Pastors who supply preach face special boundary issues. While it’s true that no church we serve is “ours,” it’s even more true for those of us who come in for a week or four and then go on to preach from other pulpits. Here’s a letter to the Matriarchs from a RevGal with an excellent sense of where her ministry ends and another’s begins…
The view from someone else’s pulpit.
I am a frequent pulpit supply preacher, and have been for years, but had a new experience this week. As I was packing up to leave after a worship service at a congregation where I have filled the pulpit several times over the years, a parishioner came into the pastor’s study and asked if she could have my email address. As she got closer to me, I could tell she was on the verge of tears. I put my things down and asked her if she was alright.
She was not. Fast forward 20 minutes and she had told me at some length and detail about a prayer concern she had for a family member. It’s the kind of thing that, were she my parishioner I would have needed to offer a referral for the parishioner to get some further counseling after two conversations. (There were no issues involved that required mandatory reporting, just a family issue.) As is often the case, I had a hunch that the presenting problem was not the real issue.
I prayed with her, and book-ended the conversation with the suggestion that she talk to her pastor, who would soon be back from vacation. I let her know that I would be letting her pastor know that we had talked. Along the way, I did give her my email address.
I called the pastor when they were back, and let the pastor know what happened. It’s an issue that the pastor was well aware of, which was a relief to me. In fact the family has been referred before. The pastor told me to “feel free to continue to help her if you want; I’m not territorial about things like that.”
I’m not sure that “territory” is what I’m concerned about, but boundaries are. I have neither the institutional history with this congregation, nor the authority to get hooked into this situation. I do not plan to continue conversation with this family other than to urge them to talk with their pastor.
I got a very nice e-card this week from the concerned parishioner, along with a note. I’m inclined not to respond but to let it go. Am I being cold-hearted?
Just the Rent-a-Preach
In a word, No. You are not being cold-hearted, you are operating within the confines of the situation. I agree it is best to not respond to the e-card, or to any further correspondence which may come your way. I think you handled it all splendidly, from listening to the parishioner, praying with her, telling the pastor, then backing away.
You have a hard job as a Rent-a-Preach. To bring good news is also to be a good news person yourself. She recognized that in you and reached out. What also seems obvious, from her pastor’s response, is that either she has worn out her pastor, or she never connected with Pastor. Either way, this is their show, not yours, and they have to figure out how to be pastor and parishioner. Her pastor’s lack of interest, or burn out, is Pastor’s territory, not yours, as you already surmised.
Your conversation with her after church seems well within the bounds of what you were called to do there that day. What you do next depends on how you can best end it. If you already feel complete about this situation, don’t do anything more. If a more definite ending is needed, a brief thank you in response to the card would be appropriate. As best you can, strike a tone that is kind, final, and firmly turns her away from you and back to her church and her pastor. If she contacts you after that, do not respond.
Above all thank you for your attention to pastoral boundaries. Keeping compassionate and clear boundaries is a priceless gift you give to our profession, and it’s hard work.
It can get slippery on those marble steps.
It sounds like you responded perfectly as the pulpit supply pastor for that Sunday.
You are not being cold-hearted, however, to say “no” to any further pastoral care, even with the blessing of the pastor of that church. It is the pastor’s responsibility to care for their church member, and it is good to know they have offered pastoral care for this member and referred them for professional care.
I think it would have even been fine not to give them your email unless you were also the pastor-on-call for pastoral emergencies, too.
Maybe a short response such as, “You will be in my prayers. I am grateful to know that your pastor is available for you anytime.”
Dear Boundary Champion,
Thank you for being that pastor who gets clear boundaries.
It could be that the installed pastor is happy to have you take the troubled parishioner off his hands. It could be that he has a generous understanding of the connectional system. Nevertheless, it’s good that you have tried to establish healthy boundaries and if you contact the parishioner at all (and I don’t think you should at this point), it would simply be to share that – for the sake of healthy boundaries – she needs to seek pastoral care through her own pastor. It might be helpful to speak with a pastoral counselor or psychologist. But – as a “guest pastor” it’s not appropriate for you to act as “her pastor.” That is not your call.
Blame it on the system if you must. That’s why we Middle Judicatory staffers are here.
Thank you to the Matriarchs for the fine answers this week. If you have a question for our ecumenical panel of women experienced in ordained Christian ministry, please send it to askthematriarch at gmail dot com.