Your pastor is not your friend. Really?

I read a blog post on facebook entitled ” your pastor is not your friend” which caused a little pause for thought. It basically said that to be a good pastor you can’t be a friend to people like their other friends. Because a pastor would have to do things that other friends wouldn’t – like … well… hmm,.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the idea that as a pastor you can’t be someone’s friend. There’s a tendency of the ordained to try and find out what’s “different” about them to others, and I get a little suspicious of that as it often causes differences without any real distinction.

But the main issue I have with that idea is that somehow there is a qualitative difference between the sort of love you have for your friends and the sort of love you have for your congregation. It smacks of that awful idea that you can “love someone without liking them”.

The idea that you can love someone without liking them is utter rubbish, dangerous, hypocritical, smug, self-defensive cack of the highest order. Maybe it depends on your definition of like, and love, both of which are greedy words which suck in a great deal of meaning. But my experience of ordained ministers using this phrase has often been to justify what is in fact unloving and unkind behaviour.

I remember one priest of my acquaintance who spoke very unkindly to a member of their church, to “keep them in their place” on many occasions because “sometimes the loving thing to do is to tell them they’re behaving badly”. It’s amazing how, when you love people but don’t like them, you feel the loving thing to do is to treat them as though they are unlikable, as though they are annoying, or incompetent. Those things may be true, but there are kindly ways of telling the truth and there are brutal ways – loving but not liking tends to favour the brutal. Especially, when you’re a priest, a Rector, or Minister in charge of a church, and you tell people this “loving but not liking” sort of truth, you’re not being a pastor, or a friend, you’re being a bully.

Now we’re all human, we can’t like everyone. But there’s a huge category error between saying “I should love and like everyone, but because I’m human, I fail” and saying “I am not required to like everyone” One is admitting we are human, and say we fail, one is saying we don’t need to try.

So what sort of friendship should pastors have with their congregation? It’s hard to know if my friendships with my church folk are different from how they would be if I weren’t a priest. It’s hard to say ” I wouldn’t be like this if I wasn’t ordained” because I feel I’m called by God to be the person I am trying to be. Being a priest is not a job, it’s a life, a self-definition, so I don’t behave differently now than I would were I not a “pastor”.

Believing in God as I do, I think that showing and modelling the God of love is what we are all supposed to do, and it’s the stuff of my life – not just my work life, but my whole life. In pastoral situations, I do that in a variety of ways – rarely is that by talking about God, although often it involves praying with and for people. It’s certainly not trying to foist your beliefs on others, or doing that “God loves you” (so I don’t have to) thing that sometimes happens. I know that when I sit down to talk to someone in a pastoral situation – or for that matter in most other situations too  – my aim is to be as loving, kind and supportive to that person as I can be, because I believe what the Bible tells me – that God is love, and that when love is shared between two people, be it compassion, joy, or whatever, then God is present and the world is genuinely a better place. In pastoral situations that manifests itself by showing people that whatever they are going through, they are not alone. Sometimes that develops into a reciprocal relationship, but rarely. But even with the people I really love and call friends, I don’t have expectations of them helping me in that way. I love my friends and like my friends because I love them, not because they are useful.

Sometimes when people are in really dire straits, and I spend a lot of time with them in their darkest hours, be it addiction or mental ill health or bereavement or homelessness, I feel a pang of sorrow, because I know than when the crisis is over, and then when they walk into brighter days, the likelihood is that I won’t see them again. They are grateful for the love and help I gave them but my presence reminds them of dark times and I am one of the things they need to move on from. That often feels sacrificial, because I have invested a huge amount of emotion and prayer and love in them, and it feels like they’re taking a part of me away with them – indeed they are. But that’s sort of the point. The love and care and shared tears and practical help that they take away have always been a gift. The only way of avoiding that is by not being their friend – by doing something similar but not emotionally investing in them. And that’s just not authentic, not real. It’s a care service package, not what most people most desperately need – a fellow human who cares for them.

If your love for those you care for is anything less than your love for friends, it’s not love. If you hope for anything in return, then it’s not a gift it’s a loan, and if it’s a loan it’s not love. And if it’s not love, then you shouldn’t be a pastor.

Friends are people who tell you the truth; people who you can rely on; people who will share your joy and your pain; people who will do what the can to help you, and work their arses off for your sake, and do it with a smile on their face, and you know that they will never ask for anything back, other than you acknowledge them as a fellow human being. If that’s not your definition of what a friend is, you need better friends. If that’s not what your definition of what a pastor is, I’m going to find someone else to talk to when I need someone to care.

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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