Self Disclosure and Self-Differentiation as Clergy and Leaders in the Church

Pastor Joelle and I are having a conversation about a comment I left on a blog we both read. The blogger asked a question about the “Appropriateness of Clergy/Parishioner Friendship.” The concern centered around being an authentic transparent leader while understanding how much self-revelation was appropriate and when was it too much?

I responded on the blog with this:

1.Don’t share anything that would make congregational members think they need to take care of you.

2. That said, there are occasions when the congregation should care about you and show it, such as – when you’ve been really sick/hospitalized or are on maternity leave, have a chronically ill child or are taking care of aging parents or have had a death in the family.

3. They should not be care-taking for you over every day things and stresses like parenting, other parishioners, issues related to running the church, your marriage – you need a clergy support group, a spiritual director and or a therapist with whom to discuss those issues.

4.You can share pieces of your life that will help them know you better but you will never share with them like you would with a friend….not the depth or breadth or mutuality of friendships.

5. as a church leader you need to always maintain a degree of separation from the emotions and energy of the congregation – it’s called “Self-differentiation” a process that allows you to always look at the congregation as if you are an outsider looking in – emotionally – so that you can manage anxiety and stresses without letting them obscure your ability to understand the range of emotions and dynamics at play.

for more on this check out this Alban Institute article.

Also, consider becoming an Alban a member. They have wonderful weekly newsletter articles on every topic under the sun pertaining to church leadership along with lots of books and webinars.

And read Edwin Freedman’s book “Generation to Generation” and then “Failure of Nerve”…Freedman is the foremost authority on family systems dynamic in congregations.

We live in anxious times. Our abilities to be non-anxious leaders are taxed beyond measure even as they are needed more than ever. As one colleague I know is fond of saying, “It takes a lot of energy to be a non-anxious leader.” We as leaders (lay and ordained) are trying to keep the focus and guide our struggling congregations with passion and compassion. The wear and tear on leaders is tremendous. Especially in busy holy-day seasons.

May you find some respite this Christmas. May this be for you a season of health and peace, in what ever way you most yearn for and need.


About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
This entry was posted in Freedman, non-anxious leadership, self-differentiation. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Self Disclosure and Self-Differentiation as Clergy and Leaders in the Church

  1. Wendy says:

    From the layperson's side, I get this, and I get that the pastor REALLY needs to be careful to not have favorites (and it would be arrogant to think I would be one anyway) but it's hard when my pastor is the first person I've met in a long time with whom I feel the kind of connection that could be true friendship. But the boundaries are in place. And I keep trying to get to know other people. But it's kind of lousy. (word verf: coadapt. Hmm.)

  2. Terri says:

    Wendy, here's the thing – the pastor can be YOUR friend – but it's complicated for you to be the Pastor's friend in the true sense of the word. It's a fine line….

  3. Wendy says:

    Yeah. Which makes for slightly less than mutual friendship, but is a gift nonetheless.

  4. Terri says:

    exactly – for both of you!

  5. Diane says:

    well said! My understanding of self-differentiation is that you are connected yet separate. Connected enough to "get it" (not too cold) but separate enough to really deal with your congregation and not get absorbed into it.

  6. Terri says:

    Diane, that's right.

  7. SingingOwl says:

    Great post! And good comment from Diane too. It is SUCH a fine line that if a person is a caring kind of individual, it can be very difficult to walk that line without falling off on one side or the other. I wish I had understood this a bit better a few years ago. I would have been both a wiser pastor and a wiser friend.

  8. Gwenyth says:

    Terri, I read a book in October that explained a lot of this: I'm God, You're Not, by Lawrence Kushner. It was illuminating & edifying. You can get it @ the public library. Gwenyth

  9. Terri says:

    Gwenyth, I really like Lawrence Kushner…use to use his stories as illustration points in my sermons, alhough it was years ago and you may not remember….but this book I have not (yet) read.

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