Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pastor or Buddy?

When my oldest son was still a young rug rat, I used to sometimes take him into my office and let him climb on the furniture. At the time I was an insurance agent for Farmers Insurance. Of course, I would occassionally stop working to bounce him on my knee or play ticklemonster, then I would return to my paperwork and he would go back to playing on the floor. This became an annoyance to the man in the next office who, although we were separated a door, didn't like the idea of me bringing my son to the office. One day he pulled me into his office to give me a tip for success in parenting. He told me, "Brett, that boy is your son, not your buddy. You should be a father to him not a friend." Well, I was slightly offended by his intrusion into my personal life, but I blew it off as the rantings of a cantankerous old man.

I've begun to wonder recently if I shouldn't take some of that advice in my capacity as pastor of our congregation. I have the kind of personality to seeks to be friendly with others, especially those in my congregation. I thought this would make the parishoners more apt to take me into their confidence and give me the opportunity to minister to them. In fact, I have recently found out that it has had the opposite effect. I had someone tell me that, because they considered me a friend, they were reluctant to come to me and share details of their personal life for which they felt guilty.

Now I like to have friends. And there are people in my congregation that I consider to be dear friends, but I can see now that our relationship as friends may have hindered me from serving them as pastor. Given the choice between the two, I would definitely choose the latter. After all, I am called to be a pastor first and foremost and nothing should get in the way of that.

Of course, there is a natural reluctance in people to open up and confess their darkest secrets. The sinful nature loves the darkness. We want to hide our sins away because in our vanity we want people to think the best of us. If it means suffering under the horrible weight of guilt and condemnation, so be it. Such is our desire for self justification. That desire is magnified when you want someone to think well of you because they are your friend.

But a pastor is not primarily a friend, at least not as we typically think of it. The pastor is not your pal or buddy. The pastor is your pastor. He is your soul doctor, your seelsorge. Most people have no reluctance at all when it comes to seeing their doctor and submitting to a physical examination, even if the doctor is someone of the opposite sex. If a friend, even a close friend, asked you to drop your drawers and turn around, most of us would end that relationship pretty quickly, but a doctor tells us to do it and we obey because he is a professional. Nothing is too personal. In consulting with our doctors we will tell of behavior that we would admit to no one else in order for them to get to the bottom, no pun intended, of our problem.

So it is with a pastor. The pastor is a professional who is there to handle your problem, sin, and its side effects, guilt and shame. He is there to administer the God given healing, absolution. People should see their pastor as their soul doctor. They need to know that we keep these things in the strictest of confidence. In fact, we take a vow at ordination never to divulge the secrets confessed to us. People carry around a tremendous amount of guilt because they can't rouse up the courage to avail themselves of God's antidote. What a pity.

Also, the pastor is not there to be a counselor. Often people come wanting advice, or wanting an ear to bend. At times they will pour out their hearts. In those moments a pastor should be ready to move them to confession and absolution. A parishoner may not even be looking for it, but the pastor should know when absolution is necessary.

Am I alone in thinking this? How many of you pastors have had a similar experience? How many lay people have been reluctant to share their intimate problems with their pastor? I fear it's too many. God grant that pastors may act in an appropriate way toward their parishoners. After all, we are called to be pastors, not pals. We cannot alleviate the guilt of sin with a friendly disposition. God grant that parishoners would see their pastors in an appropriate light and have the confidence to seek them out for Divine mercy. When you feel the weight of sin and desire certain forgiveness, your pastor is there to hear and absolve you.


Favorite Apron said...

I can see how this can be a problem. It's because we're all getting older. You are the first pastor we've had who is of the same generation.

I think this is also a good reason for pastors to wear collars all the time -- it creates some distance.

A friend who changes your name in the newsletter from Pastor Brett to Pastor Cornelius.

Joe Greene said...

I think there's room for both. Obviously Pastor and Father Confessor first but that shouldn't mean we can't watch the game and have a few beers.


Pastor Brett Cornelius said...

Joe, you had me at beers!

Pastor Brett Cornelius said...

Polly, I appreciate your editing and am glad to be your pastor and friend.

Susan said...

Pr Fenton told me nine years ago that I needed a father-confessor that wasn't my husband. He was right. It's been a blessing to have someone that I don't eat with, sleep with, spank kids with, drive with, vacation with, etc etc.

I knew intellectually when I started going to my father-confessor that it would mean he could no longer be my friend. But it took at least a year before I realized how very true it was. And I miss having him as a friend. Sometimes I wish I could be friends with him. But never would I give up having him as PASTOR to replace it with friendship. That doesn't mean that pastors can't watch a game and have a beer with parishioners. But somehow, it's different for the pastors with his "friends" than with his parishioners, and it's somehow different for the parishioners with their "friends" than with their pastor.

My pastor also pointed out to me a year or so ago the importance of some of the rituals associated with private confession. The lit candles, the vestments, the particular place in the chancel, the Bible readings, the pastor's prayers before and after -- these all set the pastor/penitent relationship in its proper place and separate it from any outside relationship between the two people (such as being an employee or fellow Buckeye fan or member of the same homeschool co-op).