On the personal level, sharing our lives with God’s people as friends doesn’t mean all of our friends need to hear about everything in our hearts and minds. Pastors are men, and as the old adage goes, even the best of men are men at best. We have our own sin struggles and temptations that need to be dealt with, and we need accountability. But the pastor’s accountability should be with his fellow elders and other pastor friends, not the people in his congregation.
One of the pieces of advice that I received from a seasoned pastor when I was first beginning ministry was, “Don’t befriend the people in your church. They will most certainly hurt you.” I assumed his words were the result of countless battles over 30 years in ministry, enduring numerous blows inflicted by those with whom he was closest. Now, as I come to the end of my first decade as a pastor, I understand the reason why my friend gave me that particular advice. I have known deep hurt in ministry and have often thought back on that conversation: Should I find my friends elsewhere?
How does a pastor do what he’s called to do without developing friendships and making himself and his family vulnerable to the hurt that accompanies relationships? Jesus showed us the greatest love when he laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13). How can a pastor follow the Master’s way if he’s unwilling to do the same? No one likes getting hurt, and it’s especially difficult with a family in tow. So where is the balance? How can a pastor protect his own heart and his family from the emotional blows that sometimes accompany friendships in the church, while simultaneously being willing to be hurt for the sake of Christ and his bride?
Friends or Acquaintances?
The consistent drumbeat of Scripture is that Christ’s powerful, inwardly constraining love compels the believer to deny self for the honor of God and the good of others (2 Corinthians 5:14a). Some of my sweetest pastoral moments have come when I’ve put friendships in the church above deadlines, expectations, and to-do lists. Sitting beside the bed of someone I can genuinely call a friend in the last moments of his life is far more meaningful than just being his pastoral acquaintance. I have found that my chief pastoral duties of prayer and the ministry of the Word are far more effective when I am known and seeking to know others despite the inevitable difficulties that may arise. I don’t generally yearn for my acquaintances like I do for my friends with “all the affections of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8).
Pastoral ministry can be lonely, but I am convinced that more lonely than the pastor is often his wife. While most pastors have fraternal relationships with other men in ministry, most pastors’ wives don’t have a lot of women to share their burdens with in a meaningful way. And if pastors’ kids are going to value the local church throughout their lives, it seems appropriate that at the very least they should be able to call others in their church-going midst “friend.” Some people in the church that my wife and I have considered our closest friends have hurt us in significant ways. We want to prepare our children for the same results should they have to bear them, and yet we want their friendships to be genuine, not filled with doubt and uncertainty.
Being a pastor is a unique calling, and while others may hurt any and every member of our family, I must remember that I have hurt my friends as well (Eccl. 7:21). It’s inevitable in relationships, but Jesus didn’t avoid the hurt of friendships–neither should I! As well intentioned as my friend was to encourage me to keep my friendships out of the church, I can’t agree with his advice. Some of my best friends are members of the church in which I serve, and I know that we may hit some bumps along the journey together; but, bumps in the road with a friend are far better than smooth sailing alone.