Adventures in Boundary-Breaking

A few years ago, I was getting a physical when my doctor asked about one of her other patients – who also happened to be one of my parishioners.

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)

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3 responses to “Adventures in Boundary-Breaking

  1. As a certified Christian Educator, I was never given any guidance about this issue, but since I served 6 churches in the same overarching community, it was certainly hard–if not impossible–to completely cut ties with folk. And since I started my own consulting business in that community and worked on the presbytery level, I was always running into others. I pretty much left it up to the parishioners. I did not initiate friendships, and found that most people simply “let me go”….Now, 8 years after formally retiring from ministry in that presbytery. I have one or two good friends in 3-4 of the churches where I work. It seemed to work itself out naturally. In fact 2 weeks ago, I entertained a woman, her mother, and her 3 grown daughters from a previous church whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years. It was such a treat to see them–and may have brought closure to an “interrupted” relationship….

  2. This is so important. Deep, enduring friendships are life-giving for everybody, even pastors, and most of us form friendships with the people we spent our days with. That’s good, and natural! But I would like to respond to this from the perspective of the pastor’s family. My husband and I are both clergy – he has always served as pastor in a congregation and I have worked in specialized ministry. Our family has made several moves across the country to follow his call, and the last move we made almost destroyed us. It was absolutely traumatic for me and my children to be torn away from a home and church where we had deeply loved and been loved for 13 years, where we had good friends, and enter instead a church where we were treated with disdain, distrust, dishonesty, and dislike. It has shaken my understanding of church and ministry to the core and deeply wounded my child who once had a joyful faith and knew herself to be an integral and beloved part of a church family. One of the most important things that has sustained us through this trauma is the love of friends from my husband’s previous church – which was our church too! – and nothing could make us cut ourselves off from them. If we were advised or required to do so, it would just make us more angry and resentful. It would be cruel.

    • Peace to you MBL. I know that feeling ripped-out-of-a-community feeling. It’s not just about leaving a congregation, but also leaving the neighborhood, the local dry-cleaning business, the long-time doctor, the other soccer parents. Really hard.

      Pastors tell me – one did just this morning – that they are still friends with former parishioners but they do not comment on or ask about the former church. Their families still hang out of former church friends when possible. At least for the first year or two, I’m not sure this would be possible for me – to maintain friendships with my former church because I was there for so long. It’s the only church my kids have ever known. I am sustained by former members of that church (who also moved out of the area as I did) or members who are no longer active in that congregation. But it’s very tricky. We want what’s best for the health of those spiritual communities, while we also long for emotional health for ourselves and our families.

      One thing I would ask you, “How does the new pastor of your former church feel about you and your family turning to that congregation for companionship and support?” Is he/she understanding? Does he/she see this as a problem for the congregation? It’s all about balance, I think, but I’d love to hear more.

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