A Pastor’s Call

I serve a congregation of primarily retirement age and older folks.  Great folks.   Some of them are really post-retirement, safely into the epic range of age.  And some of them are alone.  Not just widows or widowers, not just with family out of the area, but really alone – few if any remaining living relatives; no children or grandchildren.   They are fully reliant on outsiders – non-family members – for their care to one degree or another, even if they’re still living independently.  Outsiders is meant in a purely descriptive sense, not pejorative.  Many of these caretakers are wonderful, committed people.

The blessing and challenge of some pastors like myself  is to care for people in this situation.  To bring them the Word and Sacraments of God when they can no longer make it to worship.  To check in on them from time to time.  To develop relationships with them similar to the relationships we have with other parishioners.  We learn about their lives to a certain extent, what they’ve been through, who they are.  Which is wonderful, but it brings certain challenges as well.

As someone grows older and less independent, what is the pastoral role in watching for this person’s well-being?  I don’t have any legal standing with these folks.  The fact that I’m seeing them on a regular basis for years at a time means nothing in a legal sense.  It’s not appropriate or desirable for me to have any sort of legal standing – it complicates everything and this isn’t a reasonable or safe duty for me to take on.  But when I begin to worry about their well-being, my role is rather limited by the legal documents they have drawn up identifying who makes decisions about their life.

I’ve been discovering all of this recently with one of my parishioners.  They voiced some concerns or uncertainties about certain aspects of their care in terms of fiscal fiduciary duties.  But I have no authority to do anything.  But I can make sure that they’ve been in contact with their attorney.  I can make sure they follow up with their accountant.  I can offer to be with them – a highly uncomfortable conversation, I can assure you! – so that they have someone else in the conversation.

But these people have their duties and responsibilities as well – which include keeping outsiders like me out of the loop.  Protecting their client from any possible detrimental disclosure.  Which means while I can help push for a meeting to occur, I can’t ask what happened.  They won’t tell me – and this is the way it’s supposed to be.  But it means that my parishioner may still be at risk of someone taking advantage of them.  It means that while I can assure them of the forgiveness they have in Christ and the glory to which they are called through faith in him, I may not be able to protect them from the wolves of this world.

My only recourse is reporting suspected elder abuse, and bringing in additional outsiders, people further removed from the situation.  From subjecting my parishioner to a system of cause and effect which could even ultimately involve law enforcement.  Which could result in them being forced into courses of action that they don’t want.  Which could shatter the trust they have developed with me, and perhaps even with Christ’s Church.

That’s a heavy thing to consider.  That’s a heavy risk to take into account in my prayers and wonderings.  But it’s a good reminder for me – and for others – to make sure that you continue to ensure that there are people you trust who have a voice in your life as you get older, particularly if the natural choices for those voices are not so evident (kids, etc.) or if there are complicating factors (dysfunctional or adversarial sibling relationships, etc.).  Make sure that people who know you and who you trust have some ability to be involved with you as you get older.  It’s a very uncomfortable thing, but it can be a very helpful thing.  Perhaps a less intrusive thing than the only other systems and options available in situations like this.


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