Pastor as Friend?

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In January 2013, halfway through my second year at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Craig Barnes became the school’s president. To be honest, this didn’t necessarily affect me much. I was pretty much in “keep my head down and get the work done” mode during seminary. However I was recently reminded by Timehop, of all things, about a particular article Barnes wrote called “Pastor, Not Friend.” This article was written back in 2012, but it has had a profound impact on me, and I frequently think about its argument and apply it to the context I’m working in, whether in one of my various seminary internships over the past three years, or now in my first “real” (non-student) church position.

Barnes’ article runs less than a thousand words, and it’s worth reading. But my interpretive summary is this: Pastors (and by extension, church staff in general) are constantly balancing the line between being friendly and being a friend. The problem comes with mutuality. In a friendship, there should be an equal power dynamic. When one friend shares and needs support, the other friend knows she could share equally and be supported as well. But for pastors, that’s usually not the case. It varies by tradition, of course, but people sink a lot of emotional investment in their pastor, and sometimes a pastor’s vulnerable messiness should not be a part of that.

Think of it like a therapist, or a doctor. You go to the doctor or therapist because you’re sick and have a problem. It seems inappropriate and unprofessional if the doctor/therapist starts telling you their issues; that’s not what you’re paying them for. But is it so cut and dry with pastors? Pastors aren’t just professionals, they’re sisters and brothers in Christ with the rest of the congregation… so does that mean they can be friends?

From Barnes’ title, his answer is pretty clear: No. However, he does say in the article, despite his apparent certainty on the subject now, he has “struggled with the question of befriending parishioners” for over thirty years.

Because the truth of the matter is, church work is incredibly vulnerable and self-baring. When you preach, you are mediating God’s word, yes, but you’ve also bared your soul to God in the study of the text, and as you transition to the sermon, a lot of that soul-baring is still perceptible. Pastors aren’t alone in carrying out God’s work in the world, and doing that work alongside parishioners—you’re going to develop “friendly relations” with at least some of them.

When I first read Barnes’ article, it upset me, and I disagreed with his conclusion. In college I interned in a Mennonite church, and from that context I strongly believed that pastors could be friends with everyone—partly because the Mennonites had such an equal environment. For instance, in the church I served, instead of the pastor standing on a raised platform at the front of the building, the congregation was on raised seats, almost like an amphitheater, in a slight semi-circle. Being a pastor was important in that context, yes, but it wasn’t as…weighty as some other traditions.

But now that I’ve been in the Reformed context for the past four years or so, I have a greater agreement with Barnes (although I probably would not have chosen such a confrontational title; dozens of comments on the article, both for and against, illustrate that he clearly struck a nerve).

My first move toward agreeing with Barnes came from a sexual ethics seminar. You hear about pastors having affairs or inappropriate relationships with parishioners, and you imagine, that would never happen to me. But the seminar leaders gave a statistic, almost 30 percent of pastors will have affairs. The room full of future pastors was told to look around and seriously consider that. This wasn’t an issue that would never affect me—essentially one in three of us were at risk: either me, or one of my friends.

They talked about how innocent an inappropriate affair might begin. You’ve been a pastor for thirty years, and your spouse no longer reads your sermons ahead of time: he’s heard it all before, in one form or another. But then, in the greeting line at the end of the service, a young parishioner gushes to you about how much he enjoyed the point you made about Jesus calling us to be courageous by walking on the stormy seas, etc… and the next week, it happens again: an equally great point you made! You ask (or the parishioner offers) if maybe the two of you could meet ahead of time and get his opinion on the sermon, since your sermons could always be made better by parishioner comments. You meet in your office at first, but then you both discover a love for coffee (a love your husband doesn’t share) so you begin meeting at local coffee shops in the afternoon.  And then, because pastors keep odd hours, your meetings move into the evenings. You start your dialogues about Scripture and faith, and talking about faith is intimate. You begin to feel a certain part of yourself responding to the relationship that you thought was long gone… And all of a sudden you’re having an affair.

It’s those gray areas that worry me, not necessarily because I think I’ll actually have an affair one day, but because it could at least lead someone on. It could give the impression of romance or even just the impression of a deeper friendship than what is attainable by a pastor who often has to be “friends”/friendly to hundreds of people. In Barnes’ article, he gives the example that when he accepts another call at a different church, his parishioner felt betrayed that he hadn’t included him in the decision making process… and that ultimately the pastor was leaving him.

So while I began by disagreeing with Barnes’ piece, at the end of the day there is more that I agree with than disagree. But it certainly is a spectrum, and deciding where to fall on that spectrum is almost a weekly struggle. Do I become Facebook friends with people in my church? If so, do I regulate my posts because I know it might change their opinion of me?  (My answers: Yes, but usually only if they request it of me; and Yes, but that could be said of lots of people I’m Facebook friends with—i.e., I’m not going to complain about my fight with a family member publicly on that platform). At the end of the day, I want to be friends and feel a connection with the people I work with. But the capacity for friendships to go wrong or at least be misinterpreted could have ramifications on my professional life. So I tend to make the safe less messy choice, even if that means a part of me isn’t allowed to be fully alive at church.

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This is a very, very important article - thanks for posting it. The power differential between a pastor and a parishioner must always be taken into consideration in any ministry relationship. And it is ALWAYS the responsibility of the pastor to maintain healthy boundaries in ministry relationships. Therefore, when sexual misconduct occurs, it is not an "affair". An affair implies a relationship of equality and mutuality - that does not accurately describe the relationship between pastor and parishioner. A pastor and parishioner are not on equal footing. When sexual misconduct occurs in this relationship, it is an abuse of power and abuse of the office. Referring to this as an "affair" causes additional harm to the one whose been victimized by it. 

Healthy ministry boundaries are complex and it's important to spend some time carefully considering them. It's not a matter of a creating a list of do this and don't do that. Rather it's considering how a relationship is perceived and paying attention to the power differential involved. Healthy boundaries create a container for good ministry. Many denominations require ongoing boundary or ethics training for clergy and ordained leaders. Ministry leaders, and especially ordained ministers, must remain cognizant of the great power inherent in their position, and the sacred trust that they hold. Seeking additional training in this area is a very wise move.

This webinar provides a quick introduction to some of the topics to consider in maintaining healthy ministry boundaries, 

Thanks Jasmine.  I remember one of my seminary professors telling us, “beware of who greets you at the train station.”  In other words beware of those who want to befriend you because they often have an agenda.  They might be the nicest people and the kind of persons that you would want to befriend, but they have a history with the church that you don’t have.  They see the needs of the church differently than you might see them.  So when you aren’t altogether onboard with their agenda, there can be a falling away and hurt feelings.  And, as people can be people, you as the pastor can be painted as unsympathetic or worse.  Another possibility in the pastor/member relationship is that you, as pastor, are expected to hold confidences but it doesn’t always work that way when the tables are turned.  It’s often a feather in the cap of a member to be able to say, the pastor told me such and such, or to say, the pastor did/does this or that.  Choose your friends carefully because you don’t always know who you can trust, and you will be in your position as pastor for a long time.