I did not have pastoral relations with that woman!

I know, I sound a little… Clintonian here, but I have a question about the meaning of pastoral contact. You see, according to our guidelines for appointment, clergy covenant, and countless other documents,

After the change of appointment, the outgoing pastor will not have pastoral contact with any member of the congregation without the invitation of the current pastor.

So here’s my question, and it is in many ways tied to earlier discussions on both my blog and Jeremy’s (Hacking Christianity) about the role of ministry and the gospel in a digital medium: can interaction online constitute pastoral contact?

On the one hand, I want to say yes it can, because I think connections are made between people through emails, facebook updates, blogs and so on. Certainly people from my congregation have emailed me and shared prayer requests and celebrations and asked for feedback or prayer or support. That’s definitely pastoral contact, just as it is when we have the same conversation over the phone. Likewise, people who are not part of my congregation will reply to things I post and we’ll begin a conversation that is spiritual or pastoral, or, even more likely, a virtual friend will be going through a difficult time, and I will respond with notes of encouragement and prayer. I’ve even lifted virtual friends up in prayer from the pulpit. I’d call that pastoral contact in many ways.

On the other hand, I have this blog, you see. And I have a congregation who knows about it (although I’m still not sure that any of them read it, because none have responded). If I maintain my blog after my change in appointment, and my congregants from my previous church read it, engage in discussion on it, and listen to my sermon podcast, does that constitute pastoral contact?

I would argue that this blog is not reaching out to any one person, but is an exercise, largely, in shouting into the void, and if a former congregant happens to hear the echoes of what the former pastor shouts into the void, that’s not pastoral contact; that’s connectionalism. It is no different than a pastor whose services are broadcast on public access TV. Or is it?

This blog is also interactive in a way that the one-sided nature of TV or letters to the editor or books written by former pastors are not. What about a specific response in the comments? Are those really any different than emails? If, say, a member of St. Paul’s leaves a message that they are having a tough time in their life, should I refrain from responding? What would other readers think about the cold-hearted blogging pastor who answers every other comment but ignores the “dear pastor becca, my friend just died and i’m really mad at god right now; can you please pray for me?” Further, how am I even to know? What if JesusGurl23 is really a fifty year old woman from my former congregation, adopting an anonymous online handle? I’m not trying to give out ideas here, folks, but I have a personal blog and a personal handle, and without a picture or some identifying characteristics, how am I to know who is who? Could– and perhaps more importantly, should– the Conference hold me accountable for not interacting with former congregants online when I might not even be able to tell who they are?

In a world where distinctions between here and there, contact and distance are so easily blurred, how do we maintain faithfulness to the formation–and in this case the termination–of our covenant relationships? Is it enough for me to simply not seek out my soon-to-be former congregants, and trust that I am upholding my covenant?

I anxiously await your thoughts!

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14 Responses

  1. Haha, I am a moron and posted on your RSS feed. Reposting.

    Hmm… interesting question… I have NO idea!

    I would imagine that regulation is in place to keep you from stealing the loyalty of your former flock from their current pastor. They should be looking to that person primarily. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to me if you correspond with them sometimes though. But you might want to let the new pastor know about your online involvement and that you may correspond with some of them from time to time. I bet they won’t mind as long as you aren’t saying bad stuff against the new person or anything.

    Here’s a grain of salt, because really, what do I know?

    I was really sad at the service when the now-former assistant at the church I don’t go to anymore was released from her duties and we had to say all the stuff about how we released her. I miss her. 😦

  2. @Elaine,

    It is a gray area, isn’t it. Yes, the intention is definitely to encourage the congregation to see their new pastor in that role, and not rely on the previous pastor. It is absolutely essential that I support that pastor and never speak ill of her/her online, on the phone, on a boat, with a goat! At the same time and as you know, missing someone is hard, and releasing that relationship is difficult.

    And don’t worry about having to re-post. I still don’t always get my bits and bytes in the right place!

    Thanks for reading and commenting!
    Becca

  3. Becca, it makes me so sad to read this post. I can hardly fathom there are still things like this in place, though I know it to be sadly only too true. It is so obviously tied into the fear of “sheep stealing,” with pastors forgetting that the “sheep” belong to Jesus, not to any pastor.

    So, I would say forget the broken, dysfunctional system and what they “require” of you, and do what your heart leads you to do! Be a Martin Luther in the year 2008 and nail your own theses to some door! 🙂 I do so love a renegade!

  4. @Tracy,

    I’m sure that some fear of sheep stealing plays into it, but I can hardly steal a sheep across state lines! I do agree with the policy in that it does encourage a congregation to bond with their new pastor. I certainly appreciated it when I was a new pastor and the former pastor was just a couple of towns away. I had to build my own pastoral authority and my own relationship with my congregation, and that would have been much more difficult if she had still been in close contact with the members of the church. That may be a bit of my own pastoral insecurity (hey, I was a newbie!), but it’s also helpful for the congregation I think to make a clean break in some ways.

    That said, we live in a world of instant, world-wide communication. There’s no such thing as a clean break anymore. And we are left wondering what the healthy thing is and what the realistic thing is. Is it good for people to have pastors walk out of their lives without a backward glance? Is it reasonable to expect pastors to not respond to a cry for help or love or prayer? Is it high time we expect pastors to claim their own authority rather than rely on the system to protect it?

    Becca, who is as yet un-ordained and can’t go all Martin Luther yet. But thanks for the love of renegade-ness!

  5. Becca, can you explain what you mean by “pastoral authority?” I want to see if we mean the same thing by it before I respond!

  6. @Tracy,

    That’s a good question. I don’t mean anything authoritarian, that’s for sure! I mean claiming my identity as a pastor and a leader in this community, and realizing that *I* am the one the bishop has appointed to serve in this time and place. *I* am the one God has called here and now. It’s an authority (or maybe assertiveness is a better term) that comes from knowing that I’m God’s minister and sent to this time and place, so the buck stops with me in terms of both the gifts of leadership and the burdens or problems that might arise. I use the word authority because that’s what the bishop says when she (we can have male bishops, of course, but mine is a woman) places her hands on the head of an ordinand and tells them to “take authority to preach and teach and administer the sacraments.”

    I hope that helps a little. It’s a good question, and one I don’t have a concise answer to.

    Peace,
    Becca

  7. Becca, thanks for your thoughtful response. You and I are operating in two different universes, so I won’t respond further from here :-). I will just say that I see your heart and its intentions are lovely, though I disagree with some of the foundational things that you seem to be standing on.

    By the way, you will soon be a fellow-Vermonter of mine! I live 30 minutes North of Burlington, in a log cabin out in the country. Welcome to our lovely state. There is no place I would rather live!

  8. @Tracy,

    Fair enough!

    And there’s no place I’d rather live either. I’m originally from the Northeast Kingdom, so it’s wonderful to be going home to Vermont! I hope I can stay for a good long while (but I never know when the Bishop may send me somewhere else).

    Becca

  9. I doubt your questions have even been thought of by the powers-that-be…

    The internet will forever change how we interact… fortunately/unfortunately, the UMC is far behind the times…

  10. @Scott,

    Very true. Part of me hesitated to even mention it, lest I open up a new controversy. But then I thought, hey, maybe it’s okay for us Methodists to argue about something else for a bit…

    Seriously, though, there are questions that we haven’t thought to ask, and the answers are not going to be cut-and-dry. Welcome to post-modernism, eh?

    Thanks for commenting!
    Becca

  11. Becca,

    I know exactly what you mean! Facebook + sabbatical has been enough to help me understand the dangers of internet boundaries! Where do you draw the line?

    In terms of former appointments, I have a policy of not contacting, posting or “friending” past parishioners (even when I’m tempted to send a birthday greeting or other friendly note). I respond if they contact me, but try to keep our communication to a minimum. It’s a hard line to walk, yet I think it is essential in the work we do. It does a diservice to our parishioners and those who follow us if we don’t keep healthy boundaries.

  12. @TLS

    (one of my things is that I won’t use a name unless it’s given– keeps your identity yours to reveal)

    A separate and difficult question for me is when I’m on the computer for “work time” and when I’m on for “play time.” Clearly Facebook is the latter and bulletin prep is the former, but most of the rest blurs together. My husband is constantly accusing me of ‘taking work home,’ which I certainly do, but other times I’m entertaining myself. Hard to say.

    Thanks for your suggestions about where you draw the lines. I think this is helpful, and I’ll adopt similar boundaries.

    Shalom,
    Becca

  13. Here’s the thing…Facebook is for me mostly work…that’s how I connect as pastor and field organizer. These relationships whether fostered online or off are crucial to the work I do.

    But, I also have real friend “friends” online who have nothing to do with the church…folks I really want to be in touch with when not working.

    Makes it even harder to figure out!!

  14. @TLS, Me too. I can waste a lot of time on Facebook (especially with Word Twist). But for the most part, my rule is, any time my handle is Pastor Becca, I’m working, and any time it’s something else, I’m not.

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