Dear Rev. Former Pastor:
You just got the call from a beloved parishioner in your previous congregation. Their loved one has just died and they have called you. They want you to:
- “do the funeral” — or —
- co-officiate the funeral with me, Rev. Current Pastor
— or at least —
- say a few words at the funeral
- come to the visitation
- stop by the house
- “You will be there, won’t you?”
- It’s what Loved One wanted (this may have been put in writing)
- “I can’t get through this without you”
- “Rev. Current Pastor doesn’t know us like you do (hasn’t been there all along)”
- “Rev. Current Pastor won’t mind”
- “This is a special case”
- “You are the best pastor ever”
- “You are our friend” (And is this because you and former parishioners have kept in touch &/or spending some kind of regular time together?)
We Rev. Currents know when you Rev. Formers will be called.
- The newer I am to the parish, the more likely it is that you Rev. Former Pastor will be called first in a crisis.
- The longer you were pastor of your former congregation, the more likely that your former church member will want you to “be there” &/or “be involved.”
- If you have been present at other funerals of former parishioners, the precedent has been set, and the congregation will expect that you will be at this occasion, too.
It’s your move.
Proceed with caution.
This situation is all yours to shape.
Your three possible responses:
- The inappropriate “YES”: “Of course I’ll be there” — or — any immediate reassurance that you will be there for them, with them, present at the funeral or before or after the funeral. You expect me (Rev. Current Pastor) to make room and make a way.
- The seemingly respectful “I’m sure we can work something out.”: “I’ll call Rev. Current and ask if we can work together” — or — “You need to call Rev. Current and get permission from) her/him”
- The excruciatingly difficult “NO”: “I know that Rev. Current will see you through this” — or — “I am not available to do that.”
As painful as it will be for both you and Loved One, you owe it to me, your colleague, to choose option #3 and just say NO.
If you go with option 1 or option 2, I have to include you. Because you have not gracefully removed yourself from this picture, I do not have the pastoral option to set the necessary boundary and refuse. My ministry with Loved One would be wounded. My relationship with you as my colleague would be strained. I will make a way, because if I refuse their heart-felt request and reject your willingness to be there, Loved One will not understand. Parishioners cannot fully understand the costly decisions involved in being a professional church leader.
It’s up to you. Please, just say “NO.”
Here is what you are saying to Loved One when you show up for the visitation, the funeral or visit them before or after:
- “I left you and your church because God called me away to a ‘better’ setting, and that may have felt like rejection, but I would never reject you. You can call on me when you need to.”
- “God’s timing was messed up to call her/him to be the pastor during this occasion, not me.”
- “You are right to feel insecure about how this will go if Rev. Current is the only pastoral presence.”
- “You are right that Rev. Current will not have the words or the care under these circumstances to give you a really quality funeral service without me.”
- “My new congregation doesn’t expect me to focus solely on them and my pastoral responsibilities there; they do not have my full attention.” — or — “Retirement means I can do what I want about you and my other “friends” at my former church since I don’t have a current call.”
You are saying about God:
- God made a mistake in the timing of this death.
- God missed the mark in calling Rev. Current to be pastor of this congregation at this time.
- God can’t possibly have wanted Loved One to endure, without you (Rev. Former), the pain and loss surrounding the end of Departed One’s life.
- God’s presence with Rev. Current and the family is inadequate comfort and care unless you are in the picture.
You are saying to me that your relationship with this former congregation, &/or with Loved One in particular, is more important than supporting my ministry there and furthering our collegial association as pastors.
If you want to offer your experience and care in this situation, here’s what you could do:
- Offer to meet with me and tell me what you know about Loved One, Departed One and any other history that would help me to be their pastor.
- Express confidence that I will bond with them just as you did.
- Remind me that it is just these kinds of occasions that bring a pastor and congregation closer together.
- Ask how I am. Ask me what you can do to support me and my ministry.
- Send a card to Loved One and share something of the special bond you shared with that family. Don’t call. Don’t call on them, anywhere. Don’t show your comforting and much-missed pastoral face. Set the boundary as a gift of love to them.
- Set up a coffee or lunch with me in a few weeks. We can become closer colleagues even as you let go of your beloved former congregation.
Colleagues are colleagues forever as we move from place to place. This is an opportunity to build trust as colleagues by making the very difficult decision to let go of your beloved former parishioners.
Just say “NO” to your former parishioners so you can say “yes” to your colleagues.
You may think that you can show up, even at the visitation, as a friend. You did not meet as friends; you met because you were their pastor. They can never see you as just a friend. They are looking for your pastoral presence now. When you show up, you are offering them that “presence,” and “presence” is the bones of a pastor’s job description.
Just say “NO” to going to them, to being with them, to “being there” in any way.
After all of this, you may still believe that there is wiggle room here:
- This is a special circumstance.
- You will be careful.
- You are just going to say a few words.
- You will find “healthy ways” to “be there” with your former church at funerals, and at other times.
So, a few final thoughts:
- When you are with them, you disrespect the call they heard from God when they extended the pastoral call to me. Think not? Well, what happens at that church when I am called to my next setting? Which of us gets to be *the* former pastor? Which of us then gets to do what you are doing with them now? Where is God’s call in that?
- When you are with them, you go home (if retired) or you go back to your primary ministry setting. Then, I am left to do the hard work of day-to-day congregational life. You get to be the “non-custodial” parent who brings the treats. They will seek you out again.
And this question:
- Why do you desire to do this thing more than you desire to step back, cheer me on, and be a respectful colleague?
Rev. Former Pastor, my trusted colleague, I cherish the congregation that we hold in common. I am honored to serve a congregation where you will always be a beloved former pastor. I am grateful for your ministry time with them, for it resulted in bringing me to be their pastor and bringing us together as pastoral colleagues with a very special congregation in common.
So, please, do whatever Lamaze-type response practicing you must do in order to be ready with your own compassionate, pastoral version of “NO.” There will be a time when the next former parishioner calls you to be present, or be a presence, for them.
Just say “NO” and let God take care of us all.
Your grateful colleague,
Rev. Current Pastor