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?