Why Your Pastor is Actually Not Your Friend

Posted: September 18, 2017 in Church Life
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*Disclaimer.*

dog collarI’m not wanting to be rude or put anyone off by this statement.  And this doesn’t come out of any recent personal issue or encounter.  And this is certainly not some sort of passive-aggressive way to get a point across to someone I’m reluctant to talk to in person.  That would just be bad behavior.

But this is a consistent point of confusion for many, and so I think it deserves a little blog article, and discussion if you wish.

*End Disclaimer*

Your pastor is not your friend.

It’s hard, because they feel like they are.

And this is not a hard and fast rule, by the way.  Some pastors do make a friend in the congregation, someone they can absolutely be themselves with.

But that needs to be rare.  It may not always be rare…and then things get fuzzy…but I believe it *needs* to be rare, for you and for them.

Because here’s the truth: you’re one day going to have to tell them something that you can’t tell a friend.  Something about yourself, a deep truth, that maybe only your best friend might know, but they’re not going to give you what you need about the topic because they’re too enmeshed in your friendship.

In that case you need a pastor.  You need some abstraction.  You need someone close enough to you to care, someone with some sort of authority, but also someone far enough away from you that they’re not going to hold it as the primary thing they know about you.

Pastors are trained in the art of not hearing what we hear.

People sometimes worry that a pastor’s view of them will be tainted by something they learn or know, but I assure you, we learn and know so much about everyone that we’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is just as messed up as everyone else, ourselves included, so no one is any different.  The CEO of the huge corporation with boats and houses is just as dissatisfied as the person living paycheck to paycheck, they’re just unhinged at a different point in their personhood…

By and large you need your pastor to be a pastor, not a friend, and your pastor is not your friend if they’re doing it well.

Plus, your pastor can never confide in you the way one confides in a friend.

They can’t.

I sit stone-faced in situations where people talk about one another.  My opinion in that situation may not be neutral, but it has to appear to be, because I probably have to be that person’s pastor, no matter my opinion of them.

Your pastor is not your friend.

There are certain exceptions, of course: childhood friendships, close bonds, ways we can compartmentalize our relationships that work in very specific situations.

But it’s not the norm. It can’t be the norm.  If it becomes the norm your pastor is no longer able to be your pastor.

Plus, if you and your pastor are friends, then your pastor can never leave.  As if leaving a parish isn’t hard enough, the idea of leaving not only parishioners but also friends makes it impossible. Co-dependent. Bad for vocation and bad for any avocations you now share.

This doesn’t mean you don’t kid around with your pastor. It doesn’t mean that you don’t drop by to say hi, that you don’t do things for one another that friends do.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t even sometimes take trips together, play sports, attend birthday parties, and have a beer or two…many of these things that friends do with one another.

And it certainly doesn’t meant that you don’t share many of the same qualities you would with friends.  Pastors can open up, to a point.  Pastors can kid around, to a point.  But everything is “to a point” and that point is exactly where the collar hits what you need from them…

In every situation, they are “pastor”…which is just a very different way of being than just “friend.”

And finally, one thing we have to be really clear-eyed about: friendships end.  They do.  Friends fight and squabble, hurt each other’s feelings, get jealous, and get enmeshed.  Pastors who become friends run the risk of ruining the pastoral relationship when the friendship dissolves.

This is just plain bad for the office.  It’s a bad risk to take.  It’s a risk, I think, not worth taking.

We’re not the only profession that suffers from this fuzziness.

One of my very best friends is a doctor.  I casually ask him for medical advice sometimes, but if push came to shove he’d refer me to someone else for serious diagnosis…we’re too close for him to be my doctor.  My best friend is a financial adviser. I ask him for financial advice sometimes, but he can’t manage my money.  We’re too close for that.

It’s hard to explain I guess, and hard to accept in some instances, but I really haven’t found any other way to put it:

Your pastor is your pastor, not a friend.

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Comments
  1. Patt Kauffman says:

    Very good points made. Pastors and congregants make the mistake of thinking you are friends; lets face it, an awful lot of intimate stuff is shared. But notice that most pastors do not and cannot share on the same level as a lay person, which means the friendship is one sided. One of my best friends is a member of my former congregation. We are best friends now precisely because we are not pastor and congregant, and we at the beginning, made a promise to not discuss the congregation. We have much in common, from our taste in movies to each of us having three children and now grandchildren. We have lots to talk about. But we were not this friendly when I was the pastor. I also think congregants seeing their pastor always socializing with one person or family can feel that there is an unfair relationship that they cannot/do not have. And one more note – no dropping in on the pastor! Boundaries! Everyone makes an appointment – even my husband!

  2. Sarah Fisher says:

    I was just having this conversation with another priest today. It’s such an important thing to talk about. And on the whole, we don’t talk about it well. Thanks for this. I’ll be posting it in random places where clergy post things.

  3. elizabeth endicott says:

    So true, yet easier said than done!

  4. Being a psychotherapist is another one of those occupations. People sometimes have a difficult time understanding that. I am your therapist and even though we may have much in common, I cannot be your friend.

  5. tracygimpel says:

    Excellent and very true. I was raised in a pastor’s home and am now married to a pastor. I have learned that saints can’t be my friends. Do I hate it sometimes? Yes. Ministry is very lonely. However, this is part of the calling. What makes me sad is when saints try to “make” us be their friends and we know we can’t. We’ve seen people leave over this. The boundaries are there for a reason.

  6. hogun08 says:

    Thank you. It often eludes pastors and congregants that health churches need healthy relational and professional boundaries. You defined the roll of pastor that limits as well as harms the Office of the keys when good healthy boundaries are ignored.

  7. Reblogged this on preachtruthyoumoron and commented:
    Amen!

  8. loiejg says:

    A former pastor of ours was my husband’s best friend and vice versa. It worked because they are both extremely private people. And they enjoyed the same activities. And they enjoyed silence even when together. The privileged did not extend to me. He was my pastor and stated as such. Then that pastor moved away. After two years, he would come back for a month each year to a place he had. At that time, a number of men in the congregation could openly be actual friends with him, and they all enjoyed that, since he was a fine man.

  9. chienisabel says:

    This is why my parents never really had any friends. They thought they did, in one of the churches they served, but those people turned against them when the rest of the church did. So they never trusted a parishioner again, and had only their family.

  10. Tillie Caputo says:

    You are the best step-son in the world! It is an honor to to know you.and love you!You are right on about this subject! Thanks for being you! I once had a Priest who would come to the house for dinner with our family, at no point did we feel he was more than our local friendly Priest. We had laughs, dinner , drinks and enjoyed his company. But he was always Father Fickle( real name) and we knew he always would be!
    .

  11. This is how I have heard it: “The more she became my friend, the less I saw her as my pastor.” My principle is that it is the responsibility of the pastor to protect the integrity and effectiveness of the role for the people it serves. That is why a normal friendship with a parishioner is unethical; it deprives them of their pastor, whether they would admit it or not.

  12. One thing not mentioned is the destructiveness of one friendship to the rest of the congregation. When the minister has ‘favourites’ it leaves a bad taste.

  13. Chris B Morton says:

    In addition to the “needs” of parishioners to have a friend is the need for a pastor to have a friend. When I was in seminary our professors of practical ministry spent a good amount of energy and time telling us how important it is to have a community of other clergy, as well as a community of friends who are not a part of the congregation we served. Which seemed like such sage advice at the time, and we seminarians would sit in fellowship hall and the library and build these intimate relationships that we were sure could be replicated “out there.” But once you arrive in XYZ town or city, locating those colleagues with whom you can confide — beyond the Lectionary Study Group, or Area Ministers gathering — can be rather difficult. And all the more important — because that person who reminds you of your sibling, or your best friend, will be knocking on your door, or calling soon, and it will be tempting to let that relationship be the “unique” one of someone in whom you can confide.

  14. Leah Harness says:

    I scrolled through most of the above responses. I agree with this article, would love to be able to share it with folks in congregations where I have served as Interim! Is it sharable outside the Clergy Chicks group?

  15. jared says:

    As a Pastor I find this subject and the conclusions in it to be part of the reason that 1500 pastors leave the ministry every year. The Idea that a Pastor should not have friends in their congregation creates isolation that bring about a whole plethora of problems. Whole I would say that the sort of friendship that you tell everything to does not happen with a pastor and parishioner, that sort of relationship is not the norm for anyone, if you are luck you may have a few friends like that. Guess what most people who one claims as “friends” really aren’t because they don’t fit the definition of friendship in this article. To borrow the title from John Piper’s book, “Pastors, we are not Professionals.”

    • Timothy Brown says:

      On just about everything, including this, Piper and I disagree. I think pastors leave the ministry for a whole variety of reasons, including the fact that they seek to meet their friendship needs in congregants, which makes them become too much friend and not enough pastor.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. A good discussion is better than no discussion.

  16. Marck says:

    Yes, the position of priest is a job and church is a business.

    • Timothy Brown says:

      While the church is not a business, the priest does have a job intricately related to her/his being. This is why Rome identifies it as an ontological transformation.

  17. Bruce Bryant-Scott says:

    Another way to put this is that while clergy are usually pretty friendly, they should probably not establish the “friend” relationship with congregants/parishioners, for the simple reason that the pastoral relationship is one-directional, from pastor to the people. As an ordained person I have needs like anybody else, but those needs need to be taken care of outside of my church appointment. My friends may be colleagues, they may be family, and they may be completely outside my parish and denomination; they should not be the folks to whom I have a professional responsibility. Otherwise we might get into a codependent relationship.

    I’ve seen clergy who have blurred these lines. Sometimes they are folks who ally themselves with the congregation against the institution of the church as a means of building solidarity and feeding one’s sense of having the truth. In a few cases these are people who are involved in misconduct, whether sexualized violence, sexual exploitation, or schismatic activity. It’s unhealthy, like not realizing that the cemetery fund isn’t there to be borrowed from to pay for your travel. I’ve known clergy who have hidden their alcoholism by getting drunk with selected parishioners. It’s not healthy.

    I’m not saying that clergy cannot be vulnerable and talk about their own issues – but such talk needs to be from a place of confidence where these issues are being addressed or have been addressed. Nobody wants the clergy to bleed in the pulpit and seek affirmation that way. It’s safe to say, “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” It’s not okay to say to the congregation,
    “I want you to want me.
    I need you to need me.
    I’d love you to love me.
    I’m beggin’ you to beg me.”

    This needs to be explained to the lay leadership. Supervisors need to ensure that clergy have outside support and are working to build up friendships.

  18. Jamie says:

    This cultural dysfunction is a large part of why The ManKind Project was started. We don’t need pastors who we confide in on a different level from our friends–we need better friends–a tribe that has been through the hero’s journey with us at our side and to whom we can tell anything, because we provide them with the very same support. Aho!

    • Timothy Brown says:

      Could be very true. Always happy to be worked out of a job. That being said, there comes a certain degree of aid from training…which pastors have and friends do not. But I’m all for deep friendship, and I like (most) of what the Mankind Project is attempting to do in the world.

  19. Danny Sanders says:

    I totally agree with this post as stated. I have never wanted my pastor to be a close friend. Pastors are there for many purposes but they simply can not be your friend unless you are married in his family, Then never ask personal questions about his congregation.

  20. Jen says:

    hi. A facebook friend shared your article on his wall (he’s a vicar). This is my response to him, but I’d like to challenge your stance too. The Bible says that Christians are ALL prophets, *priests* and kings, and that we’re called to minister one to another. God sets apart some to hold the priestly office, but we all hold the anointing. The Bible also says we’re all members of one body. Maybe the priestly office gets to be the mouth of the body, but there’s a hand that get’s to brush that mouth’s teeth. And there are feet that carry that mouth to places so it can speak. And there are vocal chords (parts that are hidden, but without whom the mouth cannot speak). We work together as one. So who is the mouth to decide that the hand cannot minister to it, nor the vocal chords work with it?

    People who hold the priestly office are just as fallible as people who work in an office. They are also created to be in relationship. Do you not think that God understood that and gave pastors a body of people around them, not as a workplace, but as a vibrant, living organism – a loving, mutually beneficial family/community? People who hold the priestly office may be responsible for the “cure of souls” (what an amazing calling!) but Christian office workers are ALSO called to pull the plow of the great commission, under the authority of Jesus. And if those in the office of priest are doing their job correctly, then those working in the office will know the bible as well as them. And if office workers know their stuff, and are walking in relationship with Jesus, and understand how we have ALL fallen short of perfection and are in dire need of grace, do you not think that they are equipped (sure, some more than others) to hold a friend accountable, to challenge a friend, to encourage that friend when they’re down, to serve and love them in whatever way they can….even if that friend happens to hold the priestly office?

    I think this blog expresses a dangerous and unbiblical stance, and sadly I see more and more of this sentiment in church leadership. When God calls His priests, He is not assigning them to a lonely, loveless existence, where somehow they’re too special to mingle with the great unwashed. No – He calls us to the nitty gritty of relationship. And as far as I’ve learned, that goes both ways. (PS – that doesn’t mean I expect vicars to be friends with every member of their congregation, but I would say it’s an unhealthy vicar who has no deep friendships in his community…and I would even go as far as to add – and not just friends with those in leadership.)

    PPS – a lot of your comments are counsellor/person in therapy based. No Christian should be sharing the deep soul stuff that we’ve heard from one friend with another, without permission. This is not something special and unique to a pastor. This is across the board, Christianity 101. So if my friend comes to me (a non-vicar) with deep-seated marital problems, I don’t discuss it with anyone else. That doesn’t make me less of a friend to the people with whom I’m not sharing that information with. And THAT is healthy boundaries.

    • Timothy Brown says:

      Hi Jen, It’s clear we don’t agree on this, and I’m ok with that. Thanks for reading and responding.

      • Jen says:

        You’re most welcome. Thank you for being prepared to put my thoughts on your board. I just have one question….if the pastor is supposed to model Jesus to his/her community, and our primary model is the Trinity, in perfect relationship….how does the pastor intend modelling good friendship if he can’t enter into that within his community? Jesus had good friends – look at the Bethany crowd – and He had at least ONE good friend in His discipleship, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Jesus was fully able to correct and love and be alongside people whom He was ministering to. When people stuffed up, He didn’t lessen His relationship with them, but rather He sought to restore. He invited Peter to feed His sheep – three times. How can a pastor, who doesn’t engage in friendship, model this?

      • Timothy Brown says:

        I’m not sure the pastor is to model Jesus anymore than anyone else. The pastor facilitates in a called role from amongst the people so that the community can embody God in the world.

    • Jenn, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I wish to add that for the parts of the body of Christ to work together, they must maintain their role integrity. That is what boundaries are about. In this case, there are ways a vicar can meaningfully socialize with other people in the congregation within the considerations of the vicar role. But they are somewhat different than how the vicar as a person, not as vicar, socializes with friends for whom he or she is not vicar. If the vicar does relate to congregants without consideration of the role, it does risk their effectiveness as vicar. That reality need not relegate a vicar to a life of loneliness. There is an art to it. Even with that, we must accept that all boundary keeping and following of best practices involves losing something for the sake of those that the role serves.

  21. Krysann Joye says:

    Respectfully, I’m kind of disturbed by this… isn’t the model of the church supposed to be one of “family?” If the need to divide is inherent in the role of pastor maybe we need to question whether that role is appropriate to keep as an explicit expression of the church.

    You can still be a counselor and should have those healthy boundaries with your clients, but if you’re trying to lead an actual community of people who love each other and shepherd people into real family relationships you have to be able to participate in them yourself as well, right? Otherwise what position do you hold in the body? Christ, it seems, is the ultimate “pastor” and he called his disciples friends – more, he called them his family (these are my mother and brothers), shared vulnerably with them, and invited them to join him in his everyday life (insisted, actually). Christ and the church is compared to a marriage and it doesn’t get much more enmeshed than that! 😄

    Anyway, perhaps our assumptions of what the church is or what a community of believers should look like are very different. I hope all the best to you as you navigate your role and vocation. Thank you for putting your thoughts into the public forum – I do think this is a valuable thing for Christians to wrestle with.

    • Timothy Brown says:

      Thanks for commenting, Krysann.

      Lots of thoughts, lots of ideas, they should all be expressed safely. We don’t have to agree.

    • Patt Kauffman says:

      Thank you, Krysann, for your reply. This is an interesting and ultimately thorny question. And, pastors will find themselves in very different congregations/communities, which may very well engender a different response to how close they are to the worshiping community. But I have discovered, that being a true friend with someone in the congregation is hard – I can’t share and won’t share private information with that friend, I can’t dump on them the way I can with a colleague friend or someone not connected to the congregation, and I would need to be very careful to not engage in loyalties or infighting, or the sense that some know the pastor better than others. There is no question there is an intimacy and a closeness a pastor has with their congregation; I have been blessed to serve people that I have loved, even some of the difficult ones. And I’m sure none of my former parishioners would label me as unfriendly, or uncaring, or not nurturing. But I also am sure that if you were to ask them, they might just realize that there are many things they didn’t know about me, even with my sharing, because somethings weren’t appropriate, and are best left to my true friends. My best friends knows the details about my first kiss; no one in any of the congregations I’ve served know this! It’s not bad, or salacious, it’s just not necessary in the day to day living and loving a congregation into the image of Christ we are all journeying towards. My congregation didn’t know the details of my divorce. Again, that was for my best friends and my mentor and spiritual director. I certainly spoke of the pain of the divorce, and even prayed with members about my ex husband, but the vitriol and anger were best spent in a place of no judgment. I think as we continue in this very difficult world of congregational ministry, we all find the ways to be accessible, available, and friendly with our congregations. But I believe the era of 30+ years of ministry in the same community are over. And when it’s time to go, it’s best to not be even more heartbroken than we are about the decision to go. And our congregation needs a new pastor. Their hearts need to be free enough to welcome the new messenger from God.

  22. clm4303 says:

    I believe my Pastor is a friend and would never violate a confidence shared between us. I think he shares the same thought about me as that’s what real friends are like. If you ever had a true friend, he/she is worth their weight in gold and will be honest to a fault. The trouble is such friends are VERY hard to find.

    • Timothy Brown says:

      Thanks for commenting. I would contend that he probably shouldn’t share anything in confidence with you, at least nothing he wasn’t going to share with someone else in the congregation. That’s kind of my point.

      • clm4303 says:

        Thank you for your reply! I understand and appreciate the caution. In today’s world, you have to be extremely mindful of whom you trust with anything in confidence. I, for one, am “old school” – a man’s word is his bond. Have a fabulous weekend!

  23. Dennis Nideck says:

    This is why I think pastors should wear the vestments of their denomination when performing all official duties.

  24. C.E Hall says:

    Growing up with my dad being a Pastor, I can tell you this is very true

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