Why Pastors Need to Leave Their Parish When They Leave

Tough subject ahead. Ready?

Here’s the thing: no pastor is perfect at this.

Even me.

Social media has made this all the harder, of course. A “like,” an easy comment on Facebook or Instagram, a quick “check-in” for curiosity.

It’s easy. It happens.

But it’s largely not a good thing, especially at first.

But even years later, even today, I still see pastors, pastors I know, showing up to do weddings or funerals for people at parishes they used to serve.

And, yes, I get it: they think it’s harmless. “They don’t go there anymore,” they say. Or, “they haven’t been there since they were a teen,” they say.

But guess what, pastor: you’re largely doing that for your own ego and desire to be needed.

Because you know what? They’re absolutely less likely to show up at their former church now because you still continue, even years later, to hold that role for them.

And that’s honestly not helpful.

You know why we wear that robe, pastor? That white robe?

That white robe is the robe of a servant, yes. But even more so, it’s a robe that makes you interchangeable with any other pastor out there.

That’s what our theology says.

So, you saying “yes” to that destination wedding is just you disregarding that theological truth.

And you know what?!

Just because you say no to the invitation to do a wedding or a funeral doesn’t mean you didn’t mean anything to them. You did! Good on you! You did so much that they want you to be a part of it!

And you can be a part of it: sitting at table 9.

Or by doing a reading.

Or by sending a nice card and a gift with your regrets.

With one exception, for a childhood friend, I have said no to every wedding, funeral, and baptism I’ve been asked to do since leaving parishes. And I don’t say that as a badge of honor, but rather as a testament to me trying to walk that walk.

I care deeply about the people I used to serve.

Deeply.

So deeply that sometimes I wonder at night about their life and how they’re doing and hope they check in sometimes. And when they do, I always respond back in love and respect.

But I do so now from afar. With boundaries I try imperfectly, but really hard, to keep.

With deep love, deep reverence for who we used to be to one another, but with an even deeper understanding that for both of us to live our best lives into the future I must commend them to other people’s care, and they must honor that boundary.

Pastors who perform pastoral acts for others who used to be in their parish do so because they can’t say no to their own ego and need to be needed.

And sure, sometimes that pastor who left asks for permission from the pastor currently at the parish, but let me ask you this: what pastor is going to say no to that request? In such a moment of tenderness, probably with a family they haven’t had the chance to bond with, or who views them with suspicion, the power lies not with the pastor currently serving the parish, but with the former pastor who is called forth from the past like a reminder of other times.

That power dynamic sucks so much.

I would love to preside over the wedding of every youngster I served.

I would be honored to say parting words at every gravesite for those I tended to.

I’d love to baptize every newborn that comes along to families I married and nurtured.

But that’s not OK.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

2 thoughts on “Why Pastors Need to Leave Their Parish When They Leave

  1. Overall, good article. I really don’t mind my colleague eulogizing or speaking words at a funeral over a former parishioner. However, it must be done collegially with respect. Respect is key to make this work. The former pastor must have a direct conversation with the current one. They must be willing defer to the current pastor judgment.
    In very rare instances, I have attended funerals at the current pastor’s discretion, I’ve so without wearing a collar. So it’s clear, I’m not I charge. Then I leave quickly.
    After 24 years in ordained ministry, I know of the trend of former pastors and current pastors being almost adversarial. I see less of it these days.

    • Thanks, Pastor.

      Sometimes, especially in the case of a funeral, it is welcome.

      And certainly it should never be adversarial. That is never warranted, no matter the situation.

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