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Priest as friend: primary or forbidden?

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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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

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

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.

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

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

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