Can Pastors Be Friends with Former Parishioners?

Most institutional churches have policies about how much a pastor can be in relationship with former parishioners.  In my new job, I’ve seen several of these policies.  They range from “the former pastor can send a Christmas card” (and that’s about it) to “the former pastor can worship in his/her former church with the permission of the current pastor.”

I’ve known relationships between former pastors and parishes being very connected and healthy.  And I’ve witnessed former pastors sabotaging the ministry of the current church leader.

Facebook has altered the issue of maintaining friendships after a pastor moves along or retires.  Do we de-friend all our FB friends when we leave?  Or do we continue to be friends who refrain from talking about the particulars of the congregation. 

Appropriate:  Pictures of the kids, Shared news stories, Weather, Life milestones

Not appropriate:  Sermon critiques, Church gossip, Pastoral care, Promises to come back even years later to officiate at weddings and funerals.

So, here are my questions:

Is it okay to be friends with church members who left the congregation even before I left (i.e. people who moved to the Midwest years before  I left with whom I’ve remained friends.)?  I’d say yes.

Is it okay to wish former members Happy Birthday on Facebook?  I think so.

Is it okay – when a parishioner asks me to come back to baptize their baby – to say, ‘I’d love to, but we have to ask the new pastor.’?   Nope.  This forces the new pastor either to be a bad guy or to rubber stamp what’s been decided.

Is it okay to drop in for worship unannounced, ask if I could co-lead worship the Sunday I’ll be back for the holidays, make pastoral care phone calls, or ask parishioners to share church gossip with me?  Never, never, never, and never.

The bottom line in terms of these relationships seems to be:  what’s best for the congregation.  It’s not about me and what I want. 

What’s tricky is the pastor’s family.  My kids have grown up in one church.  They have friends and mentors there.  Should they not get to stay in touch with those friends?  Should they stop worshipping with that congregation even though they still live in the neighborhood? 

I’ve watched pastors’ wives sit on the third pew with their arms crossed and their faces pained.  I knew one spouse who sat on the Nominating Committee to choose her husband’s successor.  It’s a weird dynamic.  Why should she leave “her church” filled with all her friends?  Maybe she shouldn’t.  Or maybe she really should. 

All these scenarios and possibilities require healthy pastors who don’t make it about them.  The bottom line:  Are we most concerned with nourishing and building up the reign of God?   Or are we most concerned with maintaining our personal power or need for attention?

What’s your wisdom on this?

3 responses to “Can Pastors Be Friends with Former Parishioners?

  1. Yes, this is a tricky question. I’ll allow that I was disappointed the first time that what I thought was a friendship dissolved.
    Once I realized the restrictions the PCUSA puts on departed ministers (and rightly so if the driving need is to prevent mischief), I understood that lay-clergy friendship is really possible only when there is no pastoral relationship. Maybe (being a male person) it’s easier for me to set friendship boundaries than it is for female persons, but it is a fact that friendships between ministers and members of their flock are ephemeral.

    On another topic, nowadays clergy spouses are recognized to be actual people, not appurtenances. They are independent (as are their children to some extent). There is no particular reason that they should be forced to uproot simply because the clergy person in the family has moved on to another church. I’ve seen it work well even when the clergy person has been involuntarily separated from a church.

    I like your answers to the questions, and I agree with you that the answers need to consider the good of all.


  2. These policies are put into place because of a lousy view of clergy that considers them dispensable and merely “hired hands.” How can a pastor preach on the integrity and intimacy of relationships they themselves cannot develop? Incoming pastors need to appreciate the relationship people have with their previous pastor, and leaving pastors need to encourage the community to support the incoming pastor and stay focused on the mission of the church – not it’s leadership. To try to address these matters with silly policies misses the point altogether.


  3. Pingback: Can We Still Be Friends? – When You Work for the Church

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