Is there such a thing as an abusive parishioner? Recently I got involved in a conversation about abusive patients and whether a doctor could, or should, fire them. About the same time a young colleague in his first solo pastorate brought up the question of when and how it’s time to tell a parishioner that he “is a jerk” and to knock it off because he is making worship and congregational life unpleasant for others.
The church is working hard these days to learn how to break down barriers, be more extravagantly welcoming to all, and to reach out to those who have been marginalized by society in order to proclaim the good news of God in Christ and invite them into the fellowship of the body of Christ. That puts a pretty heavy burden on pastors, and it calls into question the exact role of boundaries. In the days of Christian Europe, and to some extent in the more imaginary Christian America, persons who were known to be “notorious sinners” were excommunicated with the intention that they might be led to penitence and reconciliation. Vestiges of that kind of congregational discipline continued well into the last century. But today, with a few exceptions, that kind of boundary enforcement is not only unknown but even abhorrent to some.
So what are the proper boundaries? Who should be the judge and enforcer? Can a pastor “fire” a parishioner? In my lifetime I’ve heard of it happening only twice, at least in any public way. What is the right way to do it? How about the chicken’s way out? Before my retirement, and in the recent upheavals in the Episcopal and Catholic Churches, several of “my” parishioners started attending a local Catholic Church while several of theirs were showing up in our place on Sunday mornings. We two pastors talked it over and toyed with the idea of a prisoner exchange except that we each got to choose the ones we didn’t want back.