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.

Lack of friendships in economy only adds to isolation and depression

When we consider our economic downturn in the United States, we immediately think about lack of jobs and money.  As I talk to more people, however, I learn that the glaring casualty from America’s recession is a loss of friendships.

One might assume that the prevalence of online networks, such as Facebook or email, would increase friendships and support systems.  Just the opposite is occurring, and friendships seem to be in a recession too.  As a pastor, I hear of just how lonely some people really are in their life.

My own unprofessional research finds that loneliness stems from one of three reasons.

One reason is job loss.  When people get terminated from jobs, friendships are ruptured and dependable support systems fracture.  Many people move to find new work, and new employment brings them into environments in which other employees have little in common with them in the first place.  Underemployment dampens the energy and inspiration needed to find new friends.

A second reason is the demand of caregiving.  More parents and grandparents take care of children or grandchildren, thus isolating people in their homes and filling up already-too-busy schedules.  Add doctors appointments, careers, and the simple act of grocery shopping for ever-larger families, and the time for building deep, tried-and-true friendships becomes extinct.

Third, we live in an aging population.  Just look at the obituary section, and you get the feeling that more of our friends are passing away each day.  Many are our best friends.  Since we do not have time to do community-organized events or get established in a well-paying, predictable job, there is no way to make new friends when we have face such loss.

With the loss of friendships, we forget that making friends, as challenging as it is, is actually a spiritual discipline that’s as important as prayer or fasting.   The loneliest among us need a sense of community and spiritual support, and perhaps our yearning for friends is one of the ways God is calling us to befriend others.

Friendship was a part of Jesus’ call to discipleship in John 15, when he said, “This is my commandment: that you love one another…I have called you friends” (v. 12, 15b).  Elsewhere, Jesus modeled friendship as a way to rest and relax (Luke 10:38-42).  Friendship is not something to surrender, but a way of life to cultivate in order to make it one day at a time.

The notion of friendships has been around since the beginning of time.  In the earliest days of creation, God saw that it was not good for humans to be alone (Gen. 2:18).  Proverbs 27:9 states that “the sweetness of a friend is better than one’s own counsel.”  David lamented over the death of his friend, Jonathon, whom he loved more than any other (2 Sam. 1:26), and sought to befriend Saul’s family as a result.

In the early church, friendship continued to be an important spiritual discipline.  The earliest monasteries were founded in order to provide spiritual friendships in the midst of social upheaval.  Celtic Christianity saw friendship–or “anamcara”–as a necessity in growing closer to Christ.

Perhaps the key to building friendships is not necessarily wishing for more time in the day, but creating a discipline to make time in the day.  Unplug the computer and call a friend on the phone.  Write a hand-written letter instead of email.  Commit to share a meal with other like-minded families once a month. Schedule a vacation with a friend in your Dayplanner as you would a doctor’s appointment.  Break bread together and see friendship as another sacrament that fosters divine interactions.

You never know, your loneliness-inspired devotion to friendship might be the answer to another lonely person’s prayer.

Pursue peace with everyone, even people you dislike

Be honest: There are people whom you don’t like. There are others who simply annoy you, or maybe there are those who really get on your nerves. All of us have come across people we don’t get along with.

We try to do our best to behave well. We are nice and say the things we should. But when the day ends, there are no magical sparks, no chemistry.

I learned a long time ago that I will not make friends with everyone. That does not mean I can’t be nice to everyone; a smile, handshake and word of encouragement are easy enough. Yet, good diplomacy does not immediately translate into lasting friendships.

The Bible is clear that no matter what type of person with whom we come into contact, that we are to be at peace with everyone. The book of Hebrews tells us: “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that … no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15).

This scripture assumes that there is a difference between simple disagreement and serious bitterness. People can disagree, but bitterness is a root that cuts deeper into a relationship. Bitterness occurs when an enduring conflict festers because people do not seek reconciliation in the midst of hard feelings and profound rifts.

Bitterness is so destructive that it often becomes a toxic element in an entire community. The conflict spreads and people take sides. Communication breaks down, and assumptions replace realistic goals for healing.

Have you ever had a conflict that grew like a weed in the garden of your life to the point that it choked out the beautiful aspects of your community of friends or family?

There are several rules that we Christians can abide by in order to keep the root of bitterness from infecting communities. The first rule is to abide by a biblical roadmap for reconciliation. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives specifics in order to handle conflict. He commands us to go to the person directly. He does not tell us to go to our friends; he does not say that we should build alliances.

Most of us do not even get as far as meeting with the immediate person involved in the conflict. We create excuses for why going to the person is a bad idea: he or she may react in an unreasonable manner; he or she may not listen or may misunderstand us.

It’s when we do not go to the person involved that bitterness takes hold. The other person may not know that there is a problem with him or her in the first place, and the person does not have the opportunity to make things right.

Another rule is to handle conflict promptly and appropriately. E-mailing a person about a conflict is not necessarily appropriate. People can misread the tone of an e-mail or mistake just how serious the conflict really is.

In some instances, a phone call may not suffice either. I personally prefer to handle conflict face-to-face. This allows me to communicate peace with words and use body language to express warmth and healing.

Whenever you find yourself in conflict, do not give it time to grow into full-fledged bitterness. Sure, we may get annoyed with one another here or there, but handling conflict with tact and directness is the only way to keep our communities from becoming, in the words of sacred scripture, “defiled.”