Clergy Boundaries 2.0

Is it okay for a pastor to hire a member of her church to paint her house?

Is it appropriate for me to send a birthday card to a former church member?

Is it wrong for you to be the keynote speaker at your former congregation’s Men’s Retreat without being invited by the current pastor?


Everybody knows that clergy are not supposed to have sex with their parishioners, right?  (Right?!)

But every day I deal with different, ostensibly more innocent situations between churches and pastors/former pastors and I am honestly at a loss.  I’m still trying to figure out my own boundaries with former parishioners for heaven’s sake.

Part of our issues are generational:  In the 1950s, young male pastors regularly married women in their congregations.  In the 2010s, it’s considered clergy malpractice even to date people in your congregation.

Part of our issues are geographical:  If you now serve a congregation on the north side of town, but the last congregation you served is simply on the west side of town, it’s easier to meet former parishioners randomly or socially.  Maybe you still go running on the same trails.  Maybe you still frequent a restaurant in the old neighborhood.  It might feel like “the old pastor” never left.

Part of our issues are familial: It’s one thing for the former pastor to keep his/her distance from  the former church, but what about the spouse and kids?  Can my kids go to church camp with kids from my former congregation?  Can my husband play golf with old friends from our former church?  Can my wife have lunch with her church lady friends?

Part of our issues are based on maturity and security:  Am I afraid that the church loved my predecessor more than they love me?  Why do I get that uneasy feeling when the former pastor makes a comment on the church’s Facebook page?  Do I joyfully invite the former pastor to church celebrations knowing that many parishioners would love to see him?  Am I retired and free from all the stresses of work, and therefore don’t really care how the current pastor feels when I invite myself to church functions?  Do I insinuate myself in the business of my former church – because I can?

Here’s the essential question:  What’s behaviors best serve the people of God?

What allows our brothers and sisters in Christ to flourish and grow?  What chains them to the past?  What sabotages current and future relationships?  What shames people?  What honors people?  What honors God?

All this has come about because these are some of the issues I’ve already dealt with this week:

  • A pastor was not happy when he ran into the former pastor who then said, “Tell __ (an elder church member) ‘Happy Birthday’ from me when you see her.”
  • A pastor visited a parishioner in the hospital only to find her predecessor at bedside in prayer with that parishioner.
  • A pastor is upset because the former pastor’s wife wants to continue to participate in her ladies group in their former church.
  • A former member of a church wants to know if it’s okay for him to apply to be the next pastor.

It’s practically impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy.  So what do healthy boundaries look like where you come from?


8 responses to “Clergy Boundaries 2.0

  1. “What will best serve the people of God?”is a great focusing question as is “Am I getting in the way of God’s work?”
    It’s not one size fits all, and it so depends on the maturity of those involved.
    Thank you for continuing to raise and wrestle with the questions. It’s a powerful thing that you are challenged by the questions, too.

  2. I appreciate and honor the difficult position you are in. But my heart aches at the pettiness of the concerns raised in the bullet points at the end of your post. Are we so territorial that we can’t wish one another happy birthday, pray for healing, be in long-term friendship with each other? (Maybe this was your point.) No wonder so many outside the church never see “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” and only identify with our division, sniping, and hate that gets all the media attention.

  3. Thanks for this Jan. I don’t think the bullet points are petty at all. They are real. A pastor is trying to establish a relationship with his/her congregation by which the whole community can move forward. If the former pastor is always hanging around, that pulls the community to the past, and it does not serve them in living out the new life God calls them (and us). Call me insecure all you want but I’ve been burned by former pastors too many times. I know enough to keep my space and let go of the folks in a previous church. You can talk with them, e-mail, etc., when they contact you. But don’t go butting into someone else’s responsibility.

  4. I honestly believe that a heathy congregation can deal with former / current Pastor issues. The fact in some churches is that lack if care for former leadership (pastor) can cause as much animosity as the potential for pastors having issues with these things. Departing and new Pastors should meet, set boundaries AND jointly inform a congregation what the clear expectations are. AND they must be honored, or then further action to sever the relationships would be implemented. I see both sides of the issue but if we can’t come to simple terms on these issues then we have far deeper problems being Christians in love. Be Love. That is what this should be about and I believe strong leadership with compassion can handle these issues.

    • Mike – I love the idea of the former & interim and/or the former and new pastors meeting and sharing expectations together with the congregation— when possible.

      We are all on the same team. And we all love the same people & the same ministry.

      Exceptions: when the former pastor left b/c of proven misconduct or other clouds.

  5. Some other issues that I have seen: a former pastor conducting a private baptism in the parish; retiring pastors purchasing a home in their parish and maintaining membership in the congregation; pastors taking a non-parish position purchasing a home in their former parish and remaining in the congregation; the former pastor ‘staying friends’ but in fact looking to the elders for their own pastoral care. In 25 years of ministry I haven’t seen evidence of anyone among my predecessors being ‘on my team’.

  6. In my previous church the former minister left to become the local hospital chaplain. I considered it a wonderful gift that when people were ill he was available to them and always called me to let me know when someone was in the hospital. Our respect for one another helped transition the congregation. The people of my congregation are not my personal objects and are free to have relationships with whoever they want. Pastors who like to draw lines around territory are missing the point. Pastors who cannot let go and move on need a fuller life and relationships outside the church. Sometimes we all just need to grow up a bit more.

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