Pastor as Platonic Girlfriend

Yesterday’s blog post comments stirred some memories:

  • The times one parishioner called me for Girl Talk on random nights past 11 pm.  When I suggested that I needed to get some sleep, she said, “But you’re my pastor.  You have to talk with me anytime I want to talk.”  Uh, no.  (If she had an emergency at 4 am, she could call me – because I was her pastor.  If she wanted to talk about the cute co-worker who hangs out at her desk – because she saw me as her friend – she’d need to wait until coffee hour next Sunday.
  • The times people would say they’d like to meet for coffee next Friday, and when I’d say, “Friday is my day off” they’d say, “Great!  It’s my day off too, so we can meet at 10?”  Nope.  If it’s my day off, I don’t have church meetings, even for coffee.  (What’s painful is when a friend realizes that being with her/him is a ‘church meeting’ and not just a friendly date.)
  • The times women, in particular, would share intimate details about their fertility cycles, hot flashes, sex problems, relationship woes, marriage crises, affairs, and various addiction disorders and assume that we were best friends.  I might disclose a much less intimate detail about my life like “I have a doctor’s appointment Tuesday” or “I’m going to the beach for vacation” or “I once dated a guy named Ricardo” and my friend didn’t notice that my details were not comparable to her details.

When I married my husband, after four years being The Single Pastor, one or two young women in the congregation were resentful that this guy had taken their best friend away.  I remember one woman saying, “We used to go out to lunch all the time before you got married and now you don’t have time for me.”  In truth, we had met for lunch once to discuss VBS curriculum.

Obviously I needed stronger boundaries. 

As the first woman pastor in my first and second calls, there were no models for clergywomen relationships with female parishioners.  For generations the male pastor had been a father figure or even somebody to crush on from the pews.  (another boundary problem)  But when they shared intimate things with me, I seemed to be The Holy Girlfriend who could hear about failed birth control and then pray about it over a cup of coffee. 

I honestly had good friends in the congregations I served.  But I never shared specifics about most things in my life, especially my marriage, my sex life, my personal health issues, my legal worries, or my financial situation – which are common topics with many parishioners.  I was occasionally told that I’m so easy to talk with “it’s like talking with a girlfriend.”  But I’m the girlfriend who is your spiritual leader, who will marry you and bury you, who will sit with you before the mastectomy and after the liver biopsy.  I’m the one who is trying to equip you to be a spiritual leader too. 

And we might be very close, but I can’t be your best friend.  It would be a boundary problem.

So, clergywomen friends:  share your experiences and how you’ve learned to keep good boundaries.  Have you found girlfriends in the parish?

And female parishioners: please share your friendship experiences with women pastors.  Have your female pastors been like platonic girlfriends?

The image is Two Women in Dublin.  See more here.

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4 responses to “Pastor as Platonic Girlfriend

  1. Sadly, I’m neither a clergywoman nor a female parishioner, but I have one set of anecdotes to recount: I regularly have people meet me for lunch or stop in to my office unannounced to talk (which is not a problem – in fact, it is one of my favorite parts of the job). Often at the end of the meeting, they will say, “Well, I know I should let you get back to work.” I am never quite sure how to respond. If I told them the truth, I would say, “I have been working this whole time. Meeting with you is my work.” But I think that would hurt their feelings and I am a chicken, so I don’t. Any wisdom others have on how to respond to such a situation would be much appreciated :)

    • You can say what you just said in this post. Airily say something like, “Oh, talking to people is one of my favorite parts of my job.” Honestly, when my pastor says something like that it makes me not feel bad for taking up work time. On the other hand, then you might have people extend those drop-ins to a point where you don’t get the other parts of your work done because “Well, it’s just part of his work. I can come stay as long as I want.” So be careful.

  2. My pastor is a little more than a decade older than me and her daughter is a little more than a decade older than mine (and has babysat for us). We are friends, maybe even “girlfriends” but we’re not bff’s. I don’t call her on her day off (but she might call me). I can also call the office and formally make an appointment and talk about church or receive pastoral care. The age difference is probably helpful with the complexity of the parishioner/friend relationship. We’re not quite contemporaries, so we don’t have the relationship of contemporaries, and I’m comfortable seeking her “care”. I really don’t know if that would be different if we were the same age. But also, we’re both aware of the boundaries, and that awareness gives us freedom within them. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    As you talk about some of those early situations of yours, I am reminded of a pet theory of mine about charismatic people–and I think many pastors tend to be charismatic people. I will suggest it may not be the job so much as the personality–though the vocation probably heightens the situation. I’ve had several friends I would call “charismatic” and they all have this thing where when they are with someone, they give that person absolute attention in a way that makes the recipient think the relationship is closer than the charismatic person thinks it is. They are so deeply attentive (and truly so–these are Meyers-Briggs NF’s–authenticity is primary for them), that the other person feels a level of intimacy where they don’t even realize they are disclosing many more details than the charismatic person. One friend was a maid of honor at least 13 times. All 13 of those people would have called her their best friend. She didn’t have 13 best friends. And people would get hurt occasionally when they realized that. It doesn’t occur to the charismatic people because they were just being who they are. So some of this may be inherent in the personality and heightened by the vocation. I’m not sure what my point is except that maybe the pastor who has this “charisma” has a responsibility to be aware of it. It’s a great gift.

    Sorry this comment got so long. It’s a phenomenon I’ve been watching for awhile, and you gave me an opening to spout it. :)

    –Wendy

  3. I was thinking yesterday morning (as I did my deep water run) about your post. I was thinking about the intimate details women shared with me that I doubt they would have shared with their male pastor, some I really wished they hadn’t. Especially the infidelity stories. Never quite got used to those.

    I didn’t form any relationships in the congregation that I found difficult to end when my call there ended. There were a couple of collegial relationships that I missed for a time, But I was not girlfriends with anyone there. My friends are all outside the church.

    I remember a conversation I had with a parishioner a few months before it became obvious that my time there was ending. She’d had a surgery that was going to have a normal, but complicated recovery. I called her house the day after she got home from the hospital (which was the day I found out about the surgery) I asked if there was anything I could do for her, if she needed a meal delivered or any errands run. I prayed for her on the phone. Months later she told me how odd she’d found it that I would have made that phone call, “After all, we’re not friends.” she said. I replied, “But I’m your pastor,” I said. ” I care about you and wanted to know how you were.” It just didn’t seem to her to be what pastors did.

    This story always reminds me how blurry those lines can be, even when people aren’t trying to make it complicated.

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