Pastors are not supposed to have favorites in the congregation. It’s a universal rule, but not always easy to follow.
When pastors break this rule, the effect is similar to that produced when the parents of four children regularly show special favor to one of them, or the schoolteacher shows such favor to one student that class members call that student “the teacher’s pet”.
The rule is broken when pastor and spouse single out one particular couple for special time and attention. They may be at one another’s home often, eat together frequently, or even go camping together in the summer time.
Though some members may not care, this special closeness doesn’t sit well with other members of the congregation. It makes some who are not chosen for this favor feel like second-class citizens, as if they don’t rate at the same level.
Those who disapprove of such chumminess may be called immature or jealous and may be ignored. Their opponents might ask, don’t pastors have a right to have friends too?
But there is a legitimate and crucial pastoral principle violated by such selective closeness. It is that he or she must be seen as pastor of all the people at all times. Some members may be more likeable than others but all members are equally deserving of the pastor’s love and pastoral care.
The rule doesn’t mean pastors must dole out attention with precision, like a pharmacist counting out pills. When a family has a crisis — a member is hospitalized with a serious illness, someone loses a job, a wayward child is causing distress — that family will naturally receive special pastoral attention to see them through their particular crisis.
The pastor may even give special attention for a time to newcomers to the congregation or to new converts. Mature members will understand the reason for this attention.
It’s the special attention meted out for nothing other than socially personal reasons that needs to be seen as inappropriate for wholesome pastoral care. Pastoral tenure at a church has sometimes been shortened by pastors’ lack of awareness in this regard.
Still, you may say, this kind of constraint is unfair because pastors need close friendships, just like anyone else.
Many years ago I heard the late Rev. Robert Fine address this question in a minister’s gathering. He proposed that pastoral couples with need for closeness with special friends might develop a friendship with another denomination’s pastoral couple in the community. Even then, the association should be discreet, not time consuming.
Although this counsel may seem severe, remember that it is a pastoral gift to project love and interest toward the whole flock without favoritism, and to sense needs and be motivated to serve them equally across the congregation.
The rule to work with is clear, and any pastor can measure himself or herself against it: “Am I equally pastoral to all of the people, all of the time?” If the answer is yes, love for the Lord and wisdom in caring for the whole flock will take it from there.