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.