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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Ask the Matriarch -

This week we have a general question about pastoral care:

I have a general question about appropriate ways to support parishioners when their family members (in this case, members of other churches) are sick, dying, or have passed away. I imagine there's a spectrum from personal presence and listening and supporting all the way to some sort of participation in services. Perhaps this is always a case-by-case basis, but any words of wisdom you might have would be helpful. I'm always worried about stepping on other pastors' toes if I do too much, or not providing enough support to the folks from my own congregation if I don't do enough.

Jennifer responds:

I believe that you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes when you’re concerned about your own congregation’s needs. Pastoral care for your congregation’s members is always appropriate, but unless you’re asked by the family, I don’t think you need to visit the person who is ill. Prayers on their behalf are always in order!

If you’re wondering about participating in services conducted in other churches or settings, if the family wishes you to participate in the service, the invitation should be cleared with (and should really come from) the deceased’s clergyperson or religious leader.

When local, I try to attend the service or visitation for a member’s family member. Again, I feel as though that’s my pastoral care for those who are part of the congregation I serve.

Dorcas writes:

It is difficult to walk that line of caring but not overstepping boundaries. It is difficult to generalize, and it always seemed to work at on a case by case basis, as you mention. If a family member who was part of my church requested I visit their loved one in the hospital, nursing home, etc. I did so. Sometimes, depending on the relationship I had with the ill person, I would comment about their pastor, or some related comment, especially if members of the patient's congregation also happened to be in the room! Showing up at a viewing or even a funeral is always fine, in my opinion. Just being there is something any caring person might do. If actually asked to participate in the funeral, I would let it be known that it is really the call of the family member's pastor. If that person was fine with it, I participated to the degree appropriate. I only recall one instance where the other pastor seems miffed that I was even asking, and I bowed out of participating--which was sad because I had a connection to the deceased that her pastor, sadly, did not.

And mompriest offers:

I always ask these two questions: "What can I do for you?" "What would be helpful?" If they look like they are, or will be, completely overwhelmed by that question I say, "I'll pray for you and your family." and "Is your loved one being visited by clergy in the hospital/home? Sometimes, as appropriate I ask, "Who is their pastor, maybe I'll call and see if our church can be of help during this time." Or less frequently, but as seems useful, I may ask, "Would a visit from me be helpful?"

After asking those questions, as relevant, and depending on the answers I may call the pastor of the loved one's church and have a conversation, perhaps offering to help with the visitation schedule to this parishioner. This is particularly helpful when I live closer to wherever the patient is located than their church clergy/congregation. Often that church/clergy appreciates sharing visitation - I may offer to go once a month or more frequently, depending on how critical the situation is. Or maybe I find out that the person is being visited often enough and then I can assure the family of that and then help my parishioner with their grief and stress.

I also send my parishioner a card and call them during the week. Sometimes people are more willing to accept help .

As the situation unfolds I stand ready to help as is helpful but mindful - as assessed by the answers to my questions - to not interfere. At the very least I will try to go to the wake if there is one and or the funeral, where I will sit in the congregation unless asked to help in some other way.

So those are the helpful answers from our matriarchs. What about the rest of you? Please share your thoughts and experience in the comments. And as always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to address, please send it to


  1. It occurs to me that you also have to be careful with family members to remember that not everyone in the family may share the same faith or the same level of faith. It never happened to me, but it did come up with some of my fellow interns during Clinical Pastoral Education where family would request a visit that clearly just made the patient uncomfortable.

  2. I don't have too much to add at all to the matriarch's advice. Their suggestions have been my experience, too. I definitely attend the local funerals of members' family, card during illness or at death. I keep track of anniversary dates of deaths that I'm made acutely aware of, sending cards at the 1 year mark and 1st Christmas after death.

    The way I deal with hospital visits is by asking the family member, "Would you like me to visit them with you sometime?" I don't feel comfortable going to visit someone who is a member of another church just on my own. It doesn't feel like pastoral care to my own church, but crossing a line to me. If I'm visiting with my member it seems like I'm supporting him/her during their visit instead of providing care to their family member.

    I was invited to assist in one funeral of a church member's mother, and it went according to the textbook because it was a very savvy family. The family asked their was even better, their minister graciously asked the family (a daughter in this case) if they wanted me to participate. It was a fantastic and smooth event.

  3. A non-pastor weighing in here. One of the most grace-full examples of pastoral care I've ever witnessed came after my mother's death. It was expected and we had received support and care from our pastor and church community throughout her illness. She lived half-way across the country, but we were equally supported by the church family of her congregation, in which both my husband and I had grown up. Upon returning home, we received a visit from our pastor - well, not really "we." The visit was to our barely teen-age son and how appropriate that was! So much attention and concern had been directed at me, because I "lost" my mother. But my son was also grieving the death of a person very important in his life and had sort of been set aside in all of the pastoral care. So my suggestion would be to consider ALL the members of the family - including the younger ones who especially might not feel a part of the "home" congregation that doesn't really know them. More than 20 years later, my son still talks about this, with gratitude, as an example of what Christian sisterhood/brotherhood is supposed to be.

  4. As someone who was recently bereaved, I would suggest that you at the very least send a card of condolence ("from Pastor X and the XYZ church family") or something like that. Our relative passed away and NO ONE from our church or their church acknowledged our loss. It was like it happened in a black hole. So err on the side of offering/being present/sending a card rather than doing nothing.

  5. Thank you all so much for your responses! The question was from me, newbie that I am. All the feedback was so helpful and I will probably refer to this post time and time again as I feel my way along.

    Thanks also for the final Anonymous comment...that is so, so true. Griefs MUST be acknowledged; I'm sorry that your church community didn't support you in your time of loss. I will remember your comment.


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