Priest as friend: primary or forbidden?

Katherine Willis Pershey adds her voice to the debate over whether you can be both priest and friend:

Rather than forbid friendship with my flock, I’ve come to understand pastor-as-friend as one of my primary understandings of ministry. It’s one with decent biblical justification; surely, if Jesus called his disciples friends, it is acceptable for a small-town preacher to befriend the people in the pews. As I’ve moved toward affirming permeable boundaries and subsequently grown in my authenticity as a leader, I’ve realized that I am, in my natural state, a friend. If I am to foster genuine relationships marked by love with the people I serve, I’m going to do it best as a friend. The same principle applies to the church members I jog with three times a week and the elderly women I visit at the local retirement home.

Her jumping off point is an item by Craig Barnes in Christian Century. Barnes says whatever the relationship is, it can’t be friendship:

Since hard-working pastors devote most of their energy to the church, they inevitably become close to the lay leaders who work beside them. …. It sure sounds like friendship. But it can’t be.

When I knelt to receive the laying on of hands before I was ordained, the elders of the congregation were being led by the Holy Spirit to push me away from them. They were essentially saying, “We are setting you apart to serve us. So you can’t be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.” It wasn’t long after I stood up from the ordination prayer that I discovered this. But the elders have a hard time understanding the holy distance they created by their decision to make me their pastor.

Barnes was reflecting on the fallout when he recently accepted appointment as president of Princeton Theological Seminary and didn’t include his parishioners in his discernment. Pershey writes as an emerging church leader.

Whether priest or parishioner, what’s been your experience? Can you be friends? Must you be friends?

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  1. jeffrey e rahn

    I think there is a middle ground – I think that middle ground is the ground Jesus tread on – a ground of paradox – a ground that is simultaneously closely connected and separate. A ground not easily navigated. It is the ground we all navigate in our families – closely connected and simultaneously separate in a healthy family – too close is incestuous (emotionally or otherwise) too separate avoids the intimacy sought by all family members. just my reflection. jeff rahn

  2. A Facebook User

    I remember Bishop Urban Holmes telling us that the tribal shaman who touched holy things and conversed with the holy was considered by the tribe holy… and therefore had to live outside of the village.

    This priest has never worried much about the friendship question. I just try to be myself and friendly with everyone. To a varing degrees it elicits friendliness in return. But rarely have I found complete friendship. It’s the people all around me that insist on keeping the boundry; treating me as holy and forcing me to live outside the village.

    Tom Downs

  3. I’d have to go with the Facebook designation “It’s complicated.” Friendship takes a lot of different forms. Frankly, if you’ve spent any length of time in a parish, sharing meals, sharing stories, going through conflicts or hard times together, how can you not be some kind of a friend?

    Laura Toepfer

  4. John B. Chilton

    I appreciate each of your comments above, especially yours, Jeffrey.

    It’s part of my schtick, but I believe that Barnes makes the mistake of claiming that the ordained are different. That is, that they discern rather that decide, they have vocations not jobs, they are called and the rest of us are not.

    Barnes’ parishioner thought he was his close friend, and was upset when Barnes’ ask him for his opinion about leaving the church. What we have here is a failure to communicate. Wasn’t the burden as much on Barnes to be clear about their relationship as it was the parishioner to not jump to assumptions about the relationship? Barnes assumed the parishioner should know that when it came to making a decision about leaving the church that absolutely no one in the church would have advance notice. Advance notice of a decision that would affect them.

  5. Kit Carlson

    My attempt to have a real friendship — not a friendly social acquaintance, but a personal friendship with a parishioner — was one of the most spectacular failures of my ministry. I will think long and hard before I risk myself again in this way. It has damaged not only our relationship but other relationships in the church and made it harder for me to effectively pastor some of my flock. I pray for reconciliation but it’s not in my control at this point.

  6. Rod Gillis

    Priest as friend? With regard to the conventional common use of the term it is problematic, rare perhaps , but certainly doable, but then true friendships in the course of a lifetime are perhaps few, not many.

    However, I think pastors have to strive to be seen as a friendly voice, a friendly ear, to members of their community–not distant, aloof, on a pedestal.

    One point of interest is John’s Gospel which has that high Christology and manages to use just about every exalted title for the Christ. At the same time the word philos ( translated “friend”) is used by John’s Jesus in his farewell discourse to describe his relationship with his intimate circle.

    The Vulgate uses “amici” (eventually the French ami) in translating the same passage “vos amici mei estis”.

    It is also John’s Gospel that gives us the anonymous “beloved disciple.”

  7. Richard E. Helmer

    Two things in this thread give me pause:

    The first is the appeal to John’s gospel, which could be easily interpreted as equating the priest with Jesus and the laity as the disciples. I find the theological implications a little disturbing.

    The second, perhaps paradoxically, is a neglect of the reality of power. Clergy are granted — by the community — authority. That means in the context of the congregation, their role as clergy must always be primary. We can get into trouble when we forget this, by assuming we’re just part of the crowd or amongst friends.

    In my experience, friendships can arise spontaneously with parishioners, but if I forget I am still priest with them first and foremost, I’ve put it all at risk. I think Bishop Holmes has it right.

    The boundaries are there not to be rigidly defended, but nor can they be blithely ignored.

  8. Rod Gillis

    Re Richard Helmer, “The first is the appeal to John’s gospel, which could be easily interpreted as equating the priest with Jesus and the laity as the disciples. I find the theological implications a little disturbing.”

    Hopefully not. I’m not in the Anglican clerical grove in that I tend not to immediately gravitate to the priest as “alter Christus”.

    I would not equate the priest with Jesus nor the laity to corresponding disciples , rather I am juxtaposing what I read in John as the very lofty Christology, on the one hand, with the most intimate rapport between Jesus and those whom he calls his friends, as narrated by John. Its an incarnational cue. As one of my seminary profs used to tell us “remember, before we were priests, we were human beings”

    As for authority, that’s an interesting approach. Eric Sykes edited an interesting book titled “Authority in Anglicanism”. One of the most engaging essays therein was written by The Most Rev. Ted Scott –just call me “Ted” he told us, when he became Primate of Canada. A Former Primate, and member of the Eminent Persons delegation to Apartheid era South Africa, Scott’s Essay is titled “The Authority of love”.

    Love, not power, not even the power of canons and quasi-professionalism, is the ground of authority in the church. Love is also the ground of true friendship variously defined. How compelling for the ministry of the whole people of God, working in a technocratic world, that Love is such a central theme, both in theory and in praxis, in Johannine literature.

  9. jeffrey e rahn

    I like the feedback I have read – I like the “it’s complicated” response especially as friendship can mean so many things. I am enjoying reading this, I have rarely given feedback. It seems it raises the question of “ordained ministry and baptized ministry” and what if any differences are there. Though generally I consider myself “high church” my theology of the difference between the two is one of function. I like Bp Chilton’s point about communication and what does or does not need to be communicated. To me this raises the question, nay the specter of “clericalism” in my view of this event. I think each congregation and clergyperson negotiates what is workable and hopefully healthy for them. Friendship between those of differing power can be difficult. But someone pointed to love as the ultimate prism for relationships. I have known it from the man who was my Bishop when I went to seminary. He married my first wife and I, spoke at my seminary graduation, at one point in my life having to tell me I had not been approved by the standing committee for ordination, saw me through my divorce, my recovery from addiction, the untimely and unexpected death of my second wife. He remained a dear friend for nigh forty years right up to his death and allowed me in my way to be there for him at the death of his beloved wife. Might I add he answered every Ember Day letter of mine, answering them point by point. He took the risks of that middle ground and we were both the richer for it. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. thank you. faithfully, jeff

  10. Richard E. Helmer


    I agree love is the best ground for authority in the Church, but authority is still there, exercised lovingly for the well-being of the community…or, if abused, for harm. It is critical (and loving!) that leadership understands both the scope and limits of their authority, including the restrictions it places on their intimate relationships in the community where they are granted that authority. Those restrictions are there for safety and well-being — a measure that can be loving, as it preserves essential dignity and the health of the community.

    Is it right, for instance, for a loving cleric to allow the development of emotional dependence? Another illustration: Why do we no longer allow single clerics to date or marry someone in their pastoral charge?

    My bottom line: I am uncomfortable with our tendency in the liberal church to conceal authority and power behind “love.” Denial of what the community grants its leadership — for the community’s protection and well-being — is perhaps almost as bad as abusing it.

  11. Rod Gillis

    Re Richard Helmer reply, thanks I appreciate your perspective. First point, the term friend is porous, fluid, ambiguous, poly valent. It is probably helpful that we’re more or less on the same page. So when you ask “Is it right, … for a loving cleric to allow the development of emotional dependence?” No its not.

    Second point, when you ask “Why do we no longer allow single clerics to date or marry someone in their pastoral charge?” I would say its important to be aware of power imbalances, transference(s), professional boundaries, risk assessment.

    However, on the broader issue of friendship, the questions become harder. Do I think I can be “pals” with my parishioners, probably not.

    But being a friend to my fellow Christians in the community, that’s not a single question, but rather a whole range of questions, questions about context, mutuality, and bonding.

    You know the passage in John 11, where Jesus weeps over the death of his beloved friend Lazarus, what if, just what if, Mary pounded on Jesus’ chest saying Lord (authority) if you had been here my brother (and your friend!) would not have died?

    To quote from Archbishop Scott whom I referenced earlier, “Here I believe it is useful to examine the way in which Jesus exercises authority. This is particularly important when we recall on two occasions in John’s gospel he said that as even as the Father had sent him,so he was sending his followers into the world. If we take this seriously, surely we should seek to exercise authority as he exercised it.”

    And who could say that priests like Dan Eagan or Malcolm Boyd were not friends to those to whom they ministered and with whom they shared community, invited into full community?

    I can’t defend the liberal church because I’m not a classic liberal, more of a catholic “common good” type really–and the commonwealth of God knows not clericalism.

  12. Richard Edward Helmer


    I believe we are in more agreement here than not — the conversation serves to further clarify the matters at hand. What we mean by friendship is hugely important, as you so rightly describe. And certainly, to stick with John, being friends with Jesus very much means weeping with those we serve, standing in solidarity with the marginalized, and being friends to the friendless.

    What I have always found, though, in keeping out of dangerous territory with pastoral authority are two fundamental questions:

    Whose needs are being met here?

    Am I qualified to meet those needs?

  13. Rod Gillis

    “Whose needs are being met here?

    Am I qualified to meet those needs?”

    Richard, thanks, No disagreement there. I might just adjust, slightly, the second question by asking “am I capable of meeting those needs?”

  14. Richard Edward Helmer


    Qualification matters to, I think — or to be clearer, permission from the community. I think particularly of therapists who are also clergy — they cannot be both for those in their pastoral charge.

    Or, in my world, I cannot be both church musician and priest in the same place, let alone at the same time! 😉

  15. Rod Gillis

    Richard, yes, there have been times when being a priest and being a “rector” were in tension with one another. Tks for this. -rod

  16. Eric Bonetti

    My vote is for friend, with caveats. If one is genuine, then one has to face the fact that friendship is a primary means by which we grow and learn. That said, when one is clergy, there are healthy friendships and unhealthy ones, just as in any relationship. Good tests:

    – Do I feel better, the same, or worse after encounters with the person?

    – Am I doing anything that is or could be hurtful to others?

    – Do we both have ample room to fulfill all that we are called to do in life?

    – Is there any aspect of the relationship that I feel I need to keep secret from others?

    – How will I feel when this person leaves my life?

    My feeling is that, deep down inside, most of us know which relationships are healthy and which are not. We get in trouble when we ignore that still, small voice inside us that tells us to go slow, back up, or move in a different direction.

    Eric Bonetti

  17. John D. Andrews

    As a layperson, I have little respect for clergy that set themselves apart from the laity. They, like everyone else, have been called to a specific function in the church and have been given certain gifts by the Holy Spirit. Separating one’s self from the laity is consistent with top-down management, but is incompatible with collaborative leadership, which has been shown to be more effective, and in my view, more consistent with Biblical teachings. I see nothing good coming from erecting walls, no matter how small or large, between the clergy and the laity.

  18. Eric Bonetti

    Hi John. I like your focus on collaborative leadership which aligns closely with my own worldview. That said, are you sure you don’t want some boundaries between clergy and laity? For example, if my priest dances on the tabletops at someone’s wedding, do I really want to know about it? Or do I want to know the details of the latest domestic squabble in his or her home?

    To be clear, I an not going to fall over with shock if I do learn about something of this sort. But it’s still a job, and just as there are issues I’ll discuss with my employees if I see them socially outside the office, but not while at work, I surely hope that there are some topics that are subject to boundaries, just as I hope to maintain appropriate boundaries in all my relationships.

    Eric Bonetti

  19. Jonathan Galliher

    It’s worth noting that most priests work in management (ie. they’re rectors or vicars), and that work puts up significant barriers to becoming more than friendly colleagues. Partially, that’s about not sharing private stuff at work, but it’s also about avoiding loss of perspective and charges of favoritism. Other problems show up if there’s a significant amount of pastoral care going on that more closely resemble the issues facing therapists and clinical psychologists.

    I don’t see any sound theological or religious reason for priests to hold themselves apart from the laity, but there are sound practical reasons (like their being management in our current set up) for priests to do so a lot of the time.

    Jonathan Galliher

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