Monday, December 9, 2013

Ministry Musings: Transitions and Death, Part I: The Conundrum

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.


  1. I have left a couple of churches and only once went back to do a service - that after I had been gone for over two years and the church had closed but then been reopened as new congregation in the same building. So many things were different and many things were almost the same - building the same, people the same, but none of the old circumstances remained. It was bittersweet. In this case, as a social worker myself, I think that these are not really cruel, rather they are opportunities to encourage the new Pastor and the congregant to form relationship, and it can be very good. In every church I have gone to there has been a funeral (or many funerals) very quickly into my time and I have found tending to the families and officiating at the service to be a good way to enter into long pastoral relationships - even when the people grieving may have originally wanted the former pastor.

  2. Ugh, what a sticky wicket. I pray for you, the new pastor, and (especially) the widow: may God's will (God's love) be done.