The last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the important issue of pastoral boundaries. This time I’ve been thinking about the issue in a way that is slightly different than you might expect. I say that because when most folks hear about pastoral boundaries, they think a person is talking about appropriate relationships with parishioners or self-care. While those topics are important, neither represents the way I’ve been thinking about them.
So how have I been thinking about pastoral boundaries?
I’ve been thinking about them in terms of the ways I can maintain my personal convictions without trying to foist those convictions on the community I serve.
There are a lot of pastors out there who think that their individual convictions are so important that the congregation they serve MUST adopt them as well. As a result, such pastors will tell their congregations how to vote on ballot measures.
While there are times when the convictions of a pastor and community overlap in ways that make a joint effort possible, there are other times when something comes up and the congregation needs room to process their feelings. In order for them to safely process their feelings, I do not believe congregants should feel pressured by their spiritual leader to arrive at a particular conclusion.
Let me give you an example.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to walk with many, many folks who reach the end of their life. I’ve been in these situations both personally and vocationally. These experiences have made me a strong supporter of what some call the death with dignity movement. Voters in the state in which I was raised (Washington) passed a death with dignity measure in 2008; voters in the state next to which I was raised (Oregon) passed their measure back in 1994. I share that information to say that I have been exposed to communities where these carefully monitored, carefully controlled measures have been instituted.
Neither of the two churches I have served thus far in my ministry are in states where death with dignity measures have been enacted. Neither Colorado nor California currently have death with dignity laws on their books.
The death with dignity movement is a controversial movement that causes folks to feel VERY strongly one way or another. Opponents of the movement feel such measures thrust human beings into the role of God by allowing them to decide when – and under what terms – an individual life is ended. Proponents of the measure counter by pointing out that one could argue all medical efforts (including those intended to treat an illness or preserve the life of someone with a life-threatening condition) put human beings in the role of God; death with dignity measures simply allow an individual and her or his loved ones to put an end to extended periods of suffering where all quality of life is absent.
As I have prayerfully discerned my position on the issue, I realize there are good and faithful people of all faiths on both sides of the issue. For me to step forward and rail against those whose faith causes them to land in a different place on the issue would be an abuse of my pastoral position.
As a result, I have worked to carefully find ways to speak my truth in ways that are not abusive of my call. One of the ways I have done this is I have made myself available to serve as a resource for proponents of the upcoming death with dignity ballot measure here in California. When I did so, I was VERY carefully to ensure the folks on the campaign knew that I was doing so as an individual who was an ordained Christian pastor – NOT as the ordained Christian pastor of a specific local church. I drew this line to pastorally protect those whom I serve in ways that allow them to look at this difficult issue in ways that are safe.
This difficult process of discernment has deepened my sense of call and enriched my understanding of what it means to balance a sense of what it means to speak with a prophetic voice in ways that don’t undermine ones call to pastorally care for all of God’s children – not just the kids with whom we agree.
Regardless of how things progress with the movement here in California, I hope that in coming days the death with dignity movement will do what the thought-provoking article “Why I Hope to Die at 75” article by Ezekiel J. Emanuel did: get us all to think in deeper ways about what constitutes life.
See you next time.