Can a pastor be a friend?

September 16th, 2016

In her memoir, Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks to the varied struggles of being a parish pastor. The demands are legion, with time and energy being two of the strongest pulls that can transform a once-energetic leader into a battle-wearied soldier. Or, as Barbara Brown Taylor describes her decision to leave parish ministry, she eventually suffered from “compassion burnout.” Translation:  she cared too much about the people she was serving and could not divest herself, emotionally, from the cares, tribulations and struggles of her friends in the parish.

Friendship in the parish has, of course, always been debated among pastors. Ask ten pastors if it is a good idea to have close friends in the parish and you are likely to get several answers, with nuances ranging from “some of my best friends are in the church” to “it is not a good idea to be friends with anyone in your parish.” Other pastors, as indicated by the alarming statistics assembled by John Maxwell (CEO of InJoy, author of books such as Failing Forward, and former Wesleyan pastor) would indicate that over 70% of pastors have no close friends at all. Indeed, many pastors live out their ministry in isolation and loneliness.

In order to find friends in the parish, however, a pastor also needs to be a friend. This is a difficult task — perhaps the task most fraught with potential minefields and pitfalls. But friendship is also invested with enormous grace and abundant blessings — far more than a pastor’s small compensation and long hours can reward.

The pastor as friend is also the model that Jesus used in his relationships. In the gospel of John, Jesus ends his earthly ministry by calling attention to these deep friendships that have marked his life. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus says, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends ... I do not call you servants any longer ... but I have called you friends” (John 15:13-15).

Servant leadership — the kind exhibited by pastors — is fraught with the struggles and hardships of friendship. There are risks that pastors take by becoming friends with those in the parish. 

First, an element of trust is needed, both on the part of parishioner and pastor. Establishing this trust — and learning how much one can trust in both the giving and the receiving of friendship — is often a fine line and also requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence. Perhaps the most common experience among pastors, as far as friendship is concerned, is trusting a parishioner with one’s thoughts, feelings, and even vulnerabilities — only to discover that these are betrayed. 

Not long ago, during a workshop conducted by our annual conference, pastors shared some of their stories in this regard, with many detailing friendships gone awry and confidentialities shattered. Others held out the hope that it was possible to develop deep and abiding friendships with staff and parishioners, even to the point where honesties, vulnerabilities and weaknesses could be shared in a safe environment, confidentialities kept, and secrets guarded. Some pastors were skeptical. Others related stories of delightful friendships and honest conversations without disclosing specifics of these covenant relationships.

Taken at face value, most pastors would agree that the model of pastor and parish should have an element of friendship. After all, Jesus described his own relationships this way — and among those who would desert and betray him. Nevertheless, it is the friendship of God that defines the very depth of grace, and pastors who can live out their ministries in a friendship model always find a deeper sense of happiness, joy and meaning in their work.

Isolation, loneliness and bitterness can rarely yield positive results in either the pulpit or in leadership. And those charged with the oversight of pastors will often speak to these factors as being at the center of pastoral troubles when they develop.

But are there any guidelines or helpful concepts that can make these pastor/parish friendships healthy and meaningful? 

Eugene Peterson, who penned, perhaps, the quintessential book on this subject of the past century (Pastor) offers some helpful insights when it comes to friendships in the parish.

First, Peterson notes that his own experience of church was born of a long pastorate. Essentially, Peterson served one congregation his entire ministry, and in and through that time could not have survived (nor thrived) without the friendships that developed over those years. Deep friendships. Healthy ones.

Sprinkled throughout the book, however, are insights about the importance of friendship; both the blessings and the pitfalls. Some of these ingredients include:

  • A self-awareness on the part of the pastor. Becoming too comfortable among one’s friends can lead to certain bad practices such as preaching unchallenging messages, a proclivity toward the familiar, or an unwillingness to embrace change. Pastors also don’t want to develop one-sided friendships, where certain people in the parish become protective of the pastor’s time and attentions. Pastors who do develop deep friendships in the parish need to be aware of how others might perceive these attentions, and may need to steer clear of placing best friends in key leadership positions, especially ones that will determine that pastor’s salary, for example. Pastors should always be on guard of playing favorites or stacking the deck and should remain above reproach, even in friendships.
  • When deep friendships do develop in the parish, pastors would do well to find comfortable boundaries — both for their sakes and their friends’. Some of these boundaries would include the need to keep confidences regarding others in the parish, or not listening to gossip about other parishioners. Other pastors may feel more comfortable with those friendships where the church is not discussed at all, or where they can enjoy talking about sports or family. Still other pastors may find that their friendships can afford them a level of acceptance and vulnerability that is both healing and redeeming — both form themselves and their friends. Sometimes, the best pastoral care is accomplished among those one loves the deepest. 
  • Be aware that friendships can be painful. When a pastor loves people deeply there may often be pain associated with life changes such as career (moving away), divorce, serious illness, or even death. Friendships do not shield pastors from these realities but may make them all the more painful (though redemptive). 
  • Great friendships can endure past the pastor/parish relationship. Healthy friendships can be for life. If pastors maintain healthy understandings and boundaries they can remain friends even after they cease to be that person’s pastor. Again, these are healthy friendships — and if a pastor feels that he/she cannot let go of a parish even after a move, this is not a healthy relationship, but a co-dependent one. Embracing life changes is a part of all friendships, and pastors can often experience a greater share of these than the average person.

Pastors need not suffer from “compassion burnout” — becoming so engrossed in every nook and cranny of pain — in order to be a great friend, or to have friends in the parish. Nor does a pastor need to eschew all personal relationships in order to be an effective pastor. Rather, pastors should seek to develop those healthy friendships that can be affirming and supportive, both for pastor and parishioner. 

Jesus understood his ministry as grounded in friendship. Pastors can seek to emulate these same relationships wherever they are serving; it’s the way Jesus would have done it.

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