Priest as friend: primary or forbidden?

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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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Kit Carlson
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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.

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John B. Chilton
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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.

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Toepferblue
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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

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A Facebook User
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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

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jeffrey e rahn
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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

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