- 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.