Can your pastor be your friend?

I read an essay some weeks back by the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, M. Craig Barnes, on whether pastors can really be friends with members of their congregations.

I set it aside as a possible future story. Well, that time is now and it’s a far more interesting topic than I initially realized.

The Rev. Jason Schwartzman, left, greets Charles McAfee, a member with Otterbein United Methodist for 52 years, after workship at the York church last summer. (file photo)

Think about it: the pastor is in a unique position to, in many cases, hear some of the most intimate details of your life. He or she is there for births, deaths and marriages. In other words, the ground is fertile for close friendships.

As Barnes puts it: 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.

It puts a lot of pastors in almost a no-win situation. After all, they are people in need of companionship as well. I have put the question to York County pastors and the consensus seems to be that it depends on the maturity of the person involved.

An astute congregant recognizes that the pastor has a role to fill, and that role cannot be compromised by a too-close friendship. The pastors I have spoken with so far all say they have formed many friendships over the years that continued even after the pastor left that congregation.

What are your thoughts? Do you consider your pastor a “friend?”

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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