People look to us pastors to support them in a variety of ways, and we like to offer that support when we can. Where is the limit to the supportive roles we pastors can play? Read on . . .
A couple in my congregation has wanted children for a long time and are currently fostering children. They have become attached to the child they are fostering who is now able to be adopted, so the couple has entered the process to become eligible to adopt. They have shared openly with me about their struggles and foibles, and I have had many occasions to observe them over the years, including their relationship with their foster children.
My dilemma: They have listed me as a reference on their application. I was only too happy to support their process until I received the questionnaire. Unlike other reference forms, the questions are so in depth and specific that I would have to reveal things that I would only know in my role as pastor. And there are a few areas where I could not honestly give only positive answers about their behavior. I also found out that I could be called to answer questions under oath, if needed.
Now I’m wondering: Would it be a good idea for pastors to make a blanket policy not to do references for any parishioner, including applications for college and jobs? What other ethical dilemmas have you faced where you couldn’t honestly take a parishioner’s side in a sticky situation?
Kelley Wehmeyer Shin:
Such a difficult decision for a pastor to make but, in the end, I believe it is wise for a pastor not to be a reference or to testify for members of their congregation. There may be a few situations when it is appropriate – and being a college reference is one of those appropriate times – but for the most part it is too complicated, and the pastor and members risk harming their relationship.
I once officiated a funeral for a man who was a long-ago member and neither he nor his girlfriend of twenty years had been involved in church at all. After his funeral, the live-in girlfriend asked me to testify in court that she indeed had been living with this man for twenty years. Ohio doesn’t have common-law marriage and the man’s family kicked the girlfriend out of the house that they had been living in for all those years and took everything the man and the girlfriend owned. I was heartbroken for the girlfriend but chose not to testify because I did not know them well enough.
Sharon Mack Temple:
For the pastor in the above situation: In general, when we realize that we have agreed to something that is now disagreeable, that’s the time to regroup and get out gracefully. Find a trusted colleague to role-play the best, most loving language and back out without delay.
I would also advise this pastor to take time to identify — perhaps with that same trusted colleague — all the relevant pastoral issues that were at play and what future situations this might inform.
This is a good opportunity to check the code of ethics of your denomination/faith tradition. The Ordained Minister’s Code of the United Church of Christ (my tradition) makes two relevant statements:
- I will regard all persons with equal respect and concern and undertake to minister impartially. I ask myself if I would do this same thing for everyone who asks from now on. So I have done college references and employment references for church members when asked. Beyond that, I have declined.
- I will honor all confidences shared with me. It is possible to honestly share one’s own experience of a person/situation, if your particular perspective is needed, without revealing a confidence that has been shared. This distinction could prove helpful.
May God bless us to set good boundaries that appropriately support those in our care.
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How about you, dear reader? When asked to vouch for someone in your congregation, do you ever say “no”? How do you decide?
If you are facing your own sticky situation, reflecting on that in this supporting community can help all of us. Your identity remains confidential. Send your scenario to AskTheMatriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and start a supportive conversation.
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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