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John Bell, guest minister at the Church of Scotland inside Amsterdam's Begijnhof

John Bell, guest minister at the Church of Scotland inside Amsterdam’s Begijnhof

A Pastor’s Friendships: Transitions and Social Media,

Pastoral friendships are a unique, special and sometimes confusing experience. As a young man, I was deeply influenced by my pastors. I remember numerous wonderful conversations with my youth pastor—he encouraged my developing abilities to play piano by ear; we enjoyed a Saturday chopping wood; he listened as I confided personal struggles; and he planted the seeds that would eventually sprout into my own pastoral vocation. But I also remember youth events when he was busy with other people, and I didn’t get much interaction or attention from him. As a teenager, struggling with my own sense of belonging, this was disconcerting. In hindsight, I realize that the friendship I received from that pastor was a friendship that he was also offering to tens of other people. It was genuine friendship, but it had a different quality from other friendships. (Someone needs to write an article about the many different kinds of friends.)

The puzzling nature of pastoral friendships became real for me again when I was a pastor—and especially when I resigned from the first church where I pastored. It was a relatively large congregation: two services each Sunday, and about 900 names in the church phone book. When I began pastoring these people, I regularly poured over the church’s pictorial directory in an effort to memorize each person’s name. I would test myself by covering up the names, and seeing how many names I could remember. My eleven years in that congregation were characterized by mutual love and respect—even friendship—between my family and the congregation. When I resigned, however, I was surprised how few people stayed in touch with my wife and me, even though I still lived in the same town as the church. We were always welcomed warmly whenever we went back to attend a service at that church. And our sons, who still attended that congregation, regularly brought back greetings from parishioners. But only a small handful of people—perhaps fewer than ten—made a point of phoning us or inviting us over for a visit. I  recognized again the unique qualities of pastoral friendships.

In part, I characterize pastoral friendships as having a symbolic quality. The pastor’s friendship symbolizes to congregants the friendship that Jesus offers (cf. John 15:15). This perspective helps me in at least ways. One, it reminds me that I don’t need to—and cannot—be close to everyone in the congregation I am serving. Instead, I offer care and kindness and companionship to individuals one at a time. By being truly present in even small ways, Jesus’ caring friendship is presented again and again—one could say “re-presented”—to the entire congregation. Although I’ve lost the source, I once read Henri Nouwen saying that when we care for one person, the others around know that they too are cared for. Two, this symbolic quality helps me accept that people will respond to me in many different ways. Those who respond with distance and reserve are not necessarily doing so because of some flaw in my way of being a friend, but because in me as their pastor they perceive something of God. This is not simply because of some quality in who I am, but because the congregation commissioned me to offer friendship on Jesus’ behalf—to be a symbol of Christ.

During the years since I left that church, social media has become embedded in the lives of pastors and church-goers like never before. Pastors invite text messages with questions while they are preaching. Blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets are all part of pastor-congregation interactions. Because pastoral friendships are in some ways different from other friendships, how does a pastor’s leaving play out in her or his social media interactions with the people of the church? An article from the Alban Institute offers some helpful suggestions (click on the title to this blog post). I’d love to hear what you think of these suggestions.

6 thoughts on “A Pastor’s Friendships: Transitions and Social Media,

  1. Marjorie Major

    In my life I have had 9 pastors, some ministers overlap. Some you become close to because of age and shared events, some like my childhood and my young adult pastor become an extension of your family, you rely on them to be there during difficult times for many decades after their connection to the church ends, others you want to know because there is something in them that is real and not as you have been taught and you are trying to connect the pieces.
    Some pastors even if you loved them leave and you never or rarely connect, others you connect with at church family funerals and your relationship seems closer to being a distant cousin, you follow their career and pray for them — worry about them too. The why or how of connectivity is odd, because the pastor who was there in many ways during my most difficult time left and was gone, like a trip leaving memories, but no further connection.
    I think the same thing happens in families, I often see the most loved child, the one the parents doted over leaving like the prodigal son, and one staying behind like the loyal son.
    Social media will only mean that more people from your old church will stay in touch, but those who really connected with you as friend will probably be the same.

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    1. adyck1 Post author

      The pastoral friendships you describe remind me of the statement that to be a pastor is to be in ‘family-like’ relationships with people. Among other things, pastoral friendships are ‘family-like’ in that over a period of years the pastor accumulates knowledge about individuals and families—often quite personal and even private information. And yet the pastoral friendship ends in ways that are often not ‘family-like’—or as you put it, more like a distant cousin than like a sibling or parent.

      My experience suggests that you’re right about social media not changing who stays in touch intentionally…although social media does keep me in touch with people in a more general way.

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  2. doradueck

    First, congratulations on getting your blog launched! Wonderful opening reflections. — I like the Henri Nouwen quote, and, as a parishioner in a congregation, agree: to see the minister giving care or interest to someone in need of it is reassuring to those watching or aware of it; there’s a kind of secondhand blessing in it.– The minister is definitely in a unique position friends-wise; from where I sit, it doesn’t look easy and probably requires a great deal of maturity and probably loneliness to boot to get through! 🙂

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    1. adyck1 Post author

      Thanks for your congratulations and comments.

      With respect to your comments on pastoral friendships, I am convinced on the one hand that pastors need to have at least a few close friends (plus a mentor and/or spiritual director) who are not part of the congregation. On the other hand, I would not want to give the impression that pastors need to withdraw and be distant from their congregants. Instead, given the realities of pastoral friendships, pastors do well to enter into those relationships. Being a member of a home group, for instance, was an important way in which I built important personal connections with people in the congregation where I was a pastor.

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      1. Marjorie Major

        Pastors do a lot of counseling and I read that they should also have some who listens to them. I think the phrase was everyone who does counseling should be in counseling. All pastors need a place outside of the congregation, a trusted friend to whom they can freely complain or use to analyze situations, knowing that their words will be held in confidence. Just because one is a pastor doesn’t mean their job should be their whole life, friends outside of the congregation are a great idea. We wouldn’t expect any other person in any other job just to hang around fellow employees and managers are discouraged from being too close to their employees. Pastors need to find the balance that works for them.

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