I recently received an e-mail from a pastor struggling with how to best minister to a former congregation. His successor passed away a few months ago and now a family with close ties to the congregation died in a accident. The church is still seeking a pastor. The former pastor lives in a nearby community and sees former members occasionally in shopping centers and other places in their small community. The pastor is not only grieving over the loss of this family but also for the pain he knows the congregation is feeling. His question was how, and if, he could minister to those former members.
My response was that I have faced the same situation in my own pastoral experience. I continue to live in a small community in which I pastored a church for 20 years. It is inevitable that I run into former church members and talk about their lives. There have been funerals and weddings I would have liked to have been included in but could not due to boundary issues. What I have tried to do is separate pastoral ministry from normal Christian care and concern. I avoid weddings of former members completely. When a death of a former member occurs I will go to the visitation but not to the funeral service. The vistation allows me an opportunity to express my sorrow and enter into their grief as a fellow believer, but by not attending the funeral it enables me to avoid any appearance of involvement in the service. I believe this is fair to the current pastor, and it allows me to address my own grief at the person's passing as well as an opportunity to express support to the family as a fellow Christian. I encouraged this person to walk with people from his former church in their grief as a fellow believer but to not accept any leadership role in ministering to them. Another area pastor has already been asked to conduct the funeral service so that will make that easier for this former pastor.
I often say that bivocational ministry is very geographic. Many bivocational ministers will serve churches within a few miles of their home. Seldom does a person travel across country to accept the call to a bivocational church. In many cases, the bivocational minister will not move from his or her home when leaving a church. That means the problem of boundaries is one that often confronts the bivocational minister.
Does the way I've handled this situation make sense? What have been your experiences with maintaining proper boundaries with former churches you've served? I think this could be a good forum question that would be helpful to those who regularly read this blog so feel free to jump in with your experiences and thoughts.