There has been quite a bit of chatter about my last blog post, so I thought I’d write a follow-up, an addendum, to clarify a bit of what I’m *not* saying.
I’m not saying that pastors are somehow “above” friendship.
I’m not saying that pastors don’t need friends.
And I’m not saying that pastors should be aloof or unfriendly.
In therapy circles we talk about the many different harbors we have in life, places where we take shelter.
What harbors do you have? Here are some I’ve identified:
We have the harbor of our family of origin, those who raised us and (often) love us with an unconditional type of love.
We have the harbor of our close friends, a family of choice if you will, who provide the kind of filial love that we need to be fully actualized humans.
Some of us have the harbor of partners or spouses, a harbor that checks many different boxes on the needs chart.
We have the harbor of our closest friends, those intimate friendships where bonds are tighter than most any wind that can come along…most any wind.
And then we have the harbor of community, a place to belong and be loved in a communal way.
Now, just about every human needs almost all of these harbors to be fully actualized. There are exceptions, of course. Not everyone is called to be partnered/married. And not everyone needs the harbor of a community past their family. But, by and large, I think most humans need these particular harbors to be fully human.
Pastors included, of course.
But, depending on the issue that comes up in life, I would claim that not all of these harbors are *safe* harbors. If you’re having trouble in your marriage, you shouldn’t go to your parents. It’s not a safe harbor. They are not unbiased. You may receive the kind of love and comfort you desire, but it may not be the kind of love that will lead you to a resolution or an objective viewpoint.
When a pastor is looking for a safe harbor, a person to confide in, I would readily claim that a parishioner is not the port of call. And can never be.
Categorically, can never be. The relationship won’t work that way.
And this is what I mean when I say that your pastor is not your friend, at least not in the conventional sense of what deep friendship means: they can never confide in you. Your relationship doesn’t provide them with a safe harbor. There is always some distance necessary.
Most of the push back (most, not all) on my article has come from people in congregations who certainly feel their pastor is their friend. In many ways, yes, they are right…in many senses of the word friend, they might in fact be “friendly.”
But if you cornered your pastor about whether or not they could confide in you, if you asked them clearly about the nature of your relationship, I would bet that they would be honest and admit that you’re not a safe harbor.
Because if you want your pastor to be a safe harbor, it can’t be any other way.
And look, I have lots of examples where this has messed people up, messed churches up, messed pastors up. I’ve encountered many people quite cold to their current pastor because they felt so close, so “friends” with the predecessor, even a sense of loyalty if you will, that it causes trouble, it causes deep confusion, some real hurt, and plenty of pain on all sides.
It is not a safe harbor in the end.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t have deep conversations, honest conversations, deep affection, and real love between pastors and parishioners. That is all absolutely there.
But if the pastor is getting their friendship needs met by parishioners, they do so at the peril of the office, and the peril of that person continuing in the congregation after they leave the office.
In fact, I wonder what leads more pastors to depression: pastors realizing they can’t seek a safe harbor in their parishioners, or pastors who seek parishioners as safe harbors but then realize it didn’t work; it wasn’t safe?
Pastors need friends. They need safe harbors. And congregants need pastors who know that they cannot be it.