Friendly, But Not Your Friend
Note: Rev. Dawn's sermon refers to a Message for All Ages, the chldren's book Rosie and Michael by Judith Viorst. We recommend using the reading provided, below.
Edited from the 2000 Berry Street Lecture, "After Running Through the Thistles: the Hard Part Begins," by the Rev. Dr. Mark D. Morrison-Reed
The baptismal font was older than the building. It had accompanied the First Unitarian Society of Chicago when the congregation moved south to Hyde Park. The years had dulled the white marble. At age four I stood next to that font waiting with anticipation. Beside me was my brother. We were wearing matching plaid sports jackets. Behind us our baby sister squirmed in Dad’s arms. The minister, Leslie Pennington, had white hair, wore a black robe and when he said, "Name this child,” both of my parents said, "Mark Douglas Reed.” The minister reached into the font. Then as he touched my forehead with a drop of water he repeated my name. I felt he was sort of like God....Returning to Chicago at age 25, a vagabond entering Meadville/Lombard, I discovered the congregation was excited about my decision to enter the ministry. My marriage and ordination, my mother’s and sister’s memorial services were all held within that living community. As the Christmas Candlelight and the Flower Communion services marked the cycle of the year, these rites of passage marked the cycle that is my life.
I am at home among these people in this liberal religious movement. It is a place where I was nurtured, and because I was nurtured I grew; having grown, I could give, and having given I grew more. It is a place where struggling, I could fail; where failing, I was still loved, where loved, I could begin again. It is a place where in pain I could go; where, having gone, I was cared for; where cared for, I could heal and go on. That is why I am a minister, to help sustain religious communities - places like the one in which I grew up, places made holy by what people experience within them - the seasons of their lives and the healing of their souls.
The power of community is enormous and I have lived my entire life in its embrace. It is why I entered the ministry. I believe the liberal church is worth devoting a life to—my life, in fact.
My years as a congregant did not prepare me, however, for a cruel irony. Ministry...is a source of unrequited grief. I regret having not read the fine print. If I had, perhaps I would have made another choice. But the print was very small, the phrasing paradoxical, while I was young and eager. This is what it said:
You will love your parishioners with all your heart but never befriend them.
You will pour out your lifeblood for the community but never settle there.
You shall die to the congregation so that the ministry might live.
Friends are so important, aren’t they? Not the social media version of friendship, where you might follow someone’s postings and occasionally comment on what the other person has posted. While that might lead to real friendship, I’m talking about friendship as two people who care about each other, who trust each other and who mutually support each other. As we heard in our message for all ages, friends are there for us— they remember things about us, they tell us we look great, they support us. Friends celebrate with us when we are happy. They cry with us when we are sad. I know when I have something big, good or bad, the first people I want to connect with are my friends. And we do the same for them, right? We’re there for them in the good and the bad, the ups and the downs.
Which might make what I am about to say seem a bit strange or off-topic. And I hope that at this point, you trust me enough to know that I speak this truth to you in love: your minister is not, cannot be, your friend.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean we ministers are not friendly, or that we don’t care deeply about you. We are, and we do! But there are some important differences between what it means to be your minister and what it means to be your friend that I want to talk about—especially since so many of you have kindly reached out and extended your friendship to me.
In a lot of ways, your minister looks like your friend. Hopefully you know that your minister cares about you. And, hopefully, you care about your minister. And there is definitely a deep degree of trust and support between a congregant and their minister. The kicker is that the relationship should not be reciprocal: As much as your minister will care about you, you should not be a part of your minister’s emotional support network.
In our message for all ages, Michael calls Rosie when his parakeet died and when he got hit in the head and the blood came gushing out. And Rosie called Michael when her dog ran away and when her bike got swiped. This is mutual support, it is the reciprocity that comes with friendship. And while you can call your minister at times like this, your minister should have their own support network for when things like this happen to them (to us).
Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed summed it up beautifully in his Berry Street Lecture in 2000, which we heard an excerpt of in our reading a few minutes ago. Speaking to other ministers, Rev. Mark said:
You will love your parishioners with all your heart but never befriend them. You will pour out your lifeblood for the community but never settle there. You shall die to the congregation so that the ministry might live.
And then later in the essay, he continues:
The relationship of minister and parishioner has the qualities of a friendship, but no matter how warm and deep, [and authentic] the relationship is it is not a sustainable friendship. Why? Because it is built upon an unavoidable imbalance—the minister is always more responsible for the relationship. When necessary we must be prepared to forsake the role of friend for that of minister, and ready to choose the well being of the community over the needs of the friend. We are not as free to share all aspects of our lives and ourselves. Nor can we make friends with whom we please, for that would create two classes of parishioners—the chosen and the not. Finally, when our ministries come to an end so must the relationships, lest we take up space the next ministry needs if it is to take root.
There is a lot in what Rev. Mark wrote. Having loved and served and left a congregation as a settled minister, I can tell you that this is hard work, that keeping these boundaries is not always clear, or easy. And I can tell you that good ministers share so deeply and authentically with congregants that it may feel like a deeper “friendship” than some people know in other areas of their lives. But it is essential for the long term health of the congregation and of future ministries that a minister maintain healthy boundaries such that this relationship will alway be differentiated from a true friendship. So let’s unpack those five assertions Rev. Mark makes a bit more.
First, he says that “when necessary [ministers] must be prepared to forsake the role of friend for that of minister.” There may come a time when you need your minister. It may be that you need us to show up for you at jail and you are too mortified to call your friends. It may be that you need us to hear a confession that you cannot make to anyone else. It may be that you are going through an existential crisis and feel like you have worn out all your “other” friends but you know your minister will be there for you. Or it may be that you are engaging in something immoral and unethical, the sort of thing a friend might not call you on, but a minister will. Sometimes, you need your minister to speak the truth in love to you in a way a friend often won’t, for fear of damaging the friendship. And sometimes, you just need your minister.
Second, Rev. Mark says that [ministers] must be “ready to choose the well being of the community over the needs of the friend.” This particularly comes into play when congregants are in conflict and the minister needs to remain neutral. For example, if you and your spouse are going through a divorce, if the minister is your friend, then the minister is not going to be able to minister to your soon-to-be-ex—who may really need their minister! Or flip the tables: how would you feel if your minister was friends with your soon-to-be-ex? Would you be able to go to the minister and trust they would be able to be there for you? Another example where this comes up is when there are policy disagreements in a congregation, when a minister needs to be relied upon to put the congregation first, not their friendship with someone who may be a part of the disagreement. For a minister, the congregation must always come first.
Third, Rev. Mark shares that ministers “are not as free to share all aspects of our lives and ourselves.” This is part of the way the relationship between minister and congregant is not really reciprocal. Friends are people you can kvetch to about your job, about the people you work with. That would not be healthy for a minister to do in a congregation. Friends are also people you can go to with problems in your relationships—also not appropriate to bring to congregants and can even be harmful to them. This doesn’t mean ministers can’t share some aspects of our lives—we can, and we do, but the disclosure must be appropriate and not harm someone else in the sharing. We must always bear in mind that anything we share be appropriate for the entire congregation to hear.
Fourth, Rev. Mark points out that if we did make friends in the congregation, “that would create two classes of parishioners: the chosen and the not.” I’ve seen multiple congregations where a former minister would go on vacation with parishioners they had developed “friendships” with. This often left others in the congregation wondering why they didn’t get that special treatment. Or if those “friends” got a new leadership position, others would assume it was because they were close with the minister, not because of that person's qualifications. This can cause deep divisions in a congregation. It can cause a lack of trust, in other congregants, in the minister, and even in the ministry of the congregation.
Finally, as Rev. Mark wisely reflects, “when our ministries come to an end so must the relationships, lest we take up space the next ministry needs if it is to take root.” Ministry is a role we fill for a community—and when we leave, another person comes to fill that role. Going back to the example of a minister who would go on vacation with parishioners—having been in this situation myself, where I was the new minister and I had congregants who would go on vacation with a former minister—I wondered things like, “Do they talk about me and my ministry when they are together?” and “Who will they call if they have a crisis?” and “Is my colleague actively trying to undermine my ministry?” These are not fun things to wonder about, nor are they healthy or productive ways for the new minister to spend their energy. Rev. Mark shares that “one new minister found he had to call the minister who had been there before his immediate predecessor to really find out what was going on in [the] congregation.” Trust me, this neither feels good, nor is it healthy. When we leave, we must leave so that another can fill this important role.
For all of these reasons, Unitarian Universalist ministers have enshrined these convictions in the covenant that we ministers promise to uphold: a covenant that is contained in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry. One of the items that we UU ministers have sworn to abide by is the ethical standard that we will not “use those [we] serve to meet [our] own ...personal emotional needs that [instead] should be met through family, friends, therapy, self-care or in other ways.” And in the Expectations of Conduct section, we covenant to support the well-being of the congregation and it’s future ministry in our leaving process and after we have left a ministry. In fact, there is a whole section about how we are supposed to leave a congregation in such a way that will benefit future ministries. These are not merely suggestions, but guidelines, ethical standards and codes of conduct that we promise to uphold for the sake of the greater, larger ministry.
Many congregants have reached out to me with love, offering a listening ear for me to process how my ministry is going. Some have reached out with offers of emotional support. This is my very long way of saying “No, thank you” to those kind invitations. I’ll happily say yes to invitations to get to know me, your minister, but not on offers to be my friend. I hope you understand it isn’t because I don’t care or am ungrateful that I say no—in fact, it is the exact opposite. I care deeply about you and about this congregation and want you to be healthy and thriving for your next ministry, and the one after that, and the one after that. One of the ways I can help you move in this direction is to maintain healthy boundaries and be clear about how I am your minister, but cannot be your friend.
Ministers are usually pretty friendly. And when we speak our truths authentically, you can get to know us really well. And you can count us to be there for you when things are hard: to laugh with you, and to cry with you. But it is our responsibility, as clergy, to get our emotional needs met elsewhere: in our relationships with colleagues, our families, and our friends. That doesn’t mean we don’t love you—we do. I do. And because we love you, we choose to serve as your minister, not be your friend.