o7r0nWuThere’s formal “Boundary Training” for pastors, and then there are the real-life boundary tests that pop up along the way. Here’s one:

Dear Matriarchs,

I’m pastoring a tiny church (as in 18 members). There’s a family who were very active and beloved before I came who have now moved away. Because of their love for this congregation, they still send financial support–some of our board members claim “they are our biggest givers.”

Recently the woman’s mother died. Two members of the board are hounding me to call her. (Others have sent cards.) The need to call seems to be tied with “biggest givers.” I feel uncomfortable about this. The family transferred their membership to another church before I arrived three years ago. They have their own pastor. How do I balance not crossing a boundary with representing the congregation’s concern?

Thanks!
Pastor to 18

We Matriarchs love hearing from pastors who recognize that they have a professional responsibility to keep appropriate boundaries with parishioners and former parishioners. Our responses:

Jennifer Burns Lewis
Dear Pastor to 18,

You do have good boundaries. These folks do have a pastor, and they’ve also maintained a connection to the church through their giving.

You might consider calling to express your sympathy “on behalf of the congregation” in a week or so. I’d be clear that you’re aware of their ties to the church in the past and that it seemed appropriate to offer condolences since they’ve remained “friends” of the church. Short and simple and compassionate.

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath
I agree with Jennifer that you are maintaining healthy boundaries on this one. A brief phone call of support to share the love of the congregation would be okay. Another option would be to send a hand written card. It gives you the chance to say some kind words but doesn’t put you in the position of having to offer any extended pastoral care. (It feels weird to advise limiting pastoral care, but I think you get why it’s important.) If asked, you can assure members that you’ve shared condolences on behalf of the congregation but that you trust that their new pastor is providing them with the care they may need. Blessings to you!

Sharon Mack Temple
Your congregation will surely benefit — and so will your ministry — because you are giving attention to healthy boundaries.

When beloved people leave a congregation, a hope lingers that they will return. They may hold out hope that your delightful self will be just what is needed to persuade them.

I affirm the advice of Heidi and Jennifer to send a note or make a phone call “on behalf of the congregation” as a way to “do something” for them.

Another opportunity that has presented itself: You could reach out to their current pastor — who is your colleague — and further develop that very appropriate connection between your two congregations.

And —for whichever former pastor needs to hear this: Never ever show up in person for a former parishioner — not at their home, not at the visitation, and not at the funeral.

Thank you, Matriarchs!

We invite you to share your own strategies
for keeping appropriate pastoral boundaries. Please respond in the comments below.


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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5 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Showing Compassion While Respecting Pastoral Boundaries

  1. Thank you for sharing, and for the realization that sometimes those of us pastoring micro-congregations that boundaries must remain but can allow for creative ways of maintaining them. I think the handwritten note on behalf of congregation is completely appropriate. Micro-congregations present issues that are different even from small congregations; combine this with the small communities of many micro-congregations and boundaries can be even more difficult. However, micro-congregations and small communities also offer a unique feature in that sometimes community tragedies are shared even amongst churches. Our small village of 200 lost five family members to a devastating house fire two years ago, the boundaries were murky as one was catholic, one UCC, part of family COG and part UMC. The services, by request of family, were led by five pastors from all these congregations in high school gym. It was truly heartbreaking and a peek at Gods Kingdom without separation of denomination. I see a lot of support for “small” congregations out there, but very little addressing the issues of micro-congregations. Boundaries remain necessary even here, but support and the ability to interact like this are priceless. Pastor to 18……..you are right on track in this issue. Sending prayer and love from Pastor of 16-20!

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    1. Amy, this outcome beautifully illustrates what I believe to be the antidote to inappropriate relationships/contact with former (or not-your) parishioners: The pastors collaborate with each other, and have closer ties with each other, than they do with others’ parishioners.

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  2. These are such wise answers, and affirm the work you are doing as pastor to such a small group. One other thought I have: since they are such a small group, perhaps the note of condolence could be signed by all of them. Then you are not positioned as “the pastor” but rather as one person among several who have fond memories of your ties. Just a thought.

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