Clergy as friends? An ongoing debate about friendships within a church

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Several months ago, an article by M. Craig Barnes in The Christian Century caused a stir when he asserted that it is impossible for pastors to befriend parishioners.  Letters to the editor followed and gave Barnes mixed reviews.

In the article, Barnes argued that pastors, set apart in ministry and called to lead the church, cannot maintain friendships in the church to which they are called.  Certainly, relationships are close-knit and pastors and parishioners share many experiences, but this is not to be mistaken for an intimate friendship.

A pastor still has a particular (and peculiar) calling in each parishioner’s life: to correct, disciple, nourish, guide.  A shepherd is effective by being shepherd, not by pretending to be one of the sheep.

Not so, says his critics.  Pastors are called to lead, but they are also called to befriend others in a posture of humility and service.  Pastors are not the professionals they once were, and pastors who try to wield their titles lose connections with others and, eventually, churches.  Did not Jesus tell his disciples that they were his “friends” (John 15:15)?  What makes ordained ministers so special?

In This Odd and Wondrous Calling, the Reverend Lillian Daniel understands this sentiment, but argues that pastors who befriend parishioners will find it impossible to snuff out the role of pastor entirely.  A pastor can try hard to drop the frock, lose the collar, toss the tie; but, at the end of the day, the pastor will always be one.

She recalls a situation in which a friend started attending her church.  Over time, she saw the relationship evolve, and she was too entrenched in being a pastor to be a friend at the same time.  As she tells it, “As pastor and parishioner we now had a relationship centered in a community, we would no longer just sit on the steps and talk about nothing.”

I, too, have found this to be my experience (and I have tried awfully hard to shake the “pastoral” role, trust me).  My nature is to be friendly with all parishioners.  I don’t hesitate to call any one of them friends, I give hugs freely, and I am certainly closer with some more than others because of similar interests and age.

My church expects me to define–and keep–boundaries appropriate for ministry.  They expect me to have my ear to the divine Voice that brings comfort and, at times, prophetic criticism.  After all, people have pastors for a reason.

Many a church pastor are going the way of Barnes’ critics and even refuse salaries so that boundaries with parishioners are less rigid.  Many pastors think that being too “professional” is a lonely, unsustainable road which costs one too many friendships.  Instead, they seek to be “relevant” to a generation that champions relationships over religion.

Yet, for many people who attend such churches, there is something missing in their spiritual walk.  In being friend, the pastor does not provide the much-needed role of shepherd for her community of faith.  Eventually, the community has trouble finding its way.

No doubt, Jesus called his disciples friends, but he is also ultimately the one who will judge all people upon his return to earth (John 5:25-30).  We can connect to Jesus in an intimate way, but eventually he will stand before us because he has a calling to fulfill too.  Pastors will always strive to balance the role of minister with friendship; and, for as long as they strive, there will always be a debate as to whether the two types of roles are compatible.  An odd and wondrous calling indeed.

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