Friday, September 5, 2008

The trickiness of church friendships

I realize that I'm still relatively new at all of this church ministry business, but really, I'd have thought that after 2 years I'd have a better handle on some of it. Specifically, I'd like to know how to navigate the waters of friendships within the church.

Growing up I remember our pastor saying that a pastor can never really be friends with someone in the church. For years I accepted that as the rule and only later in seminary began to challenge that. But then for two years in Hemet, I began to see how right he was. I could allow myself to get close to people, but I could only allow them to get so close to me. I often felt like I was navigating a tight rope as I figured out what could and couldn't be shared in these relationships. I couldn't talk about how hard my day was when it included counseling someone about a domestic violence situation or child sexual abuse or when it involved conflict with a colleague or with a parishioner. I was also confused by when parishioners saw me as friend versus when they defined me as a pastor. I was regularly labeled as "friend" but I always saw myself as "pastor" with the distinction being whether or not I shared personal details from my own life.

Changing churches and becoming the senior pastor has not made this little dance any easier. Granted, there is one particular family from Hemet with whom I consider myself friends, for real (though there is, of course, the added complication about what I should or shouldn't continue to know about that congregation). Here the difficulty is even greater because a lot of parishioners were very close to the last pastor and considered themselves "friends".

It's a distinction that sounds crazy when you explain it. Unless people are pastors or counselors I rarely find that they understand why there would be any kind of stress or problem around said friendship. Almost without fail I feel like a complete jerk digging myself a huge hole navigating the murky waters of "top-ten-reasons-why-we're-not-*actually*-friends". It's frustrating and confusing, both for me and for them. Most of the time I end up letting people define our relationship however they want and just rolling with it, intentionally trying not to clarify our "not real friend" status, since to them it's hurtful and has nothing to do with healthy boundaries.

But then I run into the problem of meeting a parishioner I get along well with and actually want to be close to, someone I'd want to share personal stories and anecdotes with, and then the reality comes crashing down: I can't fully give in to becoming friends with X because at some point I'm gonna have a really tough day and he's gonna say, "how was your day?" And I'm gonna say, "It was horrible." And either a) I can't tell him anything about why or who I was with or b) I say I had to deal with domestic violence and sexual harassment and whatever else and then later realize someone's going to say they met with me on Tuesday and he's gonna put 2 and 2 together and it won't be fun for anyone. Because then I've violated confidentiality and they all feel awkward, if not betrayed and hurt. So then in order to avoid that type of situation I just hold back and don't share the realities of my day, and then I end up not having "real" friends because I can't fully open up to someone and share what's really going on with me.

For the probationary membership essays there was a question that basically said, "Ministry is a very isolating vocation, what are your support systems?" I had heard that many times and felt prepared for such isolation--I have strong family connections and long term friendships that have remained strong across time and distance. Those relationships continue to be a source of strength for me. And yet at the same time I still have to admit that ministry is indeed pretty isolating. To constantly struggle with forming new relationships in your current context is a weighty battle. It's not just the battle of navigating the parish waters I described above, but it's also navigating secular relationships--not wanting to dissillusion people by sharing the politics of church, and dealing with some of the alien habits of secular folks, not that I don't know about them or haven't lived some of them, but gettin' down at the club isn't my gig and I struggle sometimes to be friends with folks when our interests and core convictions are polar opposites.

I keep thinking it shouldn't be this hard. Then I think that maybe I'm just nutty and that's why this is so challenging. I have enough clergy friends to know I'm not alone. At the very least, for those of us who are recent graduates, finding and making friends is tricky gig. Somedays it's so tricky that you wish God had called you to a more neutral profession. Sometimes it doesn't seem worth it. And then other days you see the true benefits of the work you do, and you're overwhelmed with joy, and you know that the lonely hours, while maybe not "worth it", are at least bearable since the blessings of ministry are so huge.

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