On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part X

In an earlier post, I drew attention to some words from Michael Jinkins’ (in Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life) about the relationship that exists between friendship and a thoroughly-human life. I suggested there that ‘effective pastoral ministry is impossible apart from friendship precisely because human flourishing is impossible apart from friendship. Only non-human pastors can go it alone, those particularly uninterested in being associated with the imago dei in creation’. In this post, I wish to return to this topic, and that again by way of Jinkins. In his book, Letters to New Pastors, which is a collection of letters from a mature pastor to fictional recipients, Professor Jinkins notes that while friendship is no harder for pastors than it is for others, ‘what is more difficult for pastors is finding safe places to share their struggles and frustrations’ (p. 167). He continues:

‘Ministers often tell me they just don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable with certain colleagues. Sometimes they feel least safe with colleagues in their own denomination, especially if these colleagues might play a role in their future calls. Ministers also tell me they cannot be completely vulnerable with members of their congregations. I think what they’re basically saying here is that they don’t want to confuse their role as pastor or transgress a boundary that might undermine their calling’. (p. 168)

And this raises the question of whether pastors can be friends with members of their own congregations. Jinkins again:

‘On the face of it, this is one of those questions you want to answer unequivocally: “Yes, of course. If you can’t be friends with members of your congregation, who can you be friends with?” One retired pastor told me that several of his oldest, closest friends come from the congregations he has served over the years. He’s gone on vacations with them, named his children after them, and so forth. He said it is simply foolish and arrogant for pastors to pretend that they can’t be friends with members of their congregations.

Other pastors tell me something different. While they maintain deep and affectionate relationships with members of their congregations, relationships they refer to as friendships, they try never to lose sight of the larger obligation they have to serve as pastor to and to lead the whole congregation. They work hard to remind themselves of their role as pastors, which means there may be times when the congregation’s claim on them has priority over the claims of a particular friend’. (p. 168)

Most pastors with whom I have discussed this topic at any length will inevitably describe the tension that exists here between these two realties. Jinkins warns of the dangers associated with both minimising and over-maximising this tension, before recalling that such tension is not unique to pastors, that many friendships require negotiating just such straits: ‘I do think we have to be particularly careful about doing anything that might invite the charge of favoritism that can emerge in a congregation around friendships with the pastor. We need to take this very seriously. We need to keep a healthy measure of self-criticism in play to make sure our friendships do not lead us to compromise our pastoral responsibilities for the whole congregation. The congregation needs us to be its pastor, and we simply must not compromise that calling. But I cannot imagine life as a pastor without real friendships among the people with whom I serve Christ’ (p. 169).

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Other posts in this series:

[Image: Jankel Adler, ‘Two Rabbis’. 1942. Oil on canvas, (86 x 112.1 cm). Museum of Modern Art]

One thought on “On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part X

  1. I must admit that I could not imagine using the term ‘friendship’ to describe the relationship between a minister and congregant. I’ve certainly felt sympathy, enjoyed laughter and shared confidences with ministers but have always been aware of a distinction between these things and the freedom of feelings shared with friends – Christian and non-Christian.
    I realise how isolating this could be for ministers. And in a small community like ours this is exacerbated. I think a sense of humour can be indispensable – and I haven’t been putting my sense of humour to good use lately.

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