Kat Banakis wrote in the July 24, 2013 issue of The Christian Century about being alone among friends. It’s an interesting topic, and one that I think about from time to time. It’s often been said that pastors cannot be friends with the members of their congregations. They may know them well, even socialize with them, some more than others, but the very job of pastor inhibits close friendship.
I suppose there are many reasons for that. The danger of forming a select, exclusive, inner circle of confidants is a big one. It can suck the life right out of an otherwise healthy church. The pastor-parishioner relationship is another, in the same way that physicians can seldom become friends with their patients. Yet these are the people we know best, spend the most time with. In fact, so much time that it often leaves little for socializing in any other setting. Even in our contemporary world of openness and informality, there remains an aura of religious mystique that clings to ordained clergy and tends to separate them from the rest. Especially in small towns, one’s label as a pastor, even a retired one, can create a barrier, a permeable one to be sure, but a barrier just the same, to friendships outside church. Telling a group sitting around having an after work beer that you are a priest is a sure way to silence conversation. I suppose friendship with other clergy is always a possibility, if there are any other clergy, and if those present are acceptable candidates for friendship. It’s always problematic.
All of that aside, what I’ve observed about close friendship among males is that they are often rooted in long relationships that have endured over many years, sometimes from childhood. But there is more. They also share a fondness for certain activities: golf, fishing, football, gin rummy, something to do or watch, frequently involving sports. Some have been forged in crucibles of combat, firefighting, police work, etc., where it isn’t just teamwork that counts, but the crucial knowledge that your buddy has your back and won’t let you down. Close friendships such as these, at least among males, are not the same as casual friendships in which conversation is limited to superficialities, and time together often falls under the heading of social or business obligation.
Speaking only for myself, I’m not sure that I have a really close friend, although I have casual friends and acquaintances. I haven’t shared many of the things that lead to rootedness in close friendship. Maybe it has something to do with all those introvert scores I get on various personality instruments. My casual friends and acquaintances are people I respect, enjoy being with, and who seem to value what I can offer in our work together. We see each other at community events, and socialize together in a cocktail party sort of way, but it would be hard to call that close friendship. As with many others, I live far away from where I grew up, and any childhood friends I once had have been left far behind.
I can play golf, but don’t. Football and hockey are favorite sports to watch, but I don’t go nuts over them. Gin rummy and Bridge never tickled my fancy, or any other part of me. What feeds me is to relax with a few others over a beverage of one’s choice to talk about politics, economics, theology, social issues, contemporary events, travel, the world, and stuff like that. There is really not much call for that anymore. Maybe there never was.
So the idea of being alone among friends is a familiar one to me, and, I suspect, to more than a few other (male?) clergy as well. It is not an uncomfortable place to be, but now and then I wonder what it would be like to have close friends, old friends, best friends.