The Pastor as Friend

The following collection of thought should be credited to (or blamed on) conversations I've recently had with my friend, Marcus Hong.

We are often handed a paradigm for ministry which prioritizes an outcome, an ideal. We are pressured to adopt a goal-oriented paradigm for ministry wherein relationships in the church are instrumentalized in service of the church's "mission." In his book, The Relational Pastor, Andrew Root creatively documents how such a paradigm—the paradigm of the “entrepreneurial manager”— has come to such prominence (see pages 23-44). This is now so commonplace, and has been so concretized into the ecclesiology (even if its rare for such an approach to explicitly ground itself theologically... this, too, is part of the problem) and pastoral identity of the preceding generations, that it is difficult for young pastors to see it another way; even if, in their bones, there is great tension. But Root is hopeful that a new paradigm is emerging—one which, as I see it, is compatible with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of Christian community (see Life Together) wherein the Pastor is free to share the place to the congregation of which they are a part rather than to some essential standard or "dream" about what they could be. Root identifies the new paradigm as fundamentally relational—seeking to “reconceptualize ministry as participation in the life of Christ through the personhood of the other…” (Root, 44). In this paradigm, it is not the Pastor's role to be a "leader" or a "visionary." The Pastor is not called to be higher than the congregation (no matter how many steps they need to climb to get into the pulpit... which wouldn't likely be relevant if your Pastor was in a wheelchair... this, again, is also part of the problem).  Rather, it is the Pastor's fundamental role to be a friend and to create opportunity for friendship.

Now, as Root is clear, this is not a superficial kind of friendship where we are constantly subject to the "wants" of individuals (it's about empathy, not sympathy), but the kind where we subject ourselves to the "needs" of persons (seriously, you should just read The Relational Pastor, then read The Church in the Power of the Spirit by Jürgen Moltmann). This new paradigm is rooted theologically (...where should we start? The Incarnation, the theology of the cross, the Hypostatic Union, Eucharist, feminist theology, Philippians 2, John 15, the Road to Emmaus, Luther, Calvin, Moltmann, Moltmann-Wendel, Tanner...)... and it had its prophets even in the height of the "professional" paradigm (Henri Nouwen, Brother Roger of Taize, Eugene Peterson).

In an interview in 2002, when Eugene Peterson was asked about the "boundary ambiguity" in pastoral ministry, especially in his more empathetic approach to ministry, he answered,
I grew up in a small town and my dad was a butcher with a shop in the middle of town. Between that shop and our home, in a sense, there was no boundary. So I had modeled for me a way of life in which work and home were not distinct things. My dad addressed everyone who came into our shop by name. At one point I realized that I’m doing as a pastor just what my dad had done as a butcher. 
I also remember early in my ministry listening to colleagues who often seemed irritated and angry with their congregations, as if the congregation was the enemy. I remember making a conscious decision to not adopt that view. The congregation is not the enemy. They are my friends. I am their friend. We are in this together, even when we don’t like each other very much. 
If there was any substitute for having boundaries, it was knowing when and how to ask for help. Some advice I have remembered well is this: "The two most powerful words in the world are ‘help me."’ So I asked my congregation to help me. 
Peterson went on to be clear that "you can’t be naïvely open all the time to everybody" (indeed, that wouldn't be friendship either). But what he was offering was a way forward wherein the Pastor need not suffer the anxiety of protecting herself from the congregation by keeping a "safe distance," but is free to encounter their congregation as persons and to discover there the presence of Jesus Christ.

It is no coincidence that a new relational paradigm for pastoral ministry, of the Pastor as "a convener of empathic encounter of personhood" (Root, 44), should arise at a time when we are more aware than ever of power relationships, inequality, and the social construction of race and gender. We are realizing that in a world inescapably haunted by "social difference," we must do something about our "social distance" (to borrow some terminology from Erin Raffety and use it completely out of context). Deep down, we know that what the world really needs is not more ideas or another tidy system to implement them. Some will see no way forward but to dig in their heels and build higher and stronger walls between themselves and "the laity." But we know that what we need is friendship. ...and we need leaders who will show us how to be friends.