By Rev. Laura Baumgartner
A few years ago, I visited a church to meet the SPR committee before receiving my first appointment to that church. When I walked into the room, each person introduced themselves, and one woman whom I did not immediately recognize said she already knew me. I had worked as a teacher in the public schools for many years before attending seminary, and one of her sons had been my student. Soon after I began pastoring that church, I found that one of the administrators from the school district was also a member of the church. There were also teens in the youth group who attended the school where I taught. Because of these two roles in the community, I have multiple dual relationships.
A dual relationship occurs whenever we play more than one role in someone’s life. Dual relationships present pitfalls, especially for pastors, when they give some people more access to the pastor or when some claim special status because they know the pastor in non-pastoral settings. However, dual relationships are common, especially when a pastor is bi-vocational or comes to the ministry as a second career.
Another common example of dual relationships for clergy happens when community ties outside the church involve people from the local church. This can be especially true during appointment changes. If a pastor serves on the board of a non-profit or a denominational committee with parishioners or former parishioners, it’s a dual relationship. If a pastor shops at a store or visits a doctor’s office where a parishioner or former parishioner works, it’s a dual relationship. If a pastor has friends of their biological children in a confirmation class they teach, it’s a dual relationship.
Many of us were taught to avoid dual relationships. We learned growing up that we shouldn’t mix business with friendship. It’s easier and cleaner to only be one thing to each person, either pastor or teacher, colleague or friend. And there’s good reason for this caution. Dual relationships can open the door to inappropriate and even harmful relationships. When a pastor has more exclusive contact with some people than others, it is only a matter of time before even the best of intentions are questioned, and rightly so. However dual relationships also open the possibility of finding shared purpose among ministry partners and building trust through shared experience, which can be life-giving.
Because I am bi-vocational and have had two appointments in rapid succession, both close to a third congregation where I was a member before going to seminary, I have found that I have a multitude of dual relationships. Since I know there are risks associated with them, I’m careful. However, my overwhelming experience has been that the dual relationships I’ve had have been blessings for both me and the other people involved.
Upon arriving in the congregation where multiple people knew me from a previous career, I started to understand that the Holy Spirit had been at work long before I arrived, preparing a place where I would be uniquely qualified to serve. But I never stop questioning whether my presence and actions are benefiting those I’m called to serve. I regularly talk about my questions with a spiritual director and other trusted friends. Because bi-vocational ministry is occurring more frequently in these times, the chance of dual relationships increases. Here are a few guidelines I have found helpful in navigating dual relationships.
First, I try to be transparent. I don’t keep secrets, and I frequently explain constraints from “my other job” in both settings. When I find myself working on a team at school with parents who are members of a congregation I have served, I send a quick note to their current pastor and ask if the situation raises any concerns. I talk with parents of incoming students who have known me previously as their pastor to explain the new role that I will have. When I visit a sick friend from my home church and am asked to pray with the family, I explain that I am happy to pray with them but that their pastor is also available to them. I find that by naming the situation and opening a space for anyone involved to express any awkwardness they may feel, I can relieve whatever tension there might be and respond in ways that reduce it. With children and youth who may not have the language to completely express themselves and who see me as even more of an authority figure than their parents and grandparents do, transparency has to be communicated in more ways than just words. I strive to be authentically myself wherever I meet them, working toward consistency in how I dress, how I speak, and how I act. However, there are limits to the ways that I am available, what I want people to know, and how transparent I can be.
Second, I diligently maintain boundaries. Most obviously, boundaries must exist regarding when I am available and to whom. Dual relationships can blur boundaries because people who have dual relationships with me can find me in multiple places and times. Therefore, I have to be the one to maintain the boundaries. If I see someone at school who wants to talk to me about church, I listen briefly and suggest we talk more later. If someone at church wants information about a school issue, I let them know I will email them about it later. When I’m meeting with someone in a particular context, I keep the conversation to the reason for the meeting, and I refrain from addressing other topics. In addition to my own boundaries, I also pay close attention to healthy boundaries for others with whom I work. If I happen to know the email addresses of church visitors because their children were in my class, I refrain from sharing their contact information. If a family shares personal information with me at church, I don’t bring it up in other settings unless they do.
My final recommendation is to pray. I pray that God can use each instance and relationship to bring about more life and more love. I pray for wisdom and guidance in discerning when and what kind of transparency is needed. I pray to be open to the workings of the Holy Spirit who has prepared situations and built relationships that can be strong enough to grow through challenges. However, there may be times when the prayerful, faithful decision is to end the dual nature of a relationship by eliminating one of the roles. This is rarely easy. Prayer helps us follow the leading of the Spirit in relationships, as in all things.
The future of ministry will continue to call clergy and lay leaders outside the doors of the church and into the life of the community. As that happens, there will be more dual relationships that require careful navigation. It is not possible, nor is it wise to avoid all dual relationships. With transparency, boundaries, prayer, and more than a little grace, dual relationships present opportunities for rich ministries that are worth the effort. They are a way that we open ourselves, with care and love, to the ways that the Holy Spirit works in and through us.
Rev. Laura Baumgartner serves as the associate pastor of Renton United Methodist Church in Renton, Washington.