To keep healthy boundaries with those in our congregations, we clergy have been admonished to “have friendships outside the church.” An important life component, to be sure, but adding “make some friends” may not make it into the clergy schedule this week, or next week either. Are there extra challenges for the single clergy woman seeking outside-the-church friendships? Are there particular considerations when women clergy make friends with each other? And what about the power dynamic if one is a judicatory official?
My question is about clergy friendships and boundaries, with a twist. As much as we’ve all been warned to observe healthy clergy boundaries regarding friendships with parishioners, what about the impact of a friendship between a clergy colleague and a middle judicatory official (MJO)?
[** Middle judicatory official is synod official, conference minister, association minister, district superintendent, trustee of the district, etc.]
The MJO became a member of “Rev. A’s” congregation and she gets together with the MJO socially on a regular basis. There is the definite appearance of some preferential treatment of how Rev. A and members of her congregation are “positioned” in the area/conference/synod/district with regard to special assignments and opportunities.
Most recently, a clergy colleague confessed to me that she had attempted to get advice from the judicatory (area/conference/synod/district) regarding Rev. A’s regular presence among her new congregation, which is Rev. A’s former congregation. The MJO “recused” herself from supporting this new-ish clergy on the basis that she is friends with Rev. A. The sticky situation was passed to another staff person who has a longer history with Rev. A than with this newer pastor in the area/conference/synod/district. The new pastor was dismissed as being overly sensitive with the “reassurance” that Rev A is a “seasoned professional” and “would never” do anything to hurt her former congregation.
The MJO and Rev. A are both single clergywomen. As much as I am supportive of keeping good boundaries, I can also see how much these two clergywomen have in common.
As a single clergywoman myself, I do wonder about the impact on single clergywomen in particular of the expectation that we avoid friendships within church circles.
- Do the benefits of church-based friendships justify the potential pitfalls?
- Are there ways to prevent those consequences?
- Big picture: What specific things can we clergy/the wider Church do to better support/challenge clergy to remain professional in forming satisfying friendships?
I look forward to your responses!
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Two of us Matriarchs waded into this one.
Kelley Wehmeyer Shin:
These type of complicated relationships remind me that as clergy we constantly have to take an objective look at our boundaries in light of our role. Because the Body of Christ is connected on many levels in the governance of the church, both clergy and judicatory have to act in accordance with the best interest of the whole people not just individuals.
In this situation the judicatory was not available in a healthy way for the other clergy who had a concern.
Does this mean that clergy should work hard to develop friendships outside of the circle of clergy and judicatory? Yes. Does this mean that clergy and judicatory can never be friends? Of course not. But as with all relationships there must be real and healthy boundaries professionally.
Sharon Mack Temple:
I appreciate the important observation that the boundary requirements seem to hit clergy women harder. My take on that: We crashed the long-established “good ole boys” party about the same time that appropriate boundaries were recognized as a ministry essential. I have observed that male ministers continued to “network” in the old, often dysfunctional (harmful) ways, racking up friendships and “important” connections, feeding the patriarchy, without obvious (open, shared) self-reflection or accountability, likely oblivious to the damage.
Don’t be like that. Resist the temptation to play along to get along or get ahead or feel better. We have the choice/opportunity to approach ministry as accountable professionals.
I affirm Kelley’s remedy: to attend to the work of maintaining healthy professional boundaries. That might mean that some friendships cannot be made. That might mean a MJO chooses not to join the church of a pastor friend. That might mean that the pastor recognizes and gently refuses a situation tinged *with the appearance* of favored treatment.
Because many of us were (and are — still!) the first woman our congregation has called, we have a unique opportunity to help the congregation re-vision ministry to be more professional and life-giving for pastor, for parishioners, and even for the wider church.
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Now it’s your turn, dear reader:
- How healthy are your friendships — for you, for your church, for your colleagues? and for your ?
- Have you found it challenging to form/keep friendships?
- What could keep clergy-clergy friendships healthy, especially when there is a power dynamic?
- What advice would you give a new-ish clergy woman who is trying to figure this out?
Please respond below with your advice and encouragement.
Are you facing a tough challenge that you would benefit from some Matriarch wisdom? Send your scenario to AskTheMatriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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