I’ve been in a few interesting conversations on FB lately about what it is like to be a pastor, or a parishioner, and whether genuine friendship is something that a pastor can offer a parishioner. Generally speaking, it seemed like parishioners felt like pastors could be their friends, for the most part, but most pastors pointed out issues with this perception and practice.
There are boundary issues, honesty issues, and safety issues for the pastor in her position at the church which do not exist between the pastor and her friends. There are issues of power and politics, of employment and theology and core values at stake. A pastoral relationship is a particular kind of relationship, it isn’t a stand-in for every kind of relationship. That way lies boundary violations galore.
I came up with a pithy way to represent the problem: with regard to your pastor, your pastor can be your friend, your pastor can be honest, and your pastor can function as your pastor – you can pick any two of those three.
Honest Friend = Not Pastor
Your honest friend cannot be your pastor. If someone is honestly talking to you about the deep things that friends talk about, they cannot also be your pastor. They can’t be your pastor if you know about their criminal record, or their affair, or how much they want to strangle some of their parishioners, or how sometimes they lie from the pulpit because that’s easier than telling the truth and making enemies or being unemployed.
Pastor Friend = Not Honest
Your pastor friend cannot be honest with you, for the reasons listed above. She cannot tell you all about her life; cannot tell you some truths, especially about herself and her own life, but possibly about you and your life as well. I’m NOT saying that pastors who have friends in their congregations are lying – what I am saying is that they will always have truths they cannot tell you that they could, in theory, tell a friend in their life who is not part of their congregation or community.
Honest Pastor = Not Friend
Your honest pastor cannot be your true friend, any more than your therapist or your lawyer can be your true friend. An honest pastor will have to tell you things you may not want to hear, and should be maintaining good, healthy emotional boundaries with you at all times. An honest pastor is also a professional, among other things, and it gets too confusing to have to alternate between wearing the ‘pastor hat’ and then wearing the ‘friend hat.’ One of those hats is going to stick – either the pastor part, or the friend part, will suffer.
Not All Three
This is my understanding and practice as it is right now, at least. I even have friends among my parishioners, but as their pastor, there is always going to be an appropriate distance there. Being a pastor is messy, and the lines between different kinds of relationships can blur, but for me at least there is a definite limit beyond which I am not going to go with a parishioner, if I want them to remain a parishioner.