N" -- I have been sunk into that very same sofa! Perhaps it would help to follow the advice about "an ounce of prevention." Announce your plans upon arrival: "I'm so happy I can stop by for the next (40 minutes). Yes, I'd love a cup of tea, and then I'll be pushing off at (2:45), as I have other visits to make. I'd love to hear what's new with you, then have a few minutes of prayer together." Good luck! 

Neither of these is the actual Rambler. 
And finally, The Crimson Rambler responds with her usual panache:

Dear N -- I too have sometimes arrived at a visit with an announcement of time constraints; but on a get-acquainted visit, I remember I used to set myself a tacit time-limit, and at that point make a "I should be going, I should push along" noise, and listen very carefully for the response -- and if the response was "Oh, but I was just about to put the kettle on" I would re-settle myself.  I did make some visits that were much too long, I know.  But it was a shock to my world-view to find out that parishioners wanted to be visited, were glad to see me, and reluctant to let me leave.  It was much easier when I was assistant-clergy with fewer demands on time and energy, because I often had the freedom to respond to situations that I did not expect to find -- for example, when I called upon a long-inactive member of the congregation and found her in terminal illness.  It was very good to be able to change plans and re-arrange schedules "in midstream."

On other occasions when I had to be elsewhere, I used to arrange with the parish secretary-- or a family member --  to page me tactfully at an appropriate interval -- 45 minutes or an hour, usually.

There was another learning, actually post-retirement.  I was doing interim ministry and was warned that a particular couple were "voraciously needy" and would eat up all my time, etc., etc.  In the event, I suggested to them that I come for a visit every week on a definite day at the end of the afternoon on my way home (they lived on my route homeward).  So they knew they would see me at 4:30 and we would have Holy Communion and prayers for their various ills and aches, and I would go promptly on my way with the assurance I'd see them again next week.  That worked very well...I was glad not to have the stress of having to decide whether or when to visit...they were happy...I was happy...and I got to know other aspects of who they were than just their "neediness."

The best of blessings to you in your visiting ministry -- and you'll be blessed in doing it, in the most delightfully unexpected ways!

Readers, what think you? What makes it hard to set these boundaries?

If you have a question for the Matriarchs, please send it to


  1. In addition to the lead-in expectations comments, I must admit I will sometimes set the timer on my cell phone before entering a visit. When it "rings" I can comment as needed - usually - "oh, that's my reminder that I have (enter truthful commitment here) at (time).

    It has helped me both be accountable for my time & also to segue-way towards the door...and it can be easily disabled if I find something unexpected.


  2. The affirming, "O I am so glad we had a chance to get together! There just isn't time on Sunday to chat, is there. Would you like a prayer before I go?" And then, if you have school-aged kids and do visits in the afternoon, as I do, just naming it: "I'm sorry I have to go, but I've got a bus to meet!" Over the years, even the most needy have surprised me by saying, "O, it's getting late - You better get home to those kids!" And if visits are going longer than one to one and half hours, whose needs are getting met? Theirs, or yours?

  3. I concur with everyone's comments. One thing I would add. When I am spending an extra long time on a visit, I ask myself if this visit is really...for me, rather than for my parishioner. This seems to help me identify my boundaries and my own needs.

  4. In my last charge there were people I regularly visited where the visit was always at least 1.5 hours and all "blether". But I realized it was because I was meeting their need for social contact--a need that was not getting met all that well otherwise. So I pointedly asked the Board Chair if it was my role to meet people's social needs. WIthout a pause she said yes and the discussion moved on.

    Mind you one of those people was a former elder and once a year (at least) he would comment how it was nice that I visited but the church never did. I made sure to pass that comment on each and every time.

  5. I really like Crimson's idea of a programmed time for those who are very needy. I will use that in the future.

  6. It's a great question -- whose needs are being met? I think if, like kathrynzj, we *know* we're seeking a little reaffirmation of faith in our pastoral ministry, it's okay to go see the person whose own ministry to us is healing. We abuse the privilege when we use long visits to escape other duties in favor of feeling good about ourselves. I followed a pastor as interim who had a reputation for doing a great deal of visiting. Eventually I concluded that s/he used visiting as a shield - "I am doing important pastoral work, therefore I do not need to do xyz." Some of the people s/he visited faithfully reported (spontaneously) that the visits were too long. Sometimes it's the pastor's reading of social cues that needs a refresher.

  7. Another helpful tool. I have developed the habit of taking a lay visitor with me on most visits. This really serves many purposes, e.g. the visited person sees someone from the congregation, assures ethical boundary issues. As as the visitor and I develop as a team, our visits are often more effective. AND it makes leaving easier as well.a

  8. This one really resonates for me. I have learned from sometimes hard experience that once the hour ticks over the conversation really changes and becomes harder to extricate from. However I still get surprised from time to time by a visit that has gone longer than I planned. In one recent visit, the person announced forty or fifty minutes into the visit that she had prepared a special morning tea for me. We had the morning tea, then she had a second cup of coffee and after that, nothing worked - my wrapping-up prayer was followed by my purse on my lap, followed by getting up and walking to the door and still there was another twenty minutes before I got to the gate. I've learned to keep to the hour and I've learned to be gentle with myself when I fail. RevR

  9. As a chaplain who does a lot of home visits (home hospice) I would echo the people who say frame the visit up front time wise, be careful of staying too long even if people seem to want it (especially if its a sick visit) - but even if its not taking their energy it may take a lot of yours.
    Also I found that sometimes moving to prayers middle of the visit can help transition things to more serious pastoral concerns earlier - making it less likely you only find out about some huge thing as you are preparing to go. Plus it makes the prayer more central and less a thing you are using to escape.
    It can also help as others have said to give sort of a 10 minute warning on when you are going to heading out so people can bring up any last concerns or you have time to make a follow up plan with them.

  10. as a late addendum to cherie b's comments, much appreciated -- occasionally I collected a friend of the person-to-be-visited en route to the visit, and let THEM visit -- important, I think, when a group's ability to get together depends on ONE person who can (still) drive... the day that "Mildred gave up her car" is a dark, dark day in such circles.
    I remember taking Elderly Lady #1 to see Elderly Lady #2 in convalescence, and saying, "Now I'm going to leave you girls [sic] to get caught up on things, and I'll be back in 1/2 an hour and we can have our communion altogether"... and this seemed to produce joy on all sides.
    Or... "in the absence of stones, throw one bird at the other..." if you like.


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