Pastor, not friend

Jack served the church in countless ways. There's only one thing he wanted in return.
December 27, 2012

Jack Anderson is every pastor’s dream elder. He’s a physician who is known for being ethical and compassionate. He reads theology and practices the spiritual disciplines, and I can always hear echoes of the Holy Spirit in his wise counsel. No one in the church, including Jack, can remember all that he has done for the congregation over the years—he’s exactly what the Reformers had in mind when writing about the priesthood of all believers.

Jack stood beside me in more than one foxhole when the leadership of the church was introducing a change that caused conflict within the congregation. There was only one thing he expected in return for all of this service—he wanted to be my friend.

When the time came for me to leave the church, Jack was devastated. He was hurt that I hadn’t included him in my discernment process—and livid that I would “so easily” abandon the relationship we had developed over the last ten years because “friends don’t treat each other like that.” He is right about friends, but I was not his friend. I was his pastor.

For over 30 years I’ve struggled with the question of befriending parishioners. I realize that I’m supposed to maintain healthy friendships outside of the church, and I’ve taught this for years in seminary classes. The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships. Or at least that’s what pastors tell themselves.

I suppose I could have pulled back from the church and tried to meet more people through the PTA, the Little League, a political party or the volunteer fire department. I could even have convinced myself that this is part of my local mission as a Christian. But I love being a pastor, and I love the churches I’ve served. And they are demanding lovers.

Since hard-working pastors devote most of their energy to the church, they inevitably become close to the lay leaders who work beside them. After a long committee meeting or Bible study an elder always hangs out around the table with me to talk. We start with the elder’s concerns, but he or she will then ask, “And how are you doing, Craig?” Over the years we become deeply invested in our anxieties about our children or worrisome medical reports. We laugh as we clumsily rebuild a roof on a mission trip. And we have many lunches together. 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.

The pastor offers the congregation’s laments and doxology to God and proclaims God’s holy word to the congregation. Friendships have little to do with this. Should God call the pastor to go to another place, it’s asking too much of the congregation to expect them to discern this with the pastor.

Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room. Jack Anderson will never understand this, but it is critical for his sake that I did.

As a physician, Jack had a similar challenge when he diagnosed me with a condition that required minor surgery. He didn’t ask me to help him discern the best course of action, and he knew that the truly loving act was to say necessary things that I didn’t want to hear. That’s because his ethical responsibility was to treat me not as a friend but as a patient. That makes perfect sense to him and to me. But he’s confused when I treat him as a parishioner.

I do have friendships that are not encumbered by a pastoral call. Mostly they are with other pastors who are spread all over the country. Communication these days is easy and travel is not that hard. Long ago I learned to set times for retreats with friends to whom I’m accountable for the condition of my soul. I talk with them weekly. That helps me remain clear about the nature of relationships of mutuality and relationships of service to the church.

Now I am leaving congregational ministry to become a seminary president, which has the potential for even more crowded loneliness. I plan on being as friendly as I can, but I know I won’t last long without friends who have nothing to do with the seminary.


when friends start attending

My wife and I were just discussing this issue.  As a Church planting family, we've invested in and become good friends with certain families from the community...who then have started coming to Church.  In part, we rejoice as such is answer to prayer.  But there is also a very real part of me that doesn't want to be their pastor, that would like to ask them to go elsewhere so we can maintain those "safe" friendships.  Haven't done so yet, and not sure I ultimately can.  But I resonate with the tension you raise here.  Thanks for your thoughts! 

I am surprised...

I am surprised at this assertion. As Pastors we are to be the life of Jesus to those around us. Part of that is being friendly. Jesus had his close disciples, and then he had those who supported him financially such as Phoebe and others. He mentions them all fondly, and I bet if you asked him, he would call them friend. 

When we put up that wall, we become aloof. Part of the problem in ministering in a Post Modern environment today is that we are being perceived as being aloof and out of touch. The generations growing up today have little to no father figure in their lives. I think this is a prime time for pastors, elders, and mature Christians to fill that void. Go to less closed door meetings and more PTA meetings. Have a social live, imbibe on the good live that God gives you and look at it all as being a holy and perfect gift. Pastoral work is not a call to absenstion, but a call to redemption of all that life has to offer. 

Good reminder

A mentor once told me that pastors are to be friendly, but should not become friends with the parishioners. This reflection reminded me of those words she once shared with me. There is a difference between being friendly and become friends - two things that the comments to this article seem to miss. I believe - and have experienced - that being a friendly pastor is healthy for the church and for my own self; but I my friends are outside of my congregation. Someone mentioned Jesus - duh! When I read the gospels, I read about Jesus' friendship with Martha, Mary and Lazarus; and I read about Jesus' love for his disicples. But I have not read about Jesus becoming friends with his disciples. In any case, I have lived by this... I try to be friendly and to love and to listen, and my friends and supporters are outside of my congregation. 

pastor not friend

Having been part of an ongoing clergy family, by marriage, for almost a half century, I've learned something about friendship with pastors.  Pastors need friends.  For me to be a faithful friend means I have to stay out of the way so my friends can be all they've been called to be. 

But what happens next?

I understand, and maintain the need to separate "friend" from "pastor." And I agree that this creates a very lonely life at times.  Where I struggle here, I suppose, is with the reference to Jesus having friends.  Jesus wasn't a local church pastor.  Jesus wasn't concerned about the relationships he was forming and how they would be impacted once he "moved on."  As a local church pastor, still early in my vocation, I know that I will go on to serve other churches.  If I am to become friends with those in my current setting, I would have greater difficulty maintaining a healthy boundary once I am called to another church.  And that boundary is absolutely necessary, in my opinion, for the next pastor's ability to connect with the congregation. The last thing I want to do is to hinder the transition. 

Called to be a Healing Presence

With great trepidation, I will take the side of the "physician".   It is painful to make changes so for both the pastor and the parishoner have the burden of a relationship change.  The communication and its delivery is hard for both.  

Here is what I wrote earlier today that speaks to the issue of "Presence" or in medical terms "Empathy".  

All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort—we get a full measure of that, too.

                2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (The Message)

Healing Presence

I did understand that “presence” was a critical ingredient of healing.  What I didn’t understand that  “being present” for extended periods is very difficult and painful.  As physicians, we are known to “come and go”, but we are most effective when we stop and sit!  How does that change the patient and healer?   

According to St. Paul, we are part of the healing story when we are present and share the pain.   According to scripture, the good news is that we also become part of the healing.  What is also obvious, but often missed, is that healing is not a “solo” experience, but one that is shared with community, just as God shared his son.   

The experience in Africa has taught me that healing is not about them, it is about us!  We have been and are healed by a God of us all.  Thanks for sending Bwana Yesu to show us your healing presence.


Meier DE.  Back AL.  Morrison RS.  The inner life of physicians and care of the seriously ill. JAMA.  286(23):3007-14, 2001 Dec 19

Hojat M.  Louis DZ. Physicians' empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients.  Academic Medicine.  86(3):359-64, 2011 Mar

Hojat M.  Spandorfer J.  Louis DZ.  Gonnella JS.  Empathic and sympathetic orientations toward patient care: conceptualization, measurement, and psychometrics.  Academic Medicine.  86(8):989-95, 2011 Aug.

Not sure I buy this one...

I think the very argument against your assertion rests in your article.  As an example you tell a story about how your elder friend was also your physician and he was able to be both friend and physician, to separate his friendship from you and his role as your physician.  You rightly state that being pastor to people has nothing to do with being their friend.  However, neither does it preclude that possibility.  Being a pastor to a friend is at least as easy as being pastor to someone whom you know absolutely hates your guts...which I have experienced, and yes, it can be done.  Again, as you say, being someone's friend or not has nothing to do with being their pastor.  This requires, as it does with being a physician, a banker, a lawyer, or anything else, a bit of professionalism.

A different view

This article struck me as awfully condescending toward laypeople. You describe your parishioner as intelligent, wise, spiritually attuned, and dedicated, and yet you conclude that he is “confused” and “will never understand” the nature of your relationship with him. If he’s really that confused, maybe it’s because you have not been clear about your boundaries. Then again, maybe he understands more than you realize.

Think about how very peculiar the pastoral relationship is. This person trusts you with his life and his soul, his most intimate inner world and secrets. He listens in silence to you expounding your views in public, without interruption, every Sunday. (To extend your analogy with physicians, most of us don’t hear from our doctors that often.) He is expected to be supportive toward you and your work, and he enacts that support in all sorts of ways. (You pay your physician for his services, but you don’t help him carry out his programs or serve on his board of directors.) And yet you are free to walk away without warning. How many other relationships in our adult lives are so unbalanced?

Perhaps your parishioner senses that, and is reaching for a little more equity and mutuality. And maybe the clergy should think about whether their expectations are realistic.

And from the Gospel of John?

I'm rather appalled at the assertions in this article.  Condesending to lay persons, yes; arrogant, too.  Pastors are not set aside to be "holy" or "other;" rather, they are identified by the community to teach and preach, to counsel and console, to admonish, to lead.  None of these tasks are incompatible with deep friendship.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus explicitly "befriends" his disciples, his students (John 15): the one who poured himself out...for his friends!...explicitly broke down walls.  And Rev. Barnes here promotes erecting walls.  What is the biblical authority...particularly New Testament authority... supporting Rev. Barnes' assertions?

Pastor not Friend

 Is Craig Barnes being fair to Jack Anderson by telling his story for him?  Could this article  have been written by both men with Dr. Anderson stating his view in his words?  How can clergy  include the laity in discerning when a church ministry is nearing completion or needs to shift for the good of the church?  Too often, laity express their sense that they need different gifts in a church leader with conflict rather than an open discussion about how the church's needs and clergy's gifts may no longer be a good match.  I encourage Christian Century to offer Dr. Anderson, and other lay leaders who have been hurt, an invitation to respond with their reflections.

Pastor/Elder relationship

As a Ruling Elder of 40+ years, having been is several pastor relationships over those years, I have to say that I must agree with Rev. Barnes.  Parishoners can grow to love their pastor, but they cannot be a friend to that Pastor.  I've often thought as I have grown older, and in relation with younger Pastors especially - that they need a "pastor" too, and that they might even benefit by my wisdom and counsel....but roles must be maintained!  Our relationship is primarily that of Pastor and congregant, and I would jeopardize that relationship the moment I offered my "friendship"! Warmth. Affection.  Even love.  Yes!  But friendship?   Hackneyed phrase, but "slippery slope".

Craig Barnes article

Craig Barnes is spot on in his article.  He is trying to help unravel the challenges of dual relationships in ministry and he does so in a thoughtful and nuanced way.  The thing about dual relationships is that we should probably avoid them when we can but we must manage them when they can't be avoided.  I was more curious about why he chose a parishioner as his physician.  That would seem to be an avoidable dual relationship.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune, FaithTrust Institute

Un-friendly pastor

It was troubling to read M. Craig Barnes article, “Pastor, not Friend.” The premise of the article is that Rev. Barnes does not understand why his former parishioner, Dr. Jack Anderson, has such difficulty in grasping that the two’s relationship is solely pastor-parishioner, not friends.

At the start of Barnes’ article he says Jack, is “exactly what the Reformers had in mind when writing about the priesthood of all believers.” Yet his article assumes that some are more priestly than others, so much that they should not even be friends with lesser priests. It is my assumption that Barnes does not so much endorse a priesthood of all believers as he does a class of religious professionals, which unfortunately, too often, disempowers the congregants and promotes a passive laity, but that’s another topic.

Barnes describes many experiences he has shared with Anderson (and other parishioners) that would qualify as genuine friendship (e.g., sharing meals, encouraging one another, expressing concern for one another’s family, etc.), yet starkly states “but I was not his friend.”

Barnes states that Anderson even once performed minor surgery on him. He compares Anderson’s decision not to consult him regarding the surgery to Barnes’ decision not to consult Anderson when he was deciding to leave the pastorate for academia. I agree with Barnes that neither needed to consult the other in their professional decisions. The difference is that Anderson continued to consider Barnes a friend even when Barnes was in the dual role of patient, yet Barnes evidently never considered Anderson a friend, but only and exclusively a parishioner.

Barnes points out, “The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor.” Professional literature has its place, but sacred literature is what shapes us.

Although academia may promote a separation between clergy and laity, Jesus certainly blurred the lines. Jesus called his disciples “friends” on several occasions (John 21:5; John 15:13-15). So too, the Father considered Abraham (John 2:23b) and Moses a friend (Exodus 33:11b). If Jesus considered his disciples friends, who are we to deny the reality of our relationships. Many times we do not intend to make a friend, but that is exactly what happens, particularly after we have experienced so much together.

A Disappointing Distanciation

Agree so much with Storbakken, The Gyro, and others above.  Very disappointed in our (Princeton's) new president and his old school "distanciation".  A good pastor will have both good bonds and good boundaries.  This is a faith that is lived, that is practiced in the midst of, with a Lord who said, "Love one another as I have loved you."  Christ had to "take off" according to his calling, and one day so will we, and God forgive us if we love any less because leaving might hurt any more. 

Honesty factor?

I'm with those who are dismayed by Craig Barnes' piece -- in a single sentence he first patronizes his friend ("Jack Anderson will never understand this") and then adopts a superior stance from which to rationalize the condesension ("but it is critical for his sake that I did").  For Barnes the relationship, along with its friendship aspects, also had to do with a pastoral call and, undoubtedly, a particular employment situation  --  and he reserves to himself the right to discern the parameters of both, while leaving his friend in the dark about these underlying features -- no wonder the latter is "confused."  The instance when Jack Anderson treated Barnes as a patient is not in fact symmetrical, as he appears to suggest, because Rev. Barnes understood and consented to the function that his friend was perfoming at that moment, within the context of their relationship.  I possess no credentials in matters theological; however,  were I one of the folks to whom Rev. Barnes considers himself "accountable for the condition of my soul," it would be tempting to recommend a more radical honesty in relational matters as a starting point.  

Jewish Perspective

I also disagree with this idea. In the case of Jesus, his disciples willfully and knowingly entered into a rabbi-student relationship with him. It was a relationship in which they stopped negotiating anything with him and accepted his teachings as absolute and true -- they said, "teach me to be like you, think like you, interpret like you". Historically speaking, this was a very unbalanced relational scenario. YET, Jesus still says "I know longer call you servants, I call you friends... because I have made everything I know about the Father known to you". The pastor-congregant relationship isn't even close to the rabbi-student relationship, either in functionality or formality. It does not appear to me that you believe in the priesthood of all believers -- you believe in your priesthood but not Jack's. All those who have entered into relationship with the Father by the blood of Jesus can now enter boldly into the throne room of God -- and all become a part of the body of Jesus, commissioned with the other parts to continue to work of Jesus on this earth. All of us have different gifts that should be used for the building up of the body. It appears that your gift is prophecy and perhaps leadership. And it seems like Jack feels like his Holy Spirit given gift is discernment. He probably felt like you denied him the ability to use that gift for the good of the kingdom.

The pastor is not untouchable, elite, closer to God, always right, etc. I am a pastor and the way I see it is that I am following Jesus and have the opportunity to use my Holy Spirit given gifts of teaching and leadership for others who are following Jesus alongside me. To think that they can't shepherd me in return is to elevate the role into a god-like role -- and I suppose this is why many pastors feel so burnt out and lonely. I think it all boils down to pride. All this of course is also based on the quite new and western idea that a pastor should jump around from location to location based on pay package, benefits, congregation size, etc. Not that those things are evil, they just provide a much different setting than the one described in the NT.

What a sad way to minister!

I pity the people trained and ministered to by anyone with this perspective.  You should really read Tripp's Dangerous Calling for a recent discussion of this very dangerous philosophy of ministry.  I have witnessed two ministry friends burn out horribly in their churches because of this "professionalism."  In fact, one of them told me that you can never be friends with anyone in your church.  I disagreed at the time he said it and I still disagree years later.  It is hard to do it.  The lure to live apart and alone is a constant pull.  And Satan would want nothing more than to isolate pastors and other believers from each other.  But we must be vulnerable and share life pastoring and being pastored by those we serve.  It is part of being the body of Christ. May the wisdom of Christ triumph over this secular pscho babble.


I've been in pastoral ministry for a long time. I have served a variety of different churches in those years, some small and rural, some large and suburban and some a strange combination of both. I have made friends in every congregation. Some of those friendships lasted as long as I was serving that church, but others have continued through the years with no end in sight.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard bishops, district superintendents, and other pastors assert that pastors ought not be friends with parishioners. Like Rev. Craig, they talk about professional distance, complicated relationships, and needed leadership. I've also heard the "doctor" illustration. I have yet to be convinced.

Let's start with leadership. Our leadership is that of servanthood. This is exactly what Jesus taught us. Am I to believe that when Jesus said to his disciples that they were his "friends," he immediately ceased to be their savior and master? Of course not. Throughout the Scriptures leaders of the church referred to friends and parishioners as brothers and sisters. To belong to a community of faith is to develop relationships that reflect what's best of family. We are pastors not CEOs.

It is true that relationships can become complicated. A complicated relationship can arise between any two human beings. Even when pastors keep their distance from parishioners, relationships can quickly evolve or devolve based upon long-term and short-term vision for the church, issues of authority, differences in personality, missional considerations, worship style, theological traditions, etc. etc. Keeping one's distance from another does not necessarily mean that a relationship won't get complicated.

Not all friendships are the same. I probably have hundreds of acquaintances that I refer to as friends. I know them well enough to recognize their faces and occasionally remember their names but not much more. These are the people with whom I am "friendly." I have no emotional investment in these relationships. There are many people, many of them parishioners, who know me and my family and I know them and their family enough to be engaged in the regular course of living. I do not share my deepest secrets with these "friends." I, nevertheless, care deeply for them and I am at their service. Finally, I have friends with whom I can share anything and everything. There are only a handful of people who fit into this last group. In some instances, our love for one another transcends every other relationship. Not all friendships are the same.

I find the doctor illustration ridiculous. I see my doctor once a year for about 20 minutes. He is never been to my home. He does not know my children or wife. Were it not for the notes he has written down in a chart, he barely knows me. If I become chronically ill, it is more likely than not, he will send me to another doctor.

Pastors and doctors are not the same. Pastors (hopefully) see their parishioners regularly. Sometimes several times in the same week. Pastors go to the homes of their parishioners and parishioners often come to the homes of their pastors. My doctor charges me a set fee to see him. I am a servant to all regardless of whether one is a member of my church or not. Yes, doctors are supposed to maintain a professional distance. "Professional distance" is not easily defined. For example, I want my doctor to be professional. On the other hand, I want my doctor to treat me as if I were his best friend. I am not interested in having a "doctor's" relationship with my parishioners.

It is true that sometimes pastors reveal too much about themselves. It is true that some pastors have inappropriate relationships with their parishioners. It is true that pastors must take care and not take every comment made by a parishioner, personally. It is true that some pastors take themselves way too seriously. It is true that some pastors do not take themselves seriously enough.

As servant leaders pastors make themselves vulnerable. I guess I would just rather be vulnerable to people I can think of as my friends. Have I been betrayed by this attitude? Sure. That's also why we put a big premium on things like understanding and forgiveness.

If Christianity in America continues to grow at its present rate, it will cease to exist. Perhaps it's time for us to re-examine the way pastors relate to their congregations. I have a friend in Jesus. In a society filled with loneliness and desperation, I hope that I can at very least be a friend. Especially to the friendless. And some of these folks are members of my church where I am pastor.

Letter from Melissa Wilcox

In “Pastor, not friend” (Jan. 9), M. Craig Barnes argues that pastors cannot truly be friends with parishioners. As an Episcopal priest who happens to be married to an Episcopal priest, I completely understand where he is coming from. But I can’t embrace the stance of not having parishioners as friends.

When we moved across the country so my husband could serve as a rector, the first people to bring us lasagna and take my kids to the playground were parishioners. The first people who threw me a baby shower for the birth of my third child was the parish’s moms’ group. And over time we have developed close relationships with some members of the parish. Of course, there are times when I am deeply aware that I need to be careful about what I say or do, but where would I be without these people? Where would I find Christian friends who are willing to brainstorm about ways that we can observe Lent in our home? Where would I find comfort when I needed people with whom I could pray and not feel weird asking them to do so?

Yes, there are times when I wish I could say more to my church friends about my life, but with time I have come to understand that I have to reserve these conversations for my husband. And I know that at times people will not like my husband’s decisions--or even him. Yet my children will continue to worship in that parish every week, sing in the primary choir and run around like crazy at the parish pancake suppers. 

The Christian life is full of paradoxes. But with regard to friends, both my husband and I recognize our need to have them--both within and without the parish. And because we are merely human we make friends. Of course, as mere humans do, sometimes we hurt our friends and they hurt us. But forgiveness and reconciliation seem a better path than absolute loneliness.

Melissa Wilcox

Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Letter from David Doreau

Barnes raises a good point about the role boundaries for pastors. Many professions have ethical codes forbidding friendship relations with the people whom they serve at least during the time of service and sometimes for years after. My own counseling profession is one of the strictest on this point, saying that “dual” relationships are out of bounds for at least two years after the counseling is over. The usual argument is that the counselor has a role that embodies power and therefore it would be exploitative to engage in any other relationship. 

A criticism of this idea from a feminist perspective declares the “power” of health professionals to be more due to their sinful desire for prestige than to any necessary part of health care. Barnes says that when he goes to his physician, the doctor doesn’t ask him for “help to discern the best course of action.” But really, why not? Doctors who do invite (informed) patient discernment may actually do better in motivating cooperation with therapy. I cannot see why Barnes’s friend could not have been invited into his process of discernment and perhaps improved it.

David Doreau

Waterville, Me.

Letter from Lynne Baab

I  do not agree that friendships between pastor and parishioner are impossible or inappropriate. I’ve asked many pastors their opinion on this issue. Some agreed with Barnes, but many said something like this: “Friendships between pastor and parishioner are possible and perhaps even inevitable. But the minister must be very clear about which topics to avoid in conversation with friends in the congregation.” 

When the elder came to Barnes to express his anger that Barnes hadn’t included him in the discernment process about leaving the church, I would have said, “I value your friendship very much. However, you know that there are topics ministers simply cannot discuss with people in the congregation, and discernment about leaving is one of those topics. I’m sorry that’s the way it is, and I’m sorry that’s hurtful to you.”

Lynne Baab

Dunedin, New Zealand

Letter from Merton Rymph

What caught my eye was the large-print blurb in the middle of the second column of “Pastor, not friend”: “I do have friends, but they are not in the church.” What caught my heart was the conclusion of his second paragraph: “He is right about friends, but I was not his friend. I was his pastor.”

Though I grieve at this ecclesiastical emptying of an essential gospel term, I do not blame Barnes. This “good fences make good pastors” mentality is in the ecclesiastical air. I have not heard from Quaker friends as to what their re­sponse to this impoverishment might be, but it seems to me it makes the lay­person a client. I much prefer, “Hence­forth I shall call you friends.”

Merton Rymph

Lisbon, N.H.

Letter from Marie M. Fortune

Barnes is spot on. He is trying to help unravel the challenges of dual relationships in ministry, and he does so in a thoughtful and nuanced way. The thing about dual relationships is that we should probably avoid them when

we can, but we must manage them when they can’t be avoided. 

I was curious, however, about why

he chose a parishioner as his physician. That would seem to be an avoidable dual relationship.

Marie M. Fortune

FaithTrust Institute,


Letter from George K. Kluber

Barnes writes of a parishioner who could not accept that a pastor couldn’t be a friend. Frankly, neither can I. One of the great denominations in Christianity is the Society of Friends. A major role of Jesus is to show us as the ultimate Friend himself what true friendship is by truth, faithfulness, sacrifice and love.

My reaction to Barnes’s position is sadness. We are to be friends to each other, a priesthood of believers upholding one another by love. A pastor performs a role, but at a deeper level that role grows out of sincere friendship.

George K. Kluber

Fredericksburg, Tex.

Letter from Owen Cayton

The argument against Barnes’s point is in his own article. He tells of how an elder in the church, who was also a physician, was able to be both friend and physician--able to separate his friendship from Barnes and his role as physician. 

Barnes rightly states that being pastor to people has nothing to do with being their friend. However, neither does it preclude that possibility. Being a pastor to a friend is at least as easy as being pastor to someone whom you know absolutely hates your guts--which I have experienced. Yes, it can be done. Again, as Barnes says, being someone’s friend or not has nothing to do with being their pastor. This requires, as it does with being a physician, a banker, a lawyer or anything else, a bit of professionalism.

Owen Cayton

Stillwater, Okla.

Pastoring and friendship

It is indeed painful to read Craig Barnes' essay, all the more so because, in my experience, he is telling the truth.  I have been friendly with many parishioners over the years, but I have never found it healthy or even possible to be intimate friends with any.  This is no way contradicts the Gospel call to be friends in Christ, but any pastor who has lived through a church conflict knows how chancy friendship with parishioners can be.  Maybe intimate friendship with parishioners is possible in really healthy congregations, but in others?  Not so much. Congregants are acutely aware of who is -- and who is not -- a personal friend of the pastor - leading to jealousy, inter-congregant anger, and sometimes problems settling the next pastor.  

We are not called to congregations so they can supply us with friends; rather we are enjoined to have a life beyond the congregation we serve, and part of that life is finding and nurturing friendships which do not depend on (or grow out of) the pastoral relationship.  Such relationships give our lives balance, show us that there's a world beyond our church doors, and bless us with friendships which can endure beyond our pastoral time.

Pastor, not friend

Like Craig Barnes, I have been a pastor for over 30 years, though most of mine has been in small towns. I have also served as Stated Clerk in 3 different Presbyteries. In small towns, avoiding dual relationships is often not an option. From the barber to the auto mechanic, to the insurance agent, the doctor, dentist, children's school teachers, and the banker (which is the hardest and the worst) I have had dual relationships. The good news is, most everyone was a professional and understood how to deal with dual relationships. The best way to do that is for the pastor to also be a professional, to be friendly, to provide pastoral care when needed, and show great respect, but not expect favors, special treatment, or anything else unprofessional.

In my experience, ther pastors who ended up in trouble in their parish were those to blurred the boundary between pastor and friend. Misconduct, of course, is the ultimate boundary violation, but not the only one. The business of forming friendships in the congregation usually backfires in ways causing friction in the congregation leading to the need for the pastor to move on.

That is the type of friendship I hear Mr. Barnes talking about. While pastors and parishioners can develop deep emotional bonds, especially in times of loss and tragedy, there still needs to be a distance to provide the best possible care. My parents used the word "chummy" to describe people who became too close and their lives too intertwined. That's what I hear Mr. Barnes saying pastors absolutely need to avoid.

It really troubles me that some responders to this article don't see it. When pastors quit acting like professionals in doing their job the church suffers.


Great to see that there are a few in here who "get it."  What I find startling are the comments by those who are ministers/pastors who take the author to task, saying that the pastor ought to be friends (more than friendly) with his members/parishoners. 

First, how is it possible to be friends with all?  Can't and won't happen.  Now, he can and should be friendly to all.  He should respond to all with the same pastoral love and care.  But, to think that a pastor, or anyone for that matter, can be friends with all they meet in church is ludicrous, and not a measure that any in here would hold themselves to. 

I am in a church now where the pastor has befriended a few members (all of them prior members of a prior church he attended/led the youth) and they gather - along with the pastor's grown children and their spouses - together nearly every Saturday and Sunday for a meal.  This results in the pastor and his wife being unavailable for any fellowship or get togethers with other church members during the weekend.  The pastor is already unavailable for any socializing during most of the week due to his wife's work schedule and his not willing to meet with other couples without his wife being present. 

To make matters worse, he has hired some of his relatives (music and youth) which makes it VERY akward when church members are not happy with some aspect of either one of those ministry positions.  The pastor is unable/unwilling to act as a neutral abritrator and always makes it a very uphill battle for change.  In this case, blood is definitely thicker than water. 

Trust me, you do not want your pastor to be buds with any members of your congregation.  He can have all the outside friendships he wants, just leave it on pastor/member level for those in the church.

Dear Fellow Ministers, Being of God knows no boundaries!!!!

While I understand and can sympathize that some seminaries incorrectly cling to an outmoded methodology of teaching their ministers to maintain a distance between their congregation and themselves, this is a wrong approach as many commenters have pointed out. By now we ought to have acquired far more spiritual insight than foisting an egoistic stance of ministers setting themselves apart rather than forming union. Ministers are no longer thought of, nor should (s)he think of themselves, as demigods removed from the flock, but instead as servant disciples that walk hand in hand with their congregation. Isn't the point of ministry to point the Way to our Divine Source -- certainly through teaching and counseling, but more importantly through encounter and example?

Unfortunately, impressionable young people hoping to facilitate communal well-being are often taught to live a circumscribed spiritual and emotional life that thwarts their own well-being and hinders that of others. How can one give what one does not have in abundance? Hence, the cinder in the other's eye is the focus instead of the log often found in many ministers.

To pastor means to tend to the congregation or flock. I challenge every minister to justify how holding oneself apart and/or superior is healthy, or whether it is right-minded to think that anyone who extends the hand of true friendship should be given short shrift just because (s)he may be a secular person and/or parishioner. Ministers are not to lord it over their congregation but to work with their members to meet the Lord.

How can ministers talk the talk when they may not have walked the walk that many members deal with under very challenging circumstances on a daily basis, year after year? Just because we as ministers may have training and see a somewhat broad spectrum of dysfunction, that does not necessarily qualify us as a spiritually gifted resource, especially when we maintain a disengaged stance. Sometimes we have been trained to think others need our specific brand of guidance rather than to offer what we each truly need: to live with dignity, to act with integrity and to love with compassion. There is no lock on those aspects of agape confining it to the ordained. What is lost if we permit a human friendship to allow God to manifest in whomever and in whatever surprising ways presented, thus becoming more fully known and appreciated? Are charisms confined to the ordained?

How may you possibly tend to the spiritual needs of anyone unless you allow yourself a progressive experience of Divine Source? One certainly cannot pastor another from a self-satisfied position nor can one expand one's perspective by only feeding from the same trough of fellow clergy for self-help.

In Christianity we are called to live the Beatitudes. As I understand it, the Beatitudes are a challenge to each of us, clergy and laity, to minister without exception and in all circumstances. Please show where there is a distinction made that only the ordained can reissue this divine universal call.

Seminaries ought to encourage ministers to enter into the vulnerable role of being pastored to by others, should they encounter the offer of a good and healthy friendship. We clergy must discern, just as the laity has to, but authentic friendships ought to be cherished. Perhaps those without ministry degrees can sometimes teach, heal, and in deed pastor more effectively. Yes, ministers may be required to serve elsewhere and the regular bonds of friendship will be interrupted. This is also true for many in the secular world who have to move for employment. Somehow, true friendships are maintained across time and space.

Ministers may be called to be objective counselors and to offer guidance that challenges the seeker to move beyond their comfort zone. This is also true for all good and caring friends in the secular world. Can I befriend my parishioner? Can my parishioner befriend me? The answers depend on the spiritual and emotional health of the individuals involved and are not prescribed by the role. That is as it should be in any relationship.

Now this is not to say that any of us must allow unhealthy individuals access to our personal space. This is as much true for the unhealthy minister preying on the weak parishioner as it would be for the exploitive congregationalist to sucker punch a less spiritually mature pastor. A few have mentioned that the parish will suffer if pastors quit acting as professionals. Undoubtedly this is true, as partiality is damaging when shown by parents, employers or teachers wearing blue, white or clerical collars. Acting as a professional does not preclude enjoying the warmth of friendship. It just means that both parties must recognize appropriate boundaries as is true of every relationship.

Sometimes it's easier for those who have become so specialized (dare I say narrow-minded) to consider it from the opposite perspective. I offer the following excerpt from Wiki on ex-pastors in hopes that it resonates and sparks a period of examination. Class distinctions and separations create exclusion, confusion and block the union with Source that we are called to foster. If seminaries examine the reasons why so many who wanted to serve wind up leaving the ministry, perhaps a more perfect nurturing of those called to serve as clergy would emerge and slow the drift away. If seminaries heed this message, perhaps many more clergy would be able to join their congregation in experiencing and building the kingdom right here, right now rather than vainly instructing.

"Observers such as clergy counselor Rowland Croucher suggest that the numbers of "ex-pastors" roughly equals that of serving clergy throughout the Western world.[3] This would mean people who have left the ministry number in the six-figures. More pastors and priests may be leaving parish ministry than are lost to most other professions.[4] Until the early 1990s, there were few cross-denominational ministries serving this group. Croucher collected data-based questionnaires of ministers of Protestant denominations.[5][6][7] The first writers to explore this research area used questionnaire surveys to look at factors such as age, education and family relationships as contributing factors to decisions to leave the ministry.[8] Other writers have explored ex-pastors within particular denominations[9][10][11] and/or focused on particular related issues such as burnout,[12][13] stress,[14][15] marital stress,[16] sexual abuse,[17] celibacy,[18] loneliness,[19] organisational factors,[20][21] and conflict.[22] One common cause of conflict occurs when differing approaches to ministry compete in the minds of clergy, congregation and community, as Norman Blaikie found in Australian clergy from six Protestant denominations.[23] For some of the estimated 10,000 ex-pastors from Australian Protestant churches, their transition was a normal mid-career move, voluntarily entered into like many of the role exits described in the classic study by sociologist (and ex-nun) Helen Ebaugh.[24] Yet for many the transition out of parish ministry was premature. Clergy, churches and training bodies need a solid basis for understanding and action in order to reduce the attrition rate and enhance clergy, congregational and community health. Some denominations experience particularly high rates of attrition.[25] Key recommendations to help alleviate stress in clergy exit situations may revolve around the development of professional supervision and continuing education. Professional supervision for ministry is a method of reflecting critically on ministry as a way of growing in self-awareness, cultural and social awareness, ministry competence and theological reflection skills.[26][27] Supervision that includes an element of peer group work has the potential to facilitate collaborative learning, enhanced group dynamic skills and ongoing supportive networks.[28] Some denominations are encouraging their clergy to engage in professional supervision, as part of their mandatory requirement of professional standards, but the requirements and standards of clergy supervision are often haphazard or absent."

Spiritual physician heal thyself!

Reflections on authenticity, congruence, and friendship

Many years ago, a colleague of mine, Lou, had the chance to interview the famous psychologist, Carl Rogers, shortly before he died. Dr. Rogers, one of the pioneers of humanistic psychology, was famous for his client centered approach and his abundant use of empathy to bring about healing. Lou asked Dr. Rogers if he had concluded that empathy was the most important factor in the helping relationship. To his surprise Dr. Rogers said, "No, what is most important is congruence." As a pastor, I believe that authenticity and congruence are essential. Parishioners cannot relate to "shiny, perfect pastors" who act as if they are above, pain,suffering, and faith struggles. When our parishioners learn that we, too, struggle with sin, anger, sadness, and times of darkness and dryness in our walk with God, then there can be  then preaching and pastoral care can be of value, then there can be warm, authentic relationships with church members. Yet, are these warm and authentic relationships truly friendships? That is, I believe, the issue with which Dr. Barnes is wrestling. In my view, true friendships are those relationships in which each person can be completely themselves before another. When I attend our church's Friday men's group, we have a check in time at the beginning where we share what is going on in our lives over the past week. I have certainly been open about medical challenges and asked these folks to pray for me. I have related to their faith struggles, asked for their counsel on some things, and we pray for one another, and I visit regularly with some of them. Yet, I cannot be completely myself before them, as it would cross boundaries and be hurtful to our relationships and my relationship as pastor. I cannot share if I am angry or feel disappointed in another parishioner. I cannot share of my sins so deeply that I am holding them as a partner in accountability, I cannot speak to them about what I'd like to change in my marriage, or as Craig talked about, speak openly if I were thinking about pursuing another call. Those are things I would talk to with a close friend outside the church, or at my pastor's group, or my spiritual director. Indeed, close fellowship can develop between pastor and church members--one that is authentic, warm, and mutually supportive. That, I think, is what some here are calling friendship, and understandably so. Yet, if the definition of friendship is the capacity to be completely ourselves before another, then I don't think that can happen in a pastor/parishioner relationship - we have to care enough hold back in those areas where sharing would be out of our own selfish needs, and not in service to others and to God.

"I have called you friends..."

I have heard this idea voiced throughout my ministry, from administrators and other pastors. However, I have always maintained, with Jesus as our example, that this premise is not Biblical.  In John 17 we see that our unity with God will translate into unity with one another or friendship, even deep friendship. This of course would include pastors.  Indeed, IMO, pastors should be setting the example of Christian love and fellowship/friendship.  Didn't Jesus come to restore his creation back to what was lost in Eden? Hasn't He called us back, through His Spirit, to be united in godly love, to form true bonds of human affection, true and everlasting friendships?   

As pastors, as I see it, we are not excluded from the life of the body but rather we are called to lead the way as we follow our Savior's example who washed His disciples feet and called them friends.

Setting that boundary straight since day one.

At least you set the boundary and made it clear. There was a man who was a pastor who took me for beers, came to my place and I his for movies and slide shows, and we went for walks and bicycle rides. One day, because I disagreed with him about his belief that the Scriptures banning gay marriage are inconclusive, He said that, after almost ten years of friendship, we became too close and that he was not meant to be my friend but just my pastor. Not only did he break my heart, but as a Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod pastor, he taught against Scripture. As a pastor, he should know that whether or not Scripture is conclusive is irrelevant. If Scripture and the Church that ordained him are against something, who is he to speak in favor of it?