A Follow-Up: Don’t Pastors Need Friends?

handsThere 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.


9 thoughts on “A Follow-Up: Don’t Pastors Need Friends?

  1. So what do you call a “safe harbor” for a pastor to find friends? I’m the daughter of a small-town pastor, and I grew up seeing my dad (and even more so my mom) struggle with this issue. They knew they couldn’t truly have friends in the congregation, but there seemed to be no alternative sources of friendship – no one who wouldn’t look to them as ‘the pastor/pastor’s wife’. This just meant that they were trying to minister without a support network, and the problems they couldn’t talk about with anyone then just built up and fed into our family, causing a lot of stress.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I wonder what a pastor is then supposed to do.

    • This is exactly one of the issues that leads pastors to leave the ministry. And it can be especially difficult in small-town situations.

      Other pastors, other serving professionals, and even other people in town who do not go to the church can become friends in the deep sense that friendship can be known. But it takes time and intention.

      But you raise one of the most serious mental health issues for the church.

      • There is another edge to the sword that is pastoral friendship within a congregation. There is a very real risk that too much closeness between a minister and a congregant leads to feelings of resentment, jealousy, exclusion in other congregants. I have watched the near destruction of a small town congregation and a pastoral career through the development of a too close friendship with a congregant. It gets really messy as everybody’s high school mean girl dramas come back to life. Whether real or imagined, it makes no difference. Those hurts create very real divisions that don’t leave when the minister moves on to a bigger, wealthier church.

      • I have often wondered about this issue of relationship between congregation member (me ) and my pastor.We have a close friendship relationship.Although we r friends and have never spoke of it I think each of us realizes there has to be boundaries.She has worked very hard to achieve her position.I would never want her distress over that which could jepardise her job or her respected place in our community…

  2. This is an issue that has puzzled (bothered) me for some time. I understand that pastors cannot be friends with those that they serve AS pastors. Just as Stephen Ministers cannot be friends with their care receivers, the two relationships are incompatible. But, to be human one must be connected. Does the pastor’s holy (i.e. set apart) state allow friendships in the sense that I, a layperson, can be a friend?

      • My family and I belong to a Lutheran Church-Canada congregation on Vancouver Island. Our pastor and the other pastors on the island meet about once a month to fellowship and mentor each other. This seems to help with their need for friends who are more appropriate to confide in, as they’re all in the same boat.
        Our pastor is one of the first we call when something good or bad happens, as he is very supportive and loving. Our church is very blessed to have him. As much as my husband and I adore our pastor, and as much as we would love to, we realize that we cannot be friends with him, expect him to confide in any congregant, by nature of his office.
        And because we can’t really be friends with him, I’m grateful he has such a loving wife and has his ‘brothers in arms’ to give him emotional support.

  3. Well said, as always! Interestingly, knowing this, but not really explaining this to my husband, it was he who felt betrayed and hurt when we left our last congregation. He misses people he loved there desperately, and, while I await a call to my next congregation, he has vehemently said he is not going to have anything to do with another congregation. Perhaps that’s for the best, but it does point out how isolating congregational ministry. It’s also why it’s so important to have relationships and activities outside the parish, so you can keep healthy boundaries and aren’t looking in the congregation for the connections that need to be elsewhere.

  4. Thank you. Seriously, thank you. I have messed things up in the past…in the present. Thank you. This is a true and accurate article (as was the last one).

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