Pastor AND Friend

A few years ago, I showed up on a back porch with a six pack for a little commiseration. My drinking buddy was having a helluva time with life and I was there to “place share” (h/t Andrew Root). About 15 minutes into our time together, after the niceties, he looked at me and asked, “Are you here because you’re my pastor or because you’re my friend?”

Time stops for a pastor when that question is surfaced. In a split second, a pastor needs to discern what the asker is after, what the answer is that they hope you give and how that squares with the answer you’re naturally inclined to give. The pastor needs to be hyper-aware of power dynamics since the asker is allowing you into the vulnerability of their life. Not to mention the normal relationship dance of making things explicit, and the awkwardness that goes along with that.

There are a host of other variables to consider as well, but the moment is a terrifying one.

The Holy Spirit must have been on my side, because I gave what I think was the right answer to my drinking buddy: “I’m here as your friend, but I guess you can consider yourself lucky that you have a friend who is a pastor.”

Pastor, not friend

Yesterday, an article by Princeton Seminary’s new president, Craig Barnes, started circling around that clearly made the case for maintaining the classic distinction and distance in the pastor/parishioner relationship.

For over 30 years I’ve struggled with the question of befriending parishioners. I realize that I’m supposed to maintain healthy friendships outside of the church, and I’ve taught this for years in seminary classes. The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships. Or at least that’s what pastors tell themselves.

I suppose I could have pulled back from the church and tried to meet more people through the PTA, the Little League, a political party or the volunteer fire department. I could even have convinced myself that this is part of my local mission as a Christian. But I love being a pastor, and I love the churches I’ve served. And they are demanding lovers.

I have a lot of thoughts on Barnes’ article, and pastoral health in general, but there’s something that I want to name first: This makes me sad.*

It makes me sad because it so clearly resembles what I hear a lot of the folks I counseled say when they were trying to justify the benefit of being worked to death in the corporate world. God wants more and better for all people, and saying that we’ve been called to be lonely is just…well…wrong. Call me a slacker, call me a flake, call me selfish if you want, but this is a problem and it has to change.

We have to shift our expectations

I’m certainly playing fast and loose here (it’s a blog, so I can get away with it🙂 ), but if this problem has a chance of being solved then there are a number of variables that must be addressed:

The Church rests on power and cash. A Facebook friend helpfully pointed out that much of this issue has to do with the fact that most congregations do not allow their pastor to be any kind of friend because of the power they hold over their employment and the subsequent cash they pay. I’m on record that the whole project of what the church is needs revising. This only adds fuel to my fire.

The Church expects its pastors to be extroverts and chaplains. This has been the hardest one for me to deal with, but if you look at the job description of most pastoral positions, it reads like an introvert’s nightmare. You must be at everything, do everything, and care for everyone all the time.

The Church is organized for efficiency, not relationship. As I wrote yesterday, we have generally lost our grasp on “community” in favor of mutually beneficial “associations.” Being a pastor has become just another job. Your average CEO isn’t friends with employees and customers, so why should the pastor be?

So what to do?

Pastors need to develop a clear, differentiated sense of self. This is not simply a pastoral issue. This is a human-being issue. Every psychologist will tell you that knowing who you are, what you are capable of, and how you operate are some keys to a healthy life. The number of pastors out there who don’t know who they are – because of ignorance or age – is astounding to me.

The Priesthood of All Believers needs to become functional. Yes, I know that the PoAB is a theological doctrine and not an organizational one. It’s time for it to be “both/and.” At their best, pastors are equippers. Church folk gotta step up, and pastors gotta back off.

Many Things should be preferred over One Thing. In order to maximize efficiency, economies of scale need to be accepted as common practice. Yet, we are not all the same. I don’t want to do that thing, but I also don’t want to rock the boat, so…let’s have the pastor do that.

I’m sure there’s more to this than I’m seeing, but these ideas feel like a place to start.

*I actually get to begin working with Barnes on one of our national denominational committees. I’m under no illusions that he and I will ever talk about this, or that I would be able to (or even try to) change his mind if we did. He’s an astute man and surely has put a good amount of thought into this. And yet…I want better than this for him and the seminary students he will now be charged with training.

22 thoughts on “Pastor AND Friend”

  1. really good blog; it’s really painful when you experience a forced termination, and those “church friends” turn away from you. If and when I ever work in local ministry again, i’ll come in, do my job, and get the hell out!

  2. I’m not sure the pastor can be your friend…..he’s usually the one stabbing you in the back to protect his butt…..

  3. No matter what your position on this issue, what’s imperative is that those you serve understand it. And as I found out, that means you have to repeat it. I did not attend most school functions in the small town where I served. It was the cut-off point of community involvement for me, partially b/c as an ex-teacher, I was burnt out on school. However, my idea of who I was never really did jive with their idea of who I should be in regard to participation in school functions. And there it was.

    1. I think repeated education is where we get tripped up, practically. I wonder if it’s a matter of sowing the seed for the next person.

      1. I would agree. Con ed about yourself (deja vu all over again), and then for the next pastor. I didn’t find pastoring much different from teaching. I was friendly with lots of students, am only now a “friend” with a few who are no longer my students. It’s the same as a pastor. And I agree with katdianna–some may think they want me as a friend, but they really want/need me to be a pastor or teacher. I know that’s the way I felt when I was a student/parishioner . . .

  4. Landon, interesting post. What follows is what I intend to send the ministers of this presbytery after the first of the year.

    Here are two rather opposing articles, but both have a measure of truth for us. The first article is written by Craig Barnes as he leaves Shadyside to become President of Princeton Seminary. The second is written as a blog by Landon Whitsitt, now Executive for the Synod of Mid-America.

    I once met with a session as they were beginning to prepare for the retirement of a long tenured pastor. I told the Session and the pastor, “Don’t ask” and “Just say no.” Don’t ask the retiring pastor to do any pastoral functions (weddings, baptisms, funerals and such) after retirement. Pastor, if asked, you are to just say “no.” That has been the operational model I followed as a pastor and the one I intend to follow after my retirement in May. Don’t ask me to do anything or to comment on anything in the presbytery (at least for a few years). If asked, I intend to just say “no.”

    All of us know the difficulty of separating our relationships and responsibilities as teaching elders/ministers/pastors from the tight kindred bonds which are formed with members and others in the community where we have served. Prior to the formation of friendships, and regulating all other relationships, is the foundational relationship of “pastor.” After accepting another call or retiring we are no longer in that prime relationship. I think it no accident, after several attempts by Elijah to leave Elisha, Elijah was whisked away in a chariot of fire. (2 Kings 2) That was the only way Elisha would cease to ride on Elijah’s coattail, and for Elisha to be free to establish his own pattern of ministry without folks always running to Elijah, especially if they questioned what Elisha was saying or doing.

    We must make literal and figurative space for those who come after us without having to function in our shadow. They will need to develop their own relationships. We would do well, in relationship to our successor, to follow the pattern of John 3:30. It is not simply a matter of who it right, Barnes or Whitsitt. It is a matter of ethics and courtesy. It is up to our successor whether we are invited back into the mix of relationships where we have served.

  5. Yeah, you’re not dealing with the very real power dynamic which, as a consequence, makes pastors into less than real people. I wrote a fb comment that’s more eloquent maybe, but I don’t think that people ever want us fully as friends. When push comes to shove we are pastors and not vulnerable people with our own needs. We are not ordinary. And that’s tough but also good and part of what this calling means and needs. We are set apart whether we want to be our not.

    1. “We are not ordinary.” Precisely. This is an astute analysis.

      However, I fear that lauding being “set apart” masks the fact that we preach against the setting apart in other areas. I’m not sure why we would want to do that in this regard.

      I’m fine to have a different function in a community. That’s just good division of labor. But I’m not okay when that different function alienates me from the community.

  6. I agree with you but I’ve found that this theory breaks down too often, and not always on the pastor’s side. In the two congregations I’ve served, I have built two friendships. Others say they want to be my friend, but that has most commonly meant they wanted to shed the formality they were taught comes in a pastor/parishioner relationship. Most people had very little interest in being a friend to me, therefore I never stopped being a pastor to them. Perhaps as we begin to understand ordered ministry in new ways this can change.

    1. I think that matches my experience as well. I like your words: “shed the formality.” I can totally see that.

      I hope I’m not coming across as saying that we should be extroverted, dubby-buddies with everyone. I hope what I’m suggesting is that we have to move beyond the “Revered Sage” or “Employee” forms of relationship that congregations have with their pastors. A hard and fast “No friends with parishioners” rule doesn’t help that much, IMO.

      Also, this doesn’t take into account what happens when being vulnerable as the pastor gets you burned. That’s happened to me, and, damn, that sucks.

  7. I’m not a pastor. But I am a frequently lonely non-pastor and a sort-of parishioner. For me, Though I do keep expecting/wanting people, loneliness sometimes has been a gift, a spiritual hunger that pushes me to seek to fill the loneliness with God.

    As you and others suggest, this answers to the pastor-friend question may be about modern and post-modern worldviews. Do I view pastors & congregations as starfish or spiders (as defined by Brafman & Beckstrom)? Do I view a pastor as my conduit to God or do I believe I have my own conduit to God? Does my view focus of “both-and, we” or on “us-them, either-or”?

    What if congregations are merely fulfilling our (low) expectations? In other words, does a belief that parishioners aren’t capable of being mutual friends with their pastor attract/retain/create (primarily) parishioners who aren’t (yet) capable of being mutual friends with their pastor? And if they are incapable of being mutual friends with their pastor, are they capable of being mutual friends to each other?

  8. Love this thought process and where it is taking us. We need friendships. I’m intrigued by your observation to be aware of the power involved in a situation where we must choose, or at least vocalize, whether we are friend or pastor. I’m a middle child so I wonder why it can’t (sometimes) be both? Though that takes more work. I guess, I feel like as a pastor it’s part of my job to (try to) model how to live faith and I think in the realm of this convseration that might mean being more vulnerable and extending ourselves first in friendship. I’m trying to think how I can say that better, but I’m not sure it’s a totally distilled thought. Perhaps there’s some precedent in the Benedictine orders/other monastic orders concerning Spiritual Friendship? Proverbs 27:9 — “a sweet friendship refreshes the soul.”

    One last thought that I’ve been talking about with a friend who was a friend long before I became a pastor, though I still knew at that point where I’d be headed, is how to be friends with a pastor. She even googled it (no results😦 ) because she was realizing how much stress there is for me, but she also kept apologizing for calling me when she was upset. I assured her I want to be there for her in those times, because she’s my friend, but we had to navigate the waters of faith and friendship and where those boundaries are so I’m not trying to be her pastor and she’s not making herself feel guilty for things my occupation reminds her of. Lots of people don’t realize how lonely being a pastor is, but more than that, lots of people aren’t able to handle the social pressures of befriending someone whose job is to help remind people of our God-given potential and desire for that spiritual relationship.

  9. Power dynamic. It’s an unequal relationship… and friendship is fundamentally about being equals in a relationship. You can be friendly (which is friend-like) in a professional relationship — boss/employee, teacher/student, etc. — but you can’t really, truly be friends.

    One or the other. But not both.

    Which sucks, yes.

    Now, that’s not to say that there’s no space in those categories for a range of relationship. There are congregants whom one can have a more equal, more friend-like relationship with. Or that one might have a friend who was a congregant, but really the relationship was friend, not congregant/pastor. And those only serve to confuse most people. Because we have so few intimate relationships in this hyper-alienated society, and because the language is so barren.

    Who here has any acquaintances any longer? The word’s dying from lack of use, and *if* it’s used at all, it’s barely anything–it’s “we’ve met,” essentially. No, the only relationship that the culture and language permits now (other than lover) is friend–and that was pretty debased even before Facebook made anyone you have a social relationship with your Friend.

    So the question from the friend on hard times, to me, sounds like it carried “are you here because you really care about me [friend] or are you “only” here because your professional role obliges it [you’re on the clock as “friend”]. Which means that the whole role and relationship with a pastor was misunderstood (understandably, I suppose). The pastoral role carries a non-commercial obligation–not to “care” professionally, but to care in the deep, latin-rooted origins of the word; from the heart, out of a deep caring that’s OTHER than a personal love, or a personal affiliational friendship. Your answer was just fine–but I suppose I’d be tempted to have just looked puzzled, and answered with “I am here because I care; because I really care.”

    Yes, it sucks to not be able to truly be friends with people who think that’s what they want to be… and who we’d like to be friends with, too. But I think that the wisdom of experience says that trying to do that puts everything at risk; the friendship, the relationship with a pastor, and the congregation.

    And that’s a huge sacrifice. Which is why, when someone retires from the ministry, they pretty much need to retire from it completely–so that they can stop having to “be the minister” to people, and enjoy normal, friendly relationships….

    1. OK. Yes, I see what you mean about the power dynamic of friends vs. the pastoral role, and I believe that to be accurate. Within the church, I am the pastor and need to be. For me, that means that a lot of the responsiblity of initiating conversations and continuing a pastoral moment/session rests on me, and I expect little in return.

      That said, I think we do need to cultivate friendships outside of the church, and as noted that remains difficult because of time and practicality. It seems I have to work extra hard to be vulnerable to those I am friends with because I expect them to be able to be there for me, but I’m not used to depending on others. Those successful close friends I do have are those who became friends with me at a time when we were equals (students together, coworkers at a different job) and have continued our friendship. Regularly, I tell myself to take off the minister hat when I am with them and have to fight the impulse to be pastor. And Landon so aptly pictures that moment when you have to assess what your friend’s need is, what your professional impulse is, and what your personal investment is in the situation.

      Knowing several ministers who have retired multiple times, I wonder if this is a calling that one can completely retire from since it is so often tied up in our sense of identity and has so fully shaped the course of our lives. I also wonder if that is not why having friends is so difficult. Long before I knew what a calling was, I was ‘pastoral’ to my friends because that is part of how I am built. I do not lay that aside fully in my relationships, but I do have to know myself well enough that I can be fully present in my friendships.

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