Cutting Ties with Former Parishioners

As I mentioned last week, I find myself questioning some of the standard practices of professional pastors – or in this case, the practices of churches and the higher judicatories that guide them.  Today’s pondering:

To what extent do former pastors need to cut ties with former parishioners?

After Brian McLaren left Cedar Ridge Community Church – the church he and Grace McLaren founded –  I was surprised to see Brian in worship with Cedar Ridge shortly after the arrival of the new pastor.  This was a shock to my Presbyterian/Good Boundaries sensibilities.  Doesn’t it hinder the relationship of the congregation to the new pastor for the former pastor to be there?  Apparently not in this case.

In my current ministry, I am also aware of a retired pastor  from a different church who has been “honorably retired” from that church for over three years but he has officiated at every wedding and funeral in that congregation since he “left.”  The new called pastor has literally not officiated at a single wedding or funeral.  Needless to say, the new pastor has been an “unintentional interim” pastor.

My hunch is that pastors who’ve retired or moved to another call have a different perspective than the pastors who have replaced them.  Off the top of my head, I’d put it this way:

Pastors Who’ve Retired/Moved On Might say:

  • Why can’t we still be friends with former parishioners if we agree not to discuss church business?  
  • These people are our long-time community.  Our children grew up with those people.  Our spouses’ closest friends include those people.
  • They were our social network and supporters.  We shared the deepest life experiences together.

The Interim Pastors or New Installed Pastors Who’ve Come After Them Might Say:  

  • It’s important to cut all ties – even social ties – to make it possible for the new pastor to establish strong relationships.
  • It’s good policy to force the congregation to rely on the interim pastor or the newly installed pastor.
  • It’s not healthy for the former pastor to be seen as “our pastor” in perpetuity.

I would love to hear about your experiences – whether you are a parishioner, a former pastor, or a new pastor.

I ask these questions as a “former pastor” who regularly invited those pastors who came before me to participate in special services, funerals, and weddings.  My husband- who is also a pastor –  regularly invited former pastors to participate in worship when he served as an interim pastor.  We didn’t feel threatened by including the colleagues who used to lead our churches,  but those former pastors were also very healthy and had excellent boundaries.

I guess my basic issue is that we have rules based on the worst possible scenario in terms of dealing with intrusive and unhealthy former pastors.  What if we were all grown-ups and remained friends with former parishioners while keeping our distance from church business?

This is what I ponder after a weekend celebrating the retirement of a friend after 40 years of professional ministry in 8 congregations.  People from all those congregations joined us for the celebration and they tell me that they remained friends with him and his family long after he left those positions.

I would like these ongoing relationships too, but it’s seriously frowned upon.  Thoughts?

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16 responses to “Cutting Ties with Former Parishioners

  1. Earlier this summer, you brought up disconnecting on Facebook with former parishioners. It is truly hard to cut ties. I think it is more about the healthy boundaries you mention than simply closing off all connections. I have remained Facebook friends, but am trying hard not to like, comment or post on their page. With youth, I could not bear quickly disconnecting becausevi didn’t wNt them to believe the relationship was about being paid. I may find out I am wrong, when boundaries are crossed.

    I was asked back to do a funeral of a good friend and said no. The pastor and i had worked together on staff, but I had connected to this family. The funeral allowed this pastor to truly offer pastoral care to the family and the who congregation. Had I gone, he might never have shifted into that role. It is hard to say no but necessary. Thank you Jan for reminding me!

  2. I’m speaking as a good friend of a minister. Our babies were the same age and we went through the first part of parenthood together. We are still neighbors and our kids still go to the same schools/libraries/playgrounds. So, do they come over for dinner? Sure. Do we ask the “old” minister theological questions? Sure. Do we ask the “old” minister to act as a theological or spiritual leader – no. But I do ask for that great cookie recipe! It is a tough line and something that we struggled with because sometimes you have friends that are parishioners.

  3. Jan, I think relationships with formers work fine when everyone is on the same page and in agreement. In my experience, that’s rare, and challenging, and (occasionally) possible. It takes so much self awareness, trust and willingness to set and keep boundaries.

  4. I have probably told you already my extreme horror story, but let me sum it up:the pastor who preceded me, who was HR from that ministry but in his retirement served a congregation that is four miles from my house (another red flag) lived with folks from my congregation. He lived with them. In their house. It was well-known around here and I was the only person who questioned it. It torpedoed my time there.

    I think the truth of your post hinges on the phrase “healthy and had excellent boundaries”. I wasn’t threatened by his presence because of any weakness of mine; I was the relatively emotionally healthy and mature leg of this triangle, even if I was less experienced. I would have loved to have been able to invite him to events, to reach out to him and learn from him, but the system was not set up that way and would not have supported me in that role, ever.

  5. Hey Jan,
    Great and thought-provoking post. It provoked two thoughts in me:
    1) “I guess my basic issue is that we have rules based on the worst possible scenario in terms of dealing with intrusive and unhealthy former pastors.” Sure we have those rules – we are Presbyterians – one of our basic tenets is that people are pretty much bad. All people. So, it would make sense that our polity reflects our anthropology.
    2) My response to your section headed “Pastors Who’ve Retired/Moved On Might say:” It seems that the rules on cutting ties upon leaving often uncover inappropriate boundaries that were there all along. Those pastors are mourning the loss of something that you shouldn’t have had in the first place. They shouldn’t have shared their most intimate life experiences with members of their congregation. They shouldn’t have have been friends with members of their congregation. That is why ministry can be lonely. Very lonely.

    • Rob – Your #2 is especially interesting in light of my weekend with the retirement party. The newly retired pastor was clearly close friends with lots of people. Middle-aged folks who were once in his youth group were present and – while they described themselves as “friends” – I doubt that their pastor shared intimate life experiences with them.

      It reminds me about my first call as a single 20-something. Parishioners would definitely share their most intimate information and I might, in turn, say something like, “I’m going on a date this weekend” but not offer comparably detailed information. And yet, they perceived that I was sharing “personal things.”

      Maybe it’s because I’m female (my female lawyer friends and female doctor friends tell me it happens to them too) but many parishioners identified me as their friend (e.g. “She’s my pastor and my friend.”) They would generally share much more intimate information with me than they’d share with my (male) co-pastor and – again – I might share a comment about a movie I saw or a vacation I took without sharing comparable information. But people would definitely perceive that I was their friend. And I was.

      I think I’ll write more about this tomorrow. Thanks for the insights.

  6. My first call was like Jules somewhat, but my predecessor was a DCE( I was hired as an (Assoc for CE) and she remained in the church as a member and then on session.And she was a published author and “known” in her field. Should have known what red flags these were, but did not know at the time, nor was I aware of reasons with her departure. The pastor and PNCleft that out.
    Anyhow, as you can guess it did not go well. So, yes, good reasons for the rules. On another note, I served as interim for two yrs in a church. The foremr pastor did not have “pastoral relations” and had moved away, but still had occasional contact. She still shares news and various events(birth of first child and loss of a family member) in her life with the church. People loved her and cared for her and still do. But, it is all healthy.
    She is not there in any pastoral way, but they still care for her and want to know how she is doing. There are extreams both ways. My mian thing is to think how I would feel if I were in the other pastor’s shoes.

  7. Christine Chakoian

    This is such a crucial conversation, Jan. Thank you for raising it. It was immensely painful for our family when I left a nearly decade-long pastorate to go to a church 30 miles away in the same Presbytery. My husband called it the Presbyterian “witness protection program” – and he knew from experience with a colleague in his work what the federal witness protection program does. Our former church and small community had helped us raise our only child; it was the only faith home she knew.
    I wish I’d had the courage and wisdom to claim some friendships – a handful of relationships – that my family could keep. I wish I’d had guidance on how to be a better colleague to my successor, whom I welcomed and with whom I longed to have shared history/background about pastoral care as he began. I wish I had reason to encourage my husband to connect with our current congregation, but he’s been burned once. I wish there had been a mentor or Committee on Ministry or staff member in Presbytery with whom I could have processed the ambiguity and grief. The only contact I received from COM was getting my hand slapped for passing along the name of an interim who had been recommended to me. I wish I still felt invested in Presbytery. You give me hope.

  8. We have a former pastor of our congregation as a member. He retired early and fairly young due to health reasons. I think he’s been a model for pastors who remain as members of the congregation after the resign/retire. He doesn’t get involved in any issues in the congregation, he won’t perform weddings/funerals, and when he is asked to help with something, like the campus ministry website, he always checks with the current pastor to make sure he is comfortable with that. He considers himself just another member of the congregation. He is still respected as the former pastor, and he was asked to speak at our 50th anniversary with the full blessing of the current pastor.

    I will say, though, that he did stay away for a few years after he first retired, from what I understand, in order to give the new pastor a chance to get established in the congregation.

  9. I can quit drinking anytime I want. I don’t have a porn problem. I buy Playboy for the articles. I’m not sabotaging the new pastor by coming back for that wedding. I’m helping the new pastor out.
    Self-deception is the real problem.
    In my first parish, the pastor who had been there for 30 years, and for which the congregation bought him a house in town, and who attended worship every Sunday, helped me out a lot. I lasted 2 years.

  10. Against my friends advice i accepted a call to a congregation where the mission developer/first pastor wanted to stay after retiring. He had a lot invested in this church/congregation. Five of his 6 children and their families were also members. Knowing all the published wisdom about former pastors needing to leave, at least for a significant period of time, say a couple of years, after much deliberation, I did accept the call. I should also say it was my first call, but I was in my 50s with lots of prior experience in church life. Before I said yes, however, I was clear about my reservations and my expectations about boundaries both with the council and with said pastor. Six years in it has been a good experience. Retired pastor kept his distance, didn’t offer advice, unless I asked. His participation has been at my request and we have formed a warm bond as well. Moving forward, who knows? But for now we have a mutually respectful relationship and, most importantly, he and his wife have expressed how much they consider me their pastor. So, aware of all the pain-filled stories out there, I share how this one has been positive, against the odds.

    I agree that we often make rules and regs based on worst-case scenarios. The tragedy of course is that those scenarios do happen and then beyond those there are degress of discontent. Situations are unique and though mine, I believe, is an exception, I would still caution someone considering a call to a place where the former pastor(s) remain as members, and even just as residents in the community. Life is messy. Church is messy. God, give us wisdom and then courage to act.

  11. I am really struggling with this, from the perspective of a former pastor who had close (and I believe appropriate) ties with my first congregation, as well as from the perspective of my current ministry, in which minister-as-friend is valued as a contextually-appropriate model for ministry. One of my questions is about this statement: “It’s important to cut all ties – even social ties – to make it possible for the new pastor to establish strong relationships.” How does cutting ties make further relationships possible, really? If church members know that these pastors who know and love them are going to disappear when the next call comes, why should they trust them at all? Why invest in the relationship? When I imagine myself in the shoes of parishioners, I think I’d be incredibly hurt and angry if my former pastor closed the door completely. You don’t stop being someone’s brother or sister overnight, but you do stop being their pastor. Leaving a church felt sort of like a divorce, albeit an amicable one, because that is another structured relationship that can end. I don’t have this all worked out at all, but am grateful the conversation is happening.

  12. We had an associate pastor who seems to have come through seminary when establishing boundaries was emphasized. They established such “good” boundaries that they connected very little with the congregation, and people did not feel they could go to them for pastoral care. (Then there’s the story about the leaving and the “gracious separation” that did not feel very gracious to me as someone who had been trying really hard to work with them as a council member on one of their committees. I would love to write about it and see what you think, but the details are too specific, so I’m leaving it. For now.)

  13. When my wife and I left a large congregation in the city she was born and raised, we “unfriended” hundreds of people. It was very hard and we had to explain to many why we were doing so–for the good of the new pastor.
    I’m now in a congregation where a former pastor’s wife (they’re part of a new, non-denominational congregation) continues to make constant “pastoral” contacts with folks. The people don’t see how it is a bad boundary issue.
    The professional etiquette book for Facebook is yet to be established, but I feel the sting of this former couples’ constant contact and inability to disconnect their heartstrings from their former call.
    Their new church is struggling, so they clearly want to continue drawing from their past, pastoral relationships.
    The rule of thumb I learned at seminary was “You do not initiate contact.” Responses, yes, but leading, no. The other rule was “Don’t fool [not sic] with the flock.” Pastors are to be givers, not takers. When the professional relationship is severed, the professional thing to do is to move on.

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