“My family is leaving the church.”
How do we as pastors and ministry leaders respond when someone says this to us? There is usually disappointment, confusion, and frustration that we begin to feel. We question why they are doing this. As we reflect on what we have invested in their lives at the church, we wonder how they could do this. Sometimes the most pointed reflection, though, comes if we have considered them to be personal friends. When it is someone we have laughed with over meals, watched our kids become friends, celebrated birthdays, helped navigate some tough times, enjoyed serving with them in the church, to then hear they are leaving feels incredibly personal. It feels deeply hurtful.
Should We Even Be Friends?
What happens to us as pastors and ministry leaders when a solid friendship dissolves in the church? We say to ourselves, often with great firmness, “We will not do that again.” We will not do what again? “We will not develop personal friendships with people in the church. We can be acquaintances, but we will not risk opening ourselves up to friendship again, at least not in the same way. It simply hurts too much.”
There is a conviction that grows within us that says, “If I am going to lead these people spiritually, I will not be able to be friends with them.”
Is this a right conviction and conclusion? Is it a myth worth believing?
It is not.
Is it a myth that is easy to stop believing?
It is not.
It can be quite challenging to be a pastor to someone and a friend to that same someone.
Being a pastor can be very difficult at times. The same can be said for a pastor’s wife. It can be said of others in ministry or those married to someone in ministry. It can even be said for children who have parents in ministry. You have friendships. You lose friendships. People seem to really love you. Then those same people turn on you. You pour into people in significant ways to help them and to hopefully facilitate spiritual growth in their life, then they desert you, or worse, try to damage you.
In a very personal way, we begin to feel the weight of David’s words in Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” These factors can make friendship in the church feel complicated, even impossible at times. Honestly, friendship in the church is more complicated for a pastor and his family than it is for others. It can be quite challenging to be a pastor to someone and a friend to that same someone.
Some Want You to Be Friendly.
What can be true of the members of our churches? Some people in the church want you to be their pastor (or pastor’s wife), but do not have an expectation for friendship. They desire to learn from your preaching and teaching. They expect you to visit them in the hospital or during a crisis. They like the formality of having a pastor and they are not looking for you to be their friend, only their pastor. This is not a bad thing.
Some Want to Be Friends with the Pastor.
There are others in the church who want to be your friend only because you are the pastor. They want to be able to tell others the pastor is their friend and there is a mysterious status for them in this. Your title is a draw toward friendship for them. They pursue friendship because of what you are called rather than who you are as a person. These are not solid friendships.
Others in the church might be open to friendship, but in their mind the title you carry means they will not be able to tolerate you making a decision they do not agree with. They desire something close to perfection for you, or at the very least a close alignment with their way of thinking. If you ever make what they perceive to be some type of mistake, they are finished. They almost demand perfection and they simultaneously show little grace or understanding. They want to be your friend as long as you are close to perfection in everything. Building a relationship with these people is incredibly difficult, almost impossible because you can’t meet the standards they have for you.
Some Want to Be the Pastor’s Friend.
There are people in the church, though, who don’t see you as “pastor” or “pastor’s wife” first, rather they see a person before a title. These church members care about you, have affection for you, and they like you as a person first and a pastor second. They want to be your friend because it feels natural to them and their motive is not based on a title and they don’t demand perfection from you. They are thankful for the work you do as their pastor, and they want to encourage you as a person so that you can continue to be a faithful pastor for the church.
it would be a mistake in our lives and ministries if we closed ourselves off from friendship with people in the church who care about us and want to help us. It takes discernment to determine who these people are.
Navigating Relational Dynamics in the Church?
We are called to lead all these people, but it does not mean that heartfelt friendship will develop with each type of person. On the other hand, leading all these different types of people does not mean that heartfelt friendships cannot develop in the church, especially with those who see us a person first and a pastor second. In fact, it would be a mistake in our lives and ministries if we closed ourselves off from friendship with people in the church who care about us and want to help us. It takes discernment to determine who these people are.
Think about the relationship Jesus had with the disciples and others who followed Him. Do we ever hear Jesus say, “If I’m going to lead them spiritually, I will not be able to be friends with them”? No! We see a closeness, otherwise known as friendship, between Him and those following Him. There were a few who seemed to have an even closer friendship with Jesus than the others. Jesus is our Lord, our Savior, and our perfect example of what ministry and leadership is to look like. He was not afraid to be friends with those He led.
Paul was also deserted by some and had others who did him much harm. So goes life in ministry! We shouldn’t be surprised by it, but often we are. Relationships are always messy.
When Paul writes to Timothy (in the letter of 2 Timothy), he refers to Timothy as his “beloved son” (1:2). Paul certainly led Timothy, but also cared for him. There was friendship between these two men. Paul also talks about some men who turned away from him, Phygelus and Hermongenes (1:15), but follows that with some meaningful words about Onesiphorus and how he helped Paul (1:16-18). Sounds like Onesiphorus was a meaningful friend for Paul, while the other two turned out to not be the friends Paul might have anticipated. At the end of the letter Paul mentions quite a few people by name, such as Demas who deserted him (4:9) and Alexander the coppersmith who did him much harm (4:14).
Jesus obviously led people and became friends with those He led. What happened when Jesus was arrested on His way to be crucified? Those who were with Him fled. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Paul also led people and became friends with those he led. What did he experience? There were some who helped him in significant ways, and they were great friends to Paul. Paul was also deserted by some and had others who did him much harm. So goes life in ministry! We shouldn’t be surprised by it, but often we are. Relationships are always messy.
It is a privilege to be in ministry. It is a high calling to shepherd a group of people. It is not the easiest of tasks. We can’t let moments of difficulty and hurt distract us from the friendships the Lord may have for us.
Earlier we asked this question: What can be true of the members of our churches? We need to ask another question as well. What can be true of us as pastors? The loss of friendship in the church hurts and takes a toll on us. When we have been hurt, we become a little more guarded. That is not bad. It sometimes feels like self-preservation! But, we have to make sure that a guarded heart doesn’t turn into a hardened heart toward people in the church.
We can’t let the hurt we have experienced bring us to the place where we are not willing to truly befriend those we lead. We shouldn’t let the complexities of leadership put us in a place where we are willing to lead people while simultaneously lacking love for people. Paul said of himself that without love “I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). The same will be true of us if we try to operate and interact with people without love.
It is a privilege to be in ministry. It is a high calling to shepherd a group of people. It is not the easiest of tasks. We can’t let moments of difficulty and hurt distract us from the friendships the Lord may have for us, especially among the people we are shepherding and leading.
You felt led to go into ministry because you wanted to be able to pour love and truth through the message of Jesus into other people. What if the Lord wants to use some of those same people you are pouring into, to in turn pour something good and gracious into your life? If you can only lead them, but can’t befriend them, you are probably missing out on something great from the Lord.