March 04, 2005

Pastoral Ethics

There is a code of ethics for pastors that a lot of people aren't aware of. This code is especially applicable in particular situations. The problem is, a lot of people are unaware of the code, and don't understand certain parts of it.

For example, weddings. The pastor of a church has the privilege & right to officiate at all weddings that take place at the church where he or she is pastor. When my wife and I got married, while we were still in college, I was not aware of this. We wanted our college chaplain to do the wedding, but we wanted it to take place at the church down the street where we attended on Sunday mornings. What we should have done is contact the pastor of that church, and ask him if he would be willing to let the chaplain do the wedding. Since we were unaware of what was supposed to be done, we didn't. The chaplain, who supposedly was aware of such things, should have told us, or contacted the pastor herself, which I suppose she probably did, but I never knew.

When a pastor leaves a congregation and a new pastor arrives, the old pastor is to have nothing to do with the new congregation. This is especially important in that new pastor's first year. When I was finishing up seminary, I met with the search committee of a small church in the San Joaquin Valley of California. I liked that the old lady who was the chair of the committee called me "darling" when we talked on the phone. How cute. But when I found out that the pastor who was leaving wasn't really leaving, I had second thoughts. He was retiring after 25 years. He planned to stay in the community, and to remain active in the congregation. He lived in the parsonage next door to the church, and the congregation decided that, rather than kick him out, they would continue to rent the parsonage to him and give their new pastor a housing allowance. Bless their hearts---8 years later, they're still looking for a new pastor. All I could picture in my mind was someone coming to the church, needing to see the pastor, knocking on the door of the "pastor's house," and talking with old, retired Pastor Bob, rather than the person who is, in fact, the congregation's pastor.

I know that things like this are hard for some people to understand. And sometimes I wonder just how necessary it is myself. But not following this code can lead to greater conflicts and problems between a pastor and a congregation.

This week, John, one of our members, passed away. The funeral is tomorrow. His widow thinks the world of our congregation and says she has great respect for me. However, her nephew is also a pastor, and would it be OK for him to do the funeral?

This does not seem to me to be the time for a lecture on pastoral ethics. Besides, she did ask, and my pastor's heart only wants to be helpful to her in whatever way it can. I told her that. She said she would like me to be involved as well, so I'll be working with the nephew, although he will do the majority of the service. A little awkward, but so far, I'm OK with it.

The biggest challenge I think is the fact that her nephew comes from a very different place theologically than I do. I don't know how aware of these differences the widow is, but I'm afraid that if the nephew knew my thoughts on so many issues, he would wonder if I was even a real Christian. In talking to him on the phone yesterday, I listened as he mentioned how some of what he's going to say will be geared towards members of the family "who don't yet know the Lord." Not quite my style. Most of what I say at a funeral is to honor the one who has died, to seek God's blessing for him/her, and to share a message of hope and comfort with those who are grieving. In doing so, I believe that the love of God is evident, even to those who "don't yet know the Lord." Making a funeral into a mini evangelistic crusade is not my style. And maybe it's not the nephew's style, either, and I'm just jumping to conclusions. He did say he wanted to talk a lot about grace. We'll see. I hope so. I hope that I have enough grace tomorrow to be the pastor that I have been called to be.

1 comment:

reverendmother said...

That funeral evangelism stuff feels very fear-based to me (if you died tomorrow where would you go?), and I don't like it either.

Many a congregation has gotten stuck in the mud by a pastor who won't leave. It's a real shame.