by Jean Alexander

What should we do as clergy when difficult or tragic things happen to us? This is a question I’ve grappled with through almost 40 years of ministry as a local church pastor and for seven of those years as a judicatory executive advising other clergy. For whether we like it or not, clergy are public figures. As public figures we have a responsibility to communicate something about our private lives to those in our congregation when we are confronted with loss or tragedy or other difficult life circumstance. When the ordinary and not so ordinary losses of human life happen to us, we do not have the option of grieving totally in private.  We may even have a responsibility not to do so.

I’ve thought about this issue this past year as I’ve coped with a myriad of losses: my mother, my sister-in-law, and then, tragically, my 27 year old son. But it has come up at other times during the years of my ministry. For example, how should I inform the congregation that I was going to be divorced or that my daughter at age 16 was going to have a baby? There are certainly other situations one can think of such as a life-threatening illness or a loved ones legal troubles that could place this difficulty before the pastor.

At the heart of the dilemma is the issue of professional boundaries. What is the line that should be kept between the minister’s personal life and his or her relationship with the congregation? Certainly the clergy person has a right to privacy about personal matters. The congregation does not have a right to know every detail about one’s personal life. In fact, I do not think they want to know all the details of one’s personal life. On the other hand congregations generally care for their clergy, and they want to be supportive and helpful. They cannot do this well without some signals from us about what would be helpful and what we actually need or don’t need from them. Yet sharing too much information can be detrimental to the pastoral role.

The guidelines I have set for myself over the years are as follows:

  • Tell the truth but not all the gory details. My son died of a drug overdose after a 12 year struggle with addiction. Only a few in the congregation knew of his addiction prior to his death. It did not feel right to share with the congregation something that was not totally mine to share. At his death though, I knew people would want to know. To make it a secret, with some knowing and others not, wasn’t helpful to them or to me, and in this internet savvy age, perhaps impossible. Secrecy is not a helpful thing in families and the church functions as a family system. Being open can also help others know their human tragedies can be shared with you and with others. Sometimes our parishioners see our lives as more perfect than they are and our humanity becomes a point of connection and possible ministry. I remember how after my divorce, my pastoral caseload of people sharing their own concerns increased exponentially.
  • As much as possible, share only what is yours to share. This is very tricky for clergy who have families. Matters having to do with our spouses or our children should be as private as possible. When it isn’t possible, we must make it clear to the congregation that because it has to do with our family the bare minimum of information will have to suffice. When my daughter decided to have her baby, it wasn’t mine to share with the congregation. It became obvious over time, but it wasn’t my announcement to make.
  • Be as clear as you can about what you need and what you don’t. I did not need casseroles during this recent spate of deaths. I did need some time off, but not as much as I suspect some thought I should take. I needed to back away from certain responsibilities but I also needed to work. I needed routine which would carry me through each day. Others might cope very differently. What is important is to honor your own needs and then to communicate them to the congregation in a way that honors both your needs and their need to love and care for you.
  • Communicate as much as possible in writing. Getting up in the pulpit to share the bad news of your life is not helpful for a variety of reasons. We are a visual culture and oral communication often gets skewed. Many won’t hear what you said correctly or completely. The shock value means that news communicated from the pulpit insures that the worship service has been hijacked by your news. To me that would be a violation of what we are called to do each week, which is to lead the people in the worship of God and not focus on ourselves. Communication in writing also assures that everyone has equal access to information. I have always sent a letter to the congregation to announce my leaving. Once the letter is in the mail, I then inform in person or by phone a few key others who should be prepared to receive it. When I was divorced I also wrote a letter.
  • Update the congregation as necessary. Over this past year I have tried to anticipate when my son’s death would impact me emotionally and might also impact my ministry. His birthday was Christmas Eve so about a month before, I shared this with the congregation in our weekly newsletter and used it as a way of talking not only about my own point of vulnerability but how such anniversaries are difficult for all people going through loss. The same was true on the anniversary of his death. At one point early on I decided I would share that I was seeing a counselor to work through my feelings about my son’s death. I did this because it conveyed to the congregation I was doing okay and I was using appropriate resources. They did not have to be responsible for taking care of me over the long haul.
  • See the stuff of our own lives as an opportunity for ministry.We know that clergy are the repository of a lot of projections from the congregation. We can be seen as parental surrogates or as more wise and loving than we are or can ever be. It comes as a consequence of assuming the mantle of leadership. Wise pastors know that these projections need to be managed as best they can. Using our own painful life circumstances as teaching tools may sometimes seem like an unnecessary burden, but as I was told many years ago, “the whole church teaches all the time.” How we manage our own human dilemmas teaches the congregation ways they may or may not manage theirs. If we are secretive about our own human tragedies, we teach the congregation that this is the appropriate response to tragedy. If we model that Christian faith gives us a perspective for living with what seems at the time to be unlivable, that also teaches. If we can let others love and assist us in times of trouble, we teach that it is the way Christians care for one another. I was confirmed in how I communicated my son’s death by several parishioners saying in essence to me, “you have modeled for us how to deal with tragedy.”

I started this by saying this issue was about professional boundaries. As one who teaches “boundary awareness training” in my denomination, I am glad we have moved from the early hard and fast rules such as “never hug a parishioner” to an awareness that the clergy live within a more murky world than the professional counselor or the social worker. What we try to teach is professional awareness and self-reflection. Why are we doing something? Is it to fulfill our own needs or to be responsive to a parishioner’s need? It isn’t wrong to fulfill our needs, but in most situations we need to seek fulfillment from someone other than a parishioner with whom we have not only a pastoral relationship but a fiduciary responsibility.

At the point of a personal tragedy we are, as clergy, more vulnerable. How we decide to communicate our situation and our vulnerability requires great care. If you are unsure about how best to do that, turn to trusted colleagues and talk over what might be the best course of action. If you have a wise judicatory person, they might also give you good counsel as to what has been helpful in other situations. If you are writing a letter or including the information in a weekly newsletter or in an e-mail to the congregation, have other’s read it before you send it out. If the tragedy is raw, you are not in a position to evaluate how the words will be received by others. A church moderator is another person who can often help you navigate this difficult boundary. They represent the congregation and their best interests and can provide a perspective on how your information will be received.

I realized many years ago that one of the difficulties with this for clergy is that suddenly we are in a role reversal. Instead of being the care giver, we are the one receiving care. Instead of being the wise and steady supporter, we are the one in need of support. This is not a comfortable role for many of us. It is important for us to reflect on why that is. It can give us clues as to why so many of our parishioners are reluctant to share their places of vulnerability. Yet in being able to let ourselves be appropriately cared for, we again model that the Christian life is about giving and receiving. As clergy we have to be willing to receive as well as to give as long as we don’t get stuck in being on the receiving end of the equation.

These guidelines that I have provided are just that, guidelines. Our personal situations are so varied and in some cases so complex that hard and fast rules are not always helpful. The most important thing for any clergy person is to have a network of clergy colleagues who can be truthfully supportive when we need it. Their wisdom and perspective can help sustain and guide us during tough times. I know they helped me not only this past year but throughout the many years of my ministry.

Questions for Reflection

  • In your role as a clergy leader, how can you communicate your personal struggles more clearly with your congregation?
  • Clergy and lay leaders have a right to personal privacy. How is this being upheld or violated at your congregation?
  • How can you use personal tragedy, whether yours or a parishioners, to connect with your congregation?
  • What tragedies have affected your role as a clergy leader or how have you seen your clergy leader affected by personal tragedy? What boundaries were or could have been set up to make the process easier?
  • Who can you turn to for counsel, either within or outside of your congregation if and when personal tragedy strikes?

Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1