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Former pastors: Is stay away the only way?

Former pastors: Is stay away the only way?

UPDATE: The chart referred to in the article is attached below:

A couple of weeks ago The Lead featured a controversial article (Dear Rev. Former Pastor) about former pastors and contact with parishioners from the church the clergy had served. Alban Institute explores the idea further and wonders if there is a better way?

As part of a doctor of ministry thesis project, I designed a research project to explore if, when, why, and how a visible relationship between former pastors and congregations can or should exist. I researched success and satisfaction with pastoral transitions in congregations from the perspectives of members, former pastors, interim pastors, and successor pastors. Using a web-based tool, I created the Pastoral Transitions Survey to examine respondents’ emotions and satisfaction, the relationship between former and successor pastors, the public engagement of former pastors with congregations they previously served, friendships between former pastors and congregational members, and adherence to professional boundaries.

All mainline denominations have similar ethics pertaining to the relationship between pastors and congregations they previously served. These guidelines require the pastor to terminate all pastoral services, refrain from interfering in the life of the parish or the ministry of the successor, honor the record of one’s predecessors and successors, and exercise caution regarding contact with former parishioners.

… no consensus exists concerning ongoing relationships with former pastors that would fit all pastoral transitions. However, in the absence of unethical conduct and assuming a voluntary departure, and in spite of legitimate fears of the slippery slope, my analysis of statistical and anecdotal data from the surveys suggests five areas of continuity between former pastors and congregations can be affirmed:

(1) maintenance of institutional memory and goodwill;

(2) occasional visits for services and special events;

(3) shared times of bereavement;

(4) collegiality between former and successor pastors;

(5) continuing friendships with some congregational members.

Read more conclusions here.

Greeves Chart


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Richard Edward Helmer


I agree. There’s a saying attributed to the Dalai Lama: “Learn the rules well, so you know how to break them properly.” Rigidity is not the name of the game, but norms and attitudes matter for the well being of the entire community. Clergy have a responsibility in that regard, whether or not they continue to hold formal authority in a congregation.

Rod Gillis

The article summarized here, and written by Trish Towle Greeves is well wroth a read in its entirety. While the earlier article and this one by Greeves are both engaging, The Greeves article here is more expansive, less tightly focused on a single and often very motivational controversy (funerals) and so is more global.

Greeves’ final conclusions are very insightful.

The bottom line, however, is that boundaries are needed and are important. In the end we are discussing how flexible boundaries may be when helping pastors with professional sensibilities navigate a change in pastoral relationships.

Gary Paul Gilbert

This makes a good case for less rigid rules about contact between pastors and former congregations.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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