As I left Small Church in the Country two weeks ago, one of the patriarchs of the church lay dying in hospice. I've spent a lot of time with him and his wife over the past two years, and she was frantic at the thought of my not being there for the funeral. Our denomination, like most, has clear rules about pastors concluding their relationships with former congregations when we leave. I had explained those rules, and my plans to follow them, before I left. We did leave the matter of the funeral hanging, with me telling my parishioner that I was sure the new pastor would be a great help to her and that, if her husband lived for another couple of weeks, she would probably be more comfortable with my successor, who would no doubt be spending a great deal of time with her ~ but also indicating my willingness to participate in the funeral in some way, if that was acceptable to the new pastor.
The husband did die a couple of days ago, and eventually I received an email from the interim pastor, saying that the new widow would appreciate my sharing my memories at the funeral. As it happened, I thought that I had a conflict, so the matter was out of my hands. I also read between the lines ~ and in the lines themselves ~ and understood that the invitation was from the widow, and not from the pastor herself.
The situation generated a great deal of discussion, both among pastors and in my own family. The pastors, on the whole, emphasize the importance of boundaries set to respect both new and former pastors, while often recognizing the need for flexibility, especially where only a short time has passed between the pastor's departure and the death of a congregant. My children found the "rules" baffling and, in my daughter's words, "cruel." Trained in social work, she is well aware of boundary issues, but told me in no uncertain terms that in this situation pastors are more concerned about ourselves and our colleagues than we are about our parishoners.
As for me, I see the need for clear boundaries, and recognize that my own gut response emphasizes their purpose. As someone actively grieving, and apparently facing a lifetime of same, I know that my own immediate responses for myself, to seek out people who know me well, are mirrored in my desire to care for others in the same boat. And having been so often disappointed by loved ones ~ which I now understand to be nearly a universal experience shared by the bereaved, one which shocks us all at first and then gradually becomes one more part of the process we have to accept ~ I am very deeply and personally horrified to have become one of those who disappoint.
But I have come to terms with it, in an ambiguous kind of way ~ next post.