Me: (Lying on an examination table)
Doc: How is N getting along? Does she get out much after her surgery these days?
Me: She’s okay. (Thinking: Really? We’re talking about N?)
Maybe it was because my doctor was considering the two of us on the same team of N’s professional health care providers. She handled physical health and I handled spiritual health. Or maybe she simply had serious boundary issues.
I observe broken boundaries every day. And honestly, I struggle with figuring out boundaries myself. We make choices about boundaries all the time.
- Is your dentist also your parishioner?
- Is your spouse also your parishioner?
- Does your spiritual community include your lawyer? Your plumber? Your daughter’s French teacher?
- What should be the boundaries of a former pastor who has retired in the church neighborhood and has grandchildren in the Christmas pageant?
- What if a retired pastor’s spouse wants to stay in the congregation where her long-time friends are?
After leaving my first congregation in NY – where I served for five years fresh out of seminary – that congregation never saw me again. That sounds really harsh, doesn’t it? But it’s true. I sent Christmas cards to a several people who also sent cards to me. One parishioner occasionally visited us when she was traveling through to Florida at our new home in Virginia.
But this feels wrong. I was told that when a pastor leaves, she leaves. The same is true now that I’ve left my second church as well. But what about genuine friendships? What about the community my children have left behind? And what about supporting the new pastor and letting him/her bond with the congregation without my interference?
I hear retired pastors talk about their former churches and it’s clear that they miss that life. The preaching and teaching and officiating the sacraments. I miss this too, even though I’m not retired from parish ministry. I’ve just traded one church for 98. It’s different, obviously, but I still get to enjoy a glimpse of life as a parish pastor. But at what point – if ever – can I connect with old friends who are former parishioners again? Maybe never? What’s healthiest for the church?
As church culture continues to shift, along with the expansion of our digital culture, figuring out healthy boundaries will be an ongoing adventure. Any wisdom from your experiences?
Image is Highways and Byways by Paul Klee (1929)