Pastors have crushes. I don’t mean romantic crushes, although that certainly happens too. That’s a problem. That’s a whole other topic.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
The crushes I’m talking about are strictly platonic. It’s when a pastor’s interest in a parishioner and a parishioner’s interest in a pastor are as personal as churchy. It’s when they become friends.
The former pastor of my parents’ church was my dad’s fishing buddy before he was his pastor. That’s what I’m talking about.
I’ve had pastor crushes too. At a birthday party for a former congregant, we played a game of trivia about his life. I won.
My seminary training equipped me with a healthy respect for boundaries, and so my first response to winning was shame. I feared that my knowledge of my congregant’s life was a result of too much time spent with him socially, doing things we both enjoyed, making beer and playing softball. I was sure I had violated professional boundaries in becoming his (gasp!) friend.
That seems ridiculous to me now.
It is part of the richness of life in a church community that some members feel especial affinity for one another, and that includes the pastor. There are people in our churches who, were we not their pastors, we would seek out socially. We get on well together. We like them. There is no fault in that.
There are faults lying in wait, for sure. Church folk need friends just like anybody, but they also need pastors. A friendly relationship can make it hard to be pastoral in times of crisis or in times that call for relational distance, like when a pastor’s relationship with a congregation ends.
Also, being friends with congregants can make it very difficult for pastors to distinguish between their professional competence and their personal worth; effective pastoring is more than making friends, and you can be a good person and valuable friend while also being a lousy pastor.
Of course, pastors need friends too, and we are routinely urged in seminary and at professional development conferences to find them outside the congregation. This can indeed be a lifesaver. My best friends during my first call were the people in my wife’s medical residency program, people who had no relationship with my church. When one of them visited unexpectedly one Sunday, I felt an acute collapse of contexts, like some important barrier in my life had been breached. He never came back, and I didn’t want him to.
But the people pastors spend most of their time with are in their churches, and so it is unavoidable that some of their friends will be there too. If they are married and have families, then their spouses and kids have friends at church too. Insisting, for the sake of healthy boundaries, that pastors and their families don’t make friends in the churches they serve is not only silly, it’s unhealthy.
Pastors don’t have to be friends with their parishioners, but they certainly can be.