By Tom Ehrich

Parish ministry entails more disruptions than a regular churchgoer could ever imagine, from late-night phone calls to sudden attacks to friends departing.

None is more confusing and sometimes heartbreaking than standing to the side when a former parishioner suffers or dies.

I understand the ironclad norm: when you leave a church, you leave for good, so that your successor isn't burdened with your meddling. I affirm it and have tried to observe it.

Our paths cross, of course, for the Episcopal Church world is a small world. And successors have sought me out at times to ask an opinion, to invite me into a celebration, or to inform me that someone to whom I was particularly close had suffered.

But I am always the outsider -- as I should be -- so I didn't escort Joe's remains to the memorial garden, and I won't follow Marshall on his final journey.

To his family and to the hundreds who have come since I left, I am the stranger whose name is on a cornerstone. Even the people I know have moved on in life, as have I. Today we have little in common other than our few years together.

So, I get it, I appreciate it, I have no desire to change these norms. But I also know that it hurts me deep inside not to stand with these families and add my grief to their grief.

As I talked with soon-to-be-widows, I felt no desire to be their pastor again. Someone else is doing that work now and, by all accounts, is doing a wonderful job. But I did want to be their friend -- not exactly the friend who ate in their dining rooms or did my part to help their children grow up, but their friend in the gracious household of faith, bound to them across distance by the love and mercy of the God who shaped us all.

I can do that from a distance, of course, and I feel filled with that friendship. I also know the distance hurts.