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.