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When a Pastor Leaves a Church Should He Unfriend All Parishioners?

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In last week’s Church Social Media chat #ChSocM, we talked about professional and personal boundaries in social media. (full transcript)

Rev. Canon Dan Webster (@RevWeb), a Episcopal priest in Baltimore, MD is a big advocate of ministers connecting with parishioners in social media and tweeted:

Friend as many parishioners as possible. Use it to inform/enlighten/build community.

The conversation progress to discussing what a minister should do when leaving a congregation. In that case Rev. Webster tweeted:

If a pastor/employee leaves parish, unfriend former parishioners. When you leave; u leave. I did 2 yrs ago when I left my parish.

I responded:

Why unfriend them? Are some of them not true friends?

To which Rev. Webster replied:

Only reason I met my parishioners was as their pastor; not their friend. Heard their confessions on fb. I WAS their priest.

I believe our difference of opinion about what to do when a minister leaves a church stems from different understandings concerning the relationship between ministers and laypersons.

Rev. Webster seems to view his role as priest as being purely professional. He’s not there to be anyone’s friend, but rather to perform services for them. In that context, when the professional relationship is over, the relationship is over.

My view of minister/layperson relationships comes from observing the way Jesus related to his disciples. Jesus did not separate himself from disciples. Not only did he teach them, but he also lived with them, ate with them and did everything else with them. This was not merely a professional relationship. He loved them and they loved him.

Shortly before his death, Jesus said to his disciples:

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. –John 15:15

If Jesus was a friend to his disciples, shouldn’t today’s ministers be a friend to their disciples as well?

I do think that when a minister leaves a congregation, the relationship with people in the congregation will change. He or she also needs to be careful not to undermine the leadership of the new minister. But a mass unfriending on Facebook?

What do you think?

If you’re a minister and have been through a transition in the Facebook era, what did you do and what did you learn from the experience?

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    Paul Steinbrueck

    Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck.


    • What a good question. I think that you treat it a lot like you would high school friends or friends from the past on Facebook. What I mean by that is, that maybe you are friends with some people when you first got on Facebook, but your don't really ever talk, post, or anything else. What is the harm in deleting them from your friends? You are not saying that you dislike them, you are just saying that, that relationship was apart of a different season in your life. For the question at hand, I would think you would treat it like this. One shouldn't go on a massive "delete friends" tour, but as time progresses, maybe you look at who you really talk to, or who you want to follow and go with it.

      fun question to think about. Thanks for the post.

      • Jonathan, that seems pretty reasonable to me. Over time you might find that there really isn't much of a friendship with many of the parishioners. Sometimes a pastor is just a pastor, or a teammate, or an acquaintance who you crossed paths with once a week in the church building. But for others there's a stronger personal bond.

    • I think there's probably some of both. As a church staff person I make it a rule to always accept friend requests from members of the congregation (and use the friend group privacy settings to no allow them open access to everything). Most of my closest friends (at least the ones that live near me) are also members of the congregation, as are many relatives. If I were to leave the staff I'd be keeping some members as FB friends and unfriending others.

      I can't really comprehend a pastor who is not truly real-life friends with at least some members of the congregation. Doesn't sound like the sort of place I'd like to belong.

    • I was rather surprised by the turn that particular #chsocm chat took and how individuals segment or integrate their lives. We all travel in many circles – family, neighborhood, work, church, school, online and off. Our interactions and connections in each of those circles needs to be genuine.

      By establishing a connection with someone (a pastor) in one of your circles (church) and then establishing a connection with that same person in another of your circles (Facebook), your total relationship with that person has moved to another level and is not tied to just one of those circles. Even in a strictly professional environment, past relationships are not severed and erased from history when moving from one employer to another.

      The closest I can come to placing myself in the same situation is with my children – my role is as their father, not their friend. Yet, there is a special relationship between us that extends beyond what I can do for them and their survival. But, there is nothing that can sever that relationship – I will always be their father. So, maybe not the same.

      I would venture to say that people using social media are not so much interested in what professional services you will offer, but in what personal insights and support you can share, outside of your professional office.

    • Wow. Really? Surprising.

      It's like moving on from one job to another outside of the church and de-friending people or clients you worked with. Who'd do that?

    • I am in my forth pastorate, pastored for forty one years, twenty one at current. I still have and love friends I love and communicate with from each of the four churches. I will enjoy greater friendship in Heaven.


      • Wes, would you care to elaborate? I'm certainly not trying to misrepresent Rev Webster in this matter.

    • My husband and I left onechurch to another, but we remaied friends with many of the Parishoners. I see our services to them and thecommunity just as Jesus would. When a minister of the gospel cuts himself off from folk past or present its too detached- where is the love, compassion, endearement and good sense? Now my husband is deceased but I continue the work as a counselor ,guide, friend, teacher to those we left to the present- Its a wonderful treat to touch them and they touch me. Now that my husband is not here- they have been marvelous. The time when a pastor should isolate himself or herself is when there is a scandal or improprieties- What about praying for each family their needs and all that concerns them- Apostle Paul touched many lives but was also touched by many read his record and greetings callingnames of those who helped him – I wouldratherbelikePaul or Jesus in these precious matters ofthe heart and soul.

    • I have several reactions to this story. First, as a pastor myself, I cannot imagine leaving the group of people that God has called me to pastor for another congregation. I think these moves often have less to do with following God and more to do with following a paycheck. I'm not saying that they're never legitimate, just that I have a lot of doubts about them.

      That being said, I'm Baptist (and therefore more of a "free agent"), but I realize that many pastors in other denominations don't have as much of a choice in the matter of staying with or leaving one church for another.

      I can sort of understand where the priest was coming from. Being a pastor is a lot more than simply being friends with people. I have been granted such amazing privileges to minister to people in their deepest sorrows and greatest joys. I've been able to come alongside them, speak words of comfort, challenge, and sometimes ask extremely pointed questions that they didn't want me to as them. I'm great friends with many of the people in my church, but if I were called away to minister to another church, the relationship with my previous church must change.

      I think one of the main reasons my relationships with members of the previous church would have to change would be the fact that they would soon have a new pastor of their own. If they still had access to me, then who would they turn to when they had a challenge in life? Probably not the new minister, who they've not given a chance yet to build strong relationships with. They would probably turn to me. This isn't fair to anyone involved in the situation.

      I'm not saying I would unfriend everyone. Hopefully I'm never in the position that I would need to find out, because I fully intend on staying exactly where I am my entire pastorate life (and believe God is leading me to do this). I am saying, however, that the issue is a lot more complex than saying, "Can't we still be friends?"

    • I stumbled across these comments while looking for resources on leave-taking in a church. I am the Minister of Music (not the "pastor") – however, I will be leaving my church of 25+ years in the next year or so, and I am really interested in this question.

      I think the answers depend on the people you are talking about. Some of the people in this church I am true friends with: we raised our children together, shared our lives, etc. Others I pastor (or minister) to in the times of their lives when they need music. Others, like most of the choir, are my "team."

      So I think – it depends. Does your friendship limit the relationship of this person to the NEW pastor (or choir director, or whomever)? Does it keep them from appropriately turning to them for the pastoral needs of their lives? If so, then that relationship needs to be curtailed. If not, then keep being friends.

      Everyone needs to have friends that are outside of their church, especially staff.