Post Author: Sarah Weisiger
Tucked among the many things my seminary education neglected to mention was the truth that ministry is, more often than not, a ministry of presence in a particular place. When we are called to serve a congregation, more often than not, we must choose to leave behind a community and a neighborhood in order to make a home in a new place. This mobile lifestyle poses a quandary: when all of our neighbors are church members (or potential members), how do we develop authentic friendships? How do young clergy women make the distinction between who is a friend and who isn’t? Does that distinction matter?
In the small church ministry to which I have been called, this question is alive and real. I serve a small church in the middle of a quaint borough in the heart of a once-rural county oozing with character and history. There are only a thousand people who live here with me, and because we are the only church in our borough, there are many folks who see my role as the de-facto pastor of everyone, not just the folks who warm the pews. Because of this expectation, when people I barely know see me on the street, they call me pastor, vicar, or chaplain. What they don’t call me is neighbor.
When everyone is my parishioner, and nobody is simply my neighbor, ministry can get lonely. I begin to feel that the ministry of presence in a particular place is a vocation to live a guarded life, one marked by sidelong glances–and checked, rechecked, and hedged conversation–because who know who might be listening?
Because of the complicated nature of this role as pastor of the borough, that I thank God daily for my neighbor Penny.
Penny and her partner Chuck moved into the neighborhood not long after I did. They snapped up one of the most beautiful little houses in our town, a gorgeously maintained Victorian in the heart of the borough with plenty of room to grow. “Grandma’s house,” Penny calls it fondly. Back then, I didn’t know her, so when she invited me to her house for a community house blessing, I put my pastor pants on and prepared to meet a potential new member of the church. The last thing I expected was to meet a spiritual friend.
Throughout the history of the church, spiritual friendship has been celebrated as a gift and a blessing for the people of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, a young king David was companioned by his dear friend Jonathan, who not only encouraged him in his natural gifts, but literally saved his life. Jesus travelled with a dozen or more men and women with whom he shared deep spiritual friendships, and Paul’s ministry would have stopped dead in its tracks if not for the intimate relationships he shared with men and women like Timothy, Onesimus, Tychius, Aristarchus, Junia, and more.
In my own tradition, John Calvin evinced a deep regard for the spiritual significance of friendships. Two of his closest friends, Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret, were instrumental to his ministry in Geneva. In the preface to his Commentary on Titus, Calvin writes of them:
I do not believe that there have ever been such friends who have lived together in such a deep friendship in their everyday style of life in this world as we have in our ministry. I have served here in the office of pastor with you two. There was never any appearance of envy; it seems to me that you two and I were as one person.
Penny, it turns out, is the spiritual friend I needed in my ministry in this place. It became clear not long after I passed over the threshold of her home that she had not invited me into her home as her future pastor. She invited me to be her neighbor. And while she has a deep and abiding love for the mystery that we know as God, she has zero interest in joining my church. What she was interested in was me. And for that I cannot begin to thank her enough.
Because I was willing to receive the gift that Penny is in my life, I have found myself blessed many times over—for Penny and Chuck have become a safe space for me where I can be wholly and completely the person that they have come to know as a friend. When I am with them I don’t have to worry constantly about whether I am pastoral enough; I just need to focus on being truly and authentically myself. I can simply bask in the God-given gift that friendship is, confident that my relationship with Penny makes me a stronger, more faithful person because our friendship helps to ground me—not in my vocation as pastor, but in my identity as a Child of God.
As pastors, we all need a Penny. We need someone with whom we can share a relationship that isn’t complicated by this odd and wondrous calling we have answered. We need friends who can encourage us, keep us honest, lift us up when we are drowning and stand behind us when we are called to do hard things. We need folks who make space for the person behind the collar, because underneath those ordination vows is a real person who needs community as much as the people who join us on Sunday mornings. May we find those people in our lives and give thanks for the gifts that they are—because a friend is truly a gift from God.
 Stauffer, Richard. The Humanness of John Calvin. Translated by George H. Shriver. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971. p 57.
Sarah Weisiger is a Presbyterian minister serving in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the current editor of this column, “Lift Up Your Hearts,” for Fidelia Magazine.
Image by: Sarah Weisiger
Used with permission