Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Friendship of a Pastor

By David Horn, ThD
Director, The Ockenga Institute
It is quite amazing the things you realize at a funeral. There we all were, almost three hundred friends and family members, all of us there to honor my father who had just passed away a couple of days earlier. They came from all over the Midwest. The older folks, representing his five full-time and several interim pastorates sitting in the front rows to hear better, were the most conspicuous.
We laid my father to rest, and in doing so, we were really laying to rest sixty years of faithful ministry. It was my task to eulogize him for the family. As I looked out over the mourners that day, and particularly those tired souls in the front rows, I couldn’t help but think of the kinds of relationships that were being represented there before me.
How had they perceived my father? There my father was before us, first, seen through the eyes of a wife, certainly the most intimate of the relationships being represented. And, then, there were the four grown boys, less intimate but equally loving. There were four daughters-in-law. How did daughters tethered to this man all these years out of marital pledge rather than blood kinship view this man and his life? There were plenty of nephews and nieces who largely saw him past his prime. There were only a few of his peers left who observed him in his prime—no siblings, but a few brother and sister-in-laws. And finally, with the exception of the church custodian and the ladies who served lunch that day, all of the rest sitting there saw this man through the lens of his ministry amongst them as their one time pastor.
Of this latter group, I couldn’t help thinking of one of dad’s most memorable sayings while I was growing up: “My best friends are ex-parishioners.” Certainly he never made this little adage public, but there was something in dad’s past that always made him wary of getting too close to those he served. Perhaps it was a piece of pastoral wisdom that he learned in his seminary days from the forties.
Whatever it was, in hindsight I think this self-imposed ministerial convention left my dad privately lonely. Publicly, no one would have guessed it. Dad was a big, gregarious man. Our home was a big, hospitable place. Our family life was cluttered with people from all walks of life. Dad’s life was filled with relationships, but at the end of the day, few of those relationships could easily fall under the category of friendship, narrowly defined. Most of his friends sat outside the church door, at least of the church he was currently serving. Only when he left a church would he express friendship openly to certain special people.
The wisdom of this little saying of dad’s can easily be disputed? Is it wise for pastors to nurture friendships within their own congregations? If not, are pastors, then, doomed to a life of solitude? Aside for his or her family, where else is the source of community for those who are to oversee community to come from? What was dad so fearful of? And, what advice should young pastors be given as they enter into a profession that is enormously challenging, potentially filled with conflict, and often lonely?

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