Friendly or Friends?

Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.

The quote above was written by Craig Barnes here just before becoming the President of Princeton Theological Seminary.  I’ve been talking with counselors and colleagues recently about this topic of pastors being “friendly” with our parishioners but not “friends” with our parishioners.

The word “friend” is the issue, perhaps.  friends

We all have different kinds of friends.

  • There are the friends who are more like acquaintances. We say hi in the grocery store and we know a little bit about each other.
  • There are “old friends” with whom we grew up that we might or might not stay in touch with regularly today, but they knew us as children and we share a lot of history.
  • There are Chosen Family kinds of friends with whom we can say almost anything.  They know us.  We can phone them in the night and say, “There’s a naked dead man on my kitchen floor” and their immediate response is “I’ll be right over.”
  • And then there are Facebook friends.  Whatever.

I will confess before you and God that I believe pastors can be friends with our parishioners But With Clear Boundaries.  This is what I mean:

  • We need to be willing to (gently) clarify our roles.

As a parish pastor, I regularly lunched with church leaders to discuss church business.  After they rotated off that leadership position, some still wanted to meet me for lunch but I couldn’t possibly do that because we had new church leaders whom I needed to meet for lunch to talk about church business. Yes, we were friends, but I was meeting them because of their role.

I remember a member who wanted to meet for coffee to talk about her life and she suggested Friday.  “Friday is my day off,” I said.  And she said, “Great!  It’s my day off too.”  But then I needed to explain to her that my day off meant that I didn’t do church work.   Yes, we were friends, but pastoral care over coffee is my job.  It might even be something I enjoy, but to keep good boundaries, it’s important to remember that I am getting paid to have coffee with parishioners.

I considered parishioners true friends but it was always one-sided.  I might know everything from the sex life to the white cell count of a church member, but they never had comparable information about me.  A parishioner saying “I’m having an affair with a married man in my AA Group” was not the same as me saying, “HH and I are going to the movies tonight” even though it could be interpreted that we are sharing equal information.

  • We need to explicitly identify which hat we are wearing.

Let’s say that – after decades in professional ministry – I have clergy friends whom I’ve known through marriages, childbirth, cancer, etc.   And now I am a Mid-Council leader and Friend is a pastor in the same Presbytery.  Maybe this person badly needs a sabbatical or a physical check up or a lawyer or whatever.  I might say, “So, I’m taking my friend hat off and putting on my Presbytery hat. Let’s call the Board of Pensions about getting you some support with ___.”

The thing about being friends – if the relationship is healthy – is that I can say things to my friends that I can’t as easily say to a mere acquaintance or a stranger. Trust levels are high.  They know (I hope) that I am spiritually mature and must live into my role.

I’m not saying that this whole friend vs friendly thing is easy.  It takes being aware of the optics and being aware of what others will expect if we offer special status to some.

[Note:  If you have friends in your former church where you served as Pastor, that’s great.  But please get out of the way and let the new Pastor who follows you form appropriate friendships too.  And don’t drop by the hospital after Elder Jones’ surgery “as a friend.”  You are not Elder Jones’ pastor any more.  Send a card.]

Years ago, I regularly vacationed with a group of women that included my former General Presbyter, the former Interim General Presbyter, and assorted pastors, church members and former church people.  This is could be a Boundary Nightmare.  But it wasn’t.

We talked about what we would eat for dinner, our kids, our dogs and cats, sunscreen options, wine options, etc.  It created relationships that – literally – allowed me to say to my colleagues (when we were back from vacation) “I’m putting my ___ hat on and you can’t do that.”  Or they would say it to me.

So what do you think?  Can we be friends with our parishioners?  Or is it best to be merely friendly?

Image from the show Friends (1994-2004.)  They had terrible boundaries.

9 responses to “Friendly or Friends?

  1. I have referred to our status as pastors as being “the perennial outsider.”


  2. I believe that you can only be friends with members if the congregation is very healthy. If the congregation is dominated by the sort of folks that “keep score” of the amount of time you spend with various members then I doubt that you can have close friendships with members.

    However I suspect their may be fewer of these scorekeepers than in the past. They were mostly found in small town congregations. The kind of places where everybody recognizes your car and knows who you have been visiting.


  3. Christina Berry

    I had a lunch meeting a while back with the amazing group of women who plan and lead our annual community VBS. There were two clergy women and three lay leaders, one of whom is DCE in the church I serve as pastor. After a time, the talk turned to more personal matters. My clergy colleague had to go, but I stayed. The conversation shifted to a kind of meta-discussion about our friendship. Two observations emerged that I still reflect on.
    1. About my friendship with my DCE: “She’s your girlfriend, but you’re her pastor.”
    2. “We can talk to you because right now you’re not a pastor.”
    It was so freeing to be part of that “girl-talk” once those distinctions were made!


  4. Good article. The spouse of a Pastor often has the same experience. When you move to a new Call you leave your support network behind and often live in isolation for long periods of time. How about an article on that topic too.


    • So, Dawn, how would you like to be a guest on my blog? I am also the spouse, but it’s kind of different in a two-pastor household. Not kidding – if you’d like to write something.


  5. Pingback: Friday Festival | RevGalBlogPals

  6. And sometimes, no matter how hard you work to established and maintain the healthy boundary, your friend from church gets upset with you, you talk through it, things seem OK, but you notice that neither relationship — pastor or friend — is ever the same again. 😦


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