Years ago, I served a rural parish. The members of my church were wonderful people. Some of the members had a close relationship with the previous pastor. I could understand that for some of my parishioners, it was hard for them to say goodbye. One of the families in the church was going to host a wedding of their eldest child. They decided to ask the previous minister to officiate at the wedding. I remember that I felt sidelined. They asked for my permission to have the wedding at the church. I readily agreed to their request, but I was left with the ambivalence of should I attend the wedding ? I remember that I consulted with the Associate Conference Minister, and decided that it was good policy to attend the wedding. I even brought a gift to the bride and groom.
Boundary systems in churches are tricky. What do you do? As a pastor, you want to be able to treat everyone equally and provide ministry for all. Yet, at the same time, you are human and with that, there will be the inclination that you may become friends with some parishioners and have a closer friendship than you might have with others.
This challenge can become even more pronounced when you retire. Several denominations have policies that dictate that retiring clergy are never to have contact again with any previous congregants. They are not to attend worship at the church that they served. The implicit assumption is that clergy, if able, will move to a new community and reside. If they don’t move, they can attend another church or they can simply drop out of church life entirely.
I am questioning as to whether this is sound policy? Does this really promote mental health for retired clergy and their families? I recently heard from a retired minister who had served a big church for over thirty years. This minister informed me that his denomination has banished him from any contact with his congregation for three years. The minister stated that it makes it difficult if you want to attend the funeral of a friend or see your grandchildren in a church pageant.
Again, I ask where is the health, let alone the charity, in this type of policy? What if a retired minister can’t afford to move to another location? What if the minister does have to move to a new community, and there is no readily available support system? This policy can certainly contribute to loneliness, isolation and depression, none of which are good regarding promoting wellness and health.
I have known some congregations where a retired minister will meet with the newly called minister and a church council, etc., and will discuss how the retired minister can continue to participate in the life of the community of faith.
I think this is a healthy development because it promotes continued socialization and fellowship, and it lets the retired minister and their family know that they are still cared for and loved by church members.
Yes, it’s important to maintain appropriate boundaries between ministers and their congregants. You can’t have sexual relations with church members neither is it advisable to have financial dealings with church members because it creates a dual relationship, and it does not produce an environment of safety for all, free of abuse and potential malfeasance.
Yet, I would argue, that we need to use common sense when it comes to dealing with retired emeritus clergy. They should not have to feel like disenfranchised members of the community. Rather, they need to be affirmed as valued and productive members of churches, denominations and be fully supported in their continued ministry and religious service.
We should welcome all, and support all members of the religious community.
Now and always.
May it be so.