SBC Voices Forum: Can a Pastor’s Closest Friends Be Church Members?

In my 32 years of ministry, I’ve served 4 churches – one in Florida, one in Virginia, and two in Iowa. In my first three ministries, I eschewed the idea that a pastor needed to be careful about having his closest friends within the church membership. My closest friends were “in-house” guys and I was confident it would work well.

Of course, as a younger man who showed evidence of “youthful arrogance and immaturity” right up into my late 40s, who was hyper-competitive in sports until I got too fat to participate anymore, who had a lot of rough edges on my personality, it caused problems. It caused problems for me, when some men I considered friends turned against me. Some of my deepest wounds in ministry have come at the hands of people I considered real friends. It also caused problems for friends when they had trouble respecting me as pastor after they saw all my warts in our private interactions.

It is hard to have a “soul-friend” – one to whom you are vulnerable about your weaknesses and struggles who is also a member of your church and following your leadership as pastor.

In my current ministry, I have some good friends. However, I’ve become a little more reserved and less likely to share my hurts, struggles and weaknesses. I once confessed burnout to my deacons and they blessed me with about a month off – a ministry-changing time. But I was not specific about the things that were bothering me. I just don’t do that anymore.

That leads to another problem, of course. I don’t have a lot of time to invest in friendships outside the church and that can leave a pastor with no real friends at all, beyond the surface. I know there are many pastors who decry their lack of close friends. Maybe that issue needs a forum all of its own.

But, I’d be interested in hearing your views on this. Do you maintain your closest friendships within the church, or do you look to fellow pastors or other believers outside the membership of your church? Do you have close friends? Do you feel lonely and isolated in ministry?

Tell Uncle Dave all about it.

Comments

  1. Mark Mitchell says

    I have pastored three churches. In my experience church members think they want you to be completely open and transparent but they do not really want that. It is unfortunate but we need to keep a level of distance in order to be effective. It is best to find someone outside the church, maybe even another pastor.

    • says

      AMEN!

      People want you to be open and transparent – to a point.

      I think it is important that I be transparent about my failings, but not SPECIFIC about them.

      • Doug Hibbard says

        I remember reading an article in Leadership Journal back when it had that hard, card-stock cover (2 decades ago, I guess?) about transparency. The pastor who wrote it quoted a general from the nineteenth century as saying “My troops may see me bleed, but they must not see me hemorrhage.”

        His overall point was that transparency that reveals our humanity is honest and important. Transparency that makes us out to be unreliable or incapable of practicing any of what we preach is another matter–if you’re struggling at that level, you don’t need to be a transparent pastor with a pulpit. You need to be pulled back, dealing with the issues, and then come back into action if the Lord leads.

  2. says

    I’m really interested in this discussion.

    I want to ask did Paul share his “hurts, struggles and weaknesses”. And I believe that the answer is that for the most part he did. We aren’t given specifics necessarily but he seemed to be pretty open and vulnerable. But at the same time he wasn’t a pastor of a local church. His role was so much different.

    Part of me wants to say that this whole question shows that there is something flawed in the system. Whenever pastors feel like they can’t be authentic with their congregations it shows that our view of the pastorate is probably askew. But we don’t minister where we ought to be. We minister where we are. And as such we minister in churches that have messed up views of the pastorate. So a vulnerable pastor might cause some harm in a church that isn’t prepared for his vulnerability.

    As a young pup that is still learning I’m very interested in what you guys have to say on this one.

    • Mark Mitchell says

      Paul was not a pastor. He was not in the churches day in and day out. Most of the time he dealt with churches from a distance. Pastors do not have a view that is “askew” the average church member does so very often.

      • says

        You’ll note my comment, “But at the same time he wasn’t a pastor of a local church. His role was so much different.”

        And when I said “our view” of the pastorate is probably askew, I’m saying “our” as in pastor and people. I don’t think we should be too quick to separate the two. If the average church member has a view of the pastorate that is askew that probably came from somewhere. Part of shepherding the sheep is helping them to know the role of the shepherd.

        • Mark Mitchell says

          Sure I will tell you where it came from. It came from decades of pastors who have tried to be closer to their congregations to only have some in their congregations use whatever struggles a pastor or his family has to beat him over the head when they do not like a decision he made. Dr. Ted Traylor told of a time when he made a staff change and he was sent a letter from his church members signed “legion” threatening to burn his house down. They did not learn that from their pastor.

    • Mike Bergman says

      I had the experience at a church where when I tried to be more open I was met with the response, “Pastors aren’t supposed to have issues, if they need help with problems then they can’t help us with our problems.”

      at least in that one view, you gotta be perfect.

      I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve asked people what I can pray for them and I hear back 1) requests for someone else’s health issues, or 2) “Just pray for whatever, I’m fine.” I hear that second one so much that I think we need to get these people a book contract or speaking gig since they have it all figured out…

      the culture of our churches doesn’t seem to breed much openness and vulnerability period…it’s like we think the world will come to an end if we truly realize we’re all messed up and in need of Jesus daily.

      I don’t think the church is full of hypocrites from the pastors to others b/c we sin and mess up and act contrary to the gospel at times…I think it’s b/c we all do that, struggle, doubt, etc., but we put on our masks around each other and therefore avoid practicing Galatians 6:1-3.

      but on the other hand, how is a church going to get there if its leaders aren’t willing to take a risk and set an example?

    • says

      I think the stickiness of the issue of Pastor-Church relations is bound with a couple of systemic flaws. I may be wrong, but these things seem to be the case in the church world I know.

      -We’ve missed the boat almost altogether on confession. Even the confessions that we do attempt get clouded with euphemistic language not befitting of real confession. We are far more likely to employ language like this: I’m struggling with (some sin); I’ve made some mistakes; I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, etc. We are far less likely to employ language like this: I’ve been in habitual disobedience toward God (in this area/way); I’ve exchanged God’s truth for (this lie); I’ve been in rebellion against God (by doing this), etc. When we ought to be bearing ourselves in confession–toward God, toward our brothers, and even to ourselves–we continue to cover ourselves instead, even if subtly.

      -Pastors are Christian brothers too. They are sinners saved by grace through faith; they are being sanctified; and they are first and foremost children of God (just like everyone else). The lines that we have drawn between “Pastor” Christians and “Everyone else” Christians are poisonous. Yes, pastors should among the spiritual Strong of the congregation; yes, their ministries should take on a certain shape and scope that is distinct from others; but there is no separate for entrance into eternity for pastors. They are Christians before they are anything else (husband, father, pastor, etc.). I think Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:8-10 have a lot to do with this discussion.

  3. Andy says

    I’m going to take the opposing view pretty strongly, with a few caveats.

    I believe that it is a good thing for a pastor to have close friends within the church he serves, and in fact a bad thing to not have anyone in his own church with whom he is close and open and vulnerable.

    Caveats:

    -This does not have to be the whole church. It does not even need to be any specific governing body (deacons, etc)… but rather 1 or 2 trusted godly men.

    -This does not need to happen right away when pastor begins at a new church, and the pastor should be careful about determining who and when a man can be trusted in this way…but it should be a goal to work toward. Initiating one-on one Bible reading with other men is a good way to begin working toward this.

    -There is nothing wrong with having close friends outside the church, especially when one moves to a new place, they will naturally have closer old friends than new friends. But if your only close friends live in another state, you will be starving yourself for real community.

    -Working toward openness among fellow pastors at the same church should be a goal, such that the staff members of a multiple-pastor church are not so professional that they see each other as competitors, but as partners. Multi-staff churches have an advantage here, but a (IMHO) healthy view of plurality of elders can help those in smaller churches…in which a good goal would be to disciple potential elders not only for church leadership, but so the Paid pastor has someone who can “pastor” him. Even if you are in a setting in which you believe unpaid elders simply won’t fly…This does not prevent you from seeking to disciple other men to fill some of those functions, if only in an un-title, informal way.

    I think a being a pastor can be an Island, and should work to minimize that as much as possible.

    I welcome some feedback on this, but I feel pretty strongly about it. I may be mistaken, but it seems most of the arguments against it are based on fear of being hurt, which does not seem to be the best motivation.

    (I am a non-senior pastor at a church with 3 paid, and one unpaid, pastors/elders).

    • says

      Again, I used to be where you are. But after getting burned a few times, I’m more reluctant to put my hand back in the fire.

      Is that wisdom or cowardice?

      • Mark Mitchell says

        I think there is some wisdom in balance. If we get so locked up then our church will not trust us and we will not be effective. I do think that close friends will need to be outside the church.

        • Andy says

          “I do think that close friends will need to be outside the church.”

          Are you saying this exclusively? How does this translate to an isolated setting in which the only other believers in town are in his own church? Is it somehow better to not have close friends at all?

          • Doug Hibbard says

            Andy, that’s where I live.

            And it is somehow better to have close friends who live in the little box on my desk than the flesh and blood ones.

      • Andy says

        See my caveats…I think there is wisdom in taking time to feel people out before opening them up to the next level of your life, whatever level that may be, and there is wisdom in realizing that not everyone in your church needs to know everything about you.

        But it is my conviction that every person needs close friends who they are open with and who also interact with them on a regular basis, even pastors.

        So, for example, I would say it is NOT as effective to have an “accountability partner” who is your old college roommate, but who now lives across the country and doesn’t see your life on a regular basis. Periodic confession to such a person is better than nothing, but it is separated from the rest of your life. It is relatively risk-free confession, which could be either good, or sometimes, bad.

        I don’t think we can honestly look at scriptures about confessing sins to “one another”, and think that excludes the very church we are called to live our our life in. It doesn’t mean confess to every person in the church, but I think it does mean that if we feel that there is nobody in my church I can be honest with, then that is a BAD THING, not something I should simply accept as “the way it is” for the next 20 years.

        Another thing to consider is that it is likely that many people in our churches have the same concerns, that they fear being vulnerable because of some potential bad result. Do we as pastors get some special pass that they do not?

        (I’m not trying to be accusatory here, I say all these things to myself as well, as someone who is often not as open and vulnerable as I should be, but I believe the reason I am not is because I am often driven more by fear than by love for neighbor, considering how hearing of my struggles might help someone else.)

    • says

      Andy, I agree with your approach. I think there is something very wrong in the church if a pastor is unable to find or make one or two good friends in the church he ministers to.

      Let’s be honest, any man is lucky to have more than a couple of true friends at a given time in life. What is more common is we have “buddies” or acquaintances based on various niches in our life but we have very few true friends that we can be open with and share our vulnerabilities and trials with. And laymen in the church also have to be cautious about how much they open up and who they open up to about their struggles, failings, triumphs, or just relaxing and being ourselves even with fellow brothers in the Church.

      I have some insight through my family into the unrealistic expectations that Pastors deal with from their flock, but it is sad to think that a pastor of a church of any size cannot find one or two true friends from within the Body he serves. But as with all such things Pastors, and to some extent laymen, must choose their true friends wisely.

  4. says

    Dave,
    Great subject! I am learning it takes BOTH – within the church and outside. I will also add that I think Pastors need other Pastors. But in saying that, one criteria is a must beyond a title or a position – they must be authentic!

    The more authentic I become, the more authentic my people become. Our staff works diligently to create an atmosphere of authenticity. We know the ave person today will struggle with this. Many live such guarded lives that fellowship is more than difficult to achieve.

    Loneliness is growing rapidly for those of us in the ministry. And it is growing for the ave person as well.

    I have discovered that the more time I invest in networking with church members and other Pastors, the less loneliness occurs in my own life. I think there are levels of trust that must be developed with both groups but we need to understand that they can be developed.

    Risks? Both groups have risks. I see the tide changing. People are longing for authenticity. They are tired of being alone. And we in the ministry need to learn to be real and authentic ourselves. We are called to this!

  5. says

    I am a member of Cornerstone Community Church in Jackson, TN (www.cccjackson.org) . One of the things our pastors say often is that they are a member of Cornerstone first and pastors second. This statement is backed up by their sincere involvement and commitment to the church they are a part of and oversee. It shows their committed to keeping our covenant in which we promise to strive in helping others towards pursuing sanctification as much as we long and strive after our own.

    This is me speaking as a lay person (who graduated with a degree in Biblical Studies): I am thankful that our pastors are committed to the body of believers they oversee. They are not seeking the next big thing in ministry or the next salary increase. They are committed to investing in the body that the Lord has placed them over. Biblically, you don’t see elders roaming from church to church. Elders were appointed by the local body that they were/are a part of. People knew them, their character. They knew them.

    In today’s world of pastor search committees and lists of requirements that are exceedingly long (degrees in this, over this age, pastored x number of churches, taught at this institution…), why not just trust that God gave us all the requirements needed to select elders as laid out in scripture? And, why not select from among our own? Those we know and those that know us?

    Being vulnerable is a risky thing in today’s world of social media and slander can hurt. But at the end of the day, we should be training those who call themselves Christians to be vulnerable. To trust those we call brothers and sisters in the Lord. To trust those that God has given to us to oversee our very souls and who will stand before the Lord and give an account for how they did oversee. If we can’t trust our brothers and sisters in the Lord, then we have a bigger problem we need to be addressing.

    The sad state of it is probably such that it is true that we do have a bigger problem. As a whole, we don’t handle membership the way we should. We don’t do as good of a job teaching the Bible and its applications as we should. We don’t invest in one another as we should. We don’t have a strong sense of what commitment means when pastors treat churches as stepping stones for personal advancement (note that I’m not accusing, just stating what I’ve seen in the past).

    I believe that if we had committed pastors who were willing to endure the harshest of church settings with the goal of faithfully serving those God has placed under his (hopefully several elders) oversight no matter what the cost, hearts would change and friendships would abound based on the love of Christ and the commitment that bound them together.

    This may take years… but is worth it. I am thankful that the church I am a member of has committed elders who are fellow brothers first and pastors second. To keep members at arm’s length does nothing to foster the type of relationship that pastors need to do oversight well. And, an honest question here: how can you really love your members without really getting to know your members and them really getting to know you?

    Just some thoughts from a layman.

  6. Nate says

    Dave, like you, I have been burned in the past by desiring to be transparent, because members really don’t want to believe their pastor has warts, but they certainly do want him to admit he has issues.

    So, to your questions:
    Do you maintain your closest friendships within the church? – No
    Do you look to fellow pastors or other believers outside the membership of your church? – Yes, but can be difficult due to time-constraints
    Do you have close friends? – I am blessed to have a couple of life-long friends who I can truly share with
    Do you feel lonely and isolated in ministry? – Yes, but probably not as much as my wife does. She probably deals with this more than I do

    The sheer fact that it takes years to develop true friends (in almost all cases) lends itself to the fact that pastors, especially early in ministry, are rarely at churches for long tenures, hence the friendships never fully develop.

      • Doug Hibbard says

        This is very true–and one of the biggest issues I have seen my wife face as she tries to work with minister’s wives in our state is that many of us (me included at times) pastors are thick about our wives’ needs.

        We see it at events like the pastor’s wives luncheon during the state convention meeting where pastors are so wrapped up in “networking” or whatever else they are doing that their wives can’t fellowship and connect with other wives. Instead, their wives are chasing kids, doing all the stuff they do during any other week, with the added difficulty of doing it away from home.

        Pastors: pay attention to your wife’s needs. You’re a Believer, a husband, a father, a church member, a pastor–in that order of precedence.

  7. John Wylie says

    Dave,

    All I can say is that I feel your pain. When I first came to Springer more than 14 years ago I adopted the policy of having close friends in the church. Later on we had a fight in the church and those friends used that close relationship against me. So now my closest friends are mostly pastors or people outside my church.

    In regards to your comment about not having much time to devote to fostering friendships outside the church, if I may offer some advice, make time to do that. If you are too busy to be able to foster friendships, you are too busy brother.

      • John Wylie says

        Andy,
        Dave’s article and my first paragraph made it pretty clear why not within the church. It’s a major mistake to do that.

        • Andy says

          So are you saying that it is a “major mistake” for any pastor to have his closest friends in the church?

          If so, that sounds like a very fear-driven conclusion. It makes it sound as though the church is a project for him, not the place where he is called to live and share his life. It makes it sound like he is, from the get-go, approaching it as something he doesn’t want to get to tangled up in in case he ever has to leave.

          I still wonder several things… (1) Is there any scriptural guidance that would lead one to this conclusion…and (2) could a pastor who approached his church in this way honestly counsel a church member who seems to be struggling precisely because he/she is not willing to confess his/her sins to ANY of their brothers and sisters?

      • Dave Miller says

        Specifically, because a lot of folks who want to be your friend can’t handle seeing your imperfections up close.

      • Dave Miller says

        And I have friends, good friends, within the church. But I am talking about closest friends, those you open your heart to.

  8. Jeff Johnson says

    The challenge pastors face in being open and vulnerable with church-member friends is that everything is so integrated in a pastor’s life. Here’s what I mean. If you’re the average guy having marital problems, or struggling with depression, or battling lust, those hardships may affect other areas of your life, but you can usually reveal them without directly undermining your job or social standing. As a pastor, however, having those kinds of weaknesses revealed to your church members could cost you your job, which in turn could cause you to lose your house, church family, schools for your kids, and even your town. If you’re the pastor who moved to a small town previously unknown to you, you have a lot to lose by being vulnerable. At the same time, as that small-town pastor, it can be hard to maintain friendships outside the church because you are geographically isolated.

    • says

      “As a pastor, however, having those kinds of weaknesses revealed to your church members could cost you your job, which in turn could cause you to lose your house, church family, schools for your kids, and even your town. If you’re the pastor who moved to a small town previously unknown to you, you have a lot to lose by being vulnerable.”

      But isn’t that part of why the church is here, to be able to share our weaknesses and encourage one another, to point each other back to the gospel daily?

      I’m not discounting what you wrote as I believe that is what happens often, but shouldn’t that point us to the fact that there is a larger problem within the local church bodies that needs to be addressed biblically and over time?

      • Jeff Johnson says

        I agree with what others have said above that it is important to be transparent with church members . . . to a point. We should acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, but without getting too specific about things that could undermine our ministry. I agree that the church should bear one another’s burdens and point each other to the gospel. But that doesn’t mean there has to be a specific individual or group within your local congregation to which you unload everything. To be sure, there has to be a certain level of openness with other pastors on staff, deacons, or elders to create an atmosphere of accountability and support. For example, I have out-of-town friends (spiritually mature fellow ministers) as my Covenant Eyes partners. I would not list a church member on my online accountability report, but it is probably fair for my deacons to know I have installed Covenant Eyes and that I am reporting to someone.

        • Jeff Johnson says

          Maybe I should temper my comments. I’m not saying that a pastor should never be transparent with anyone in the local church. I’m not counseling pastors to be careful in hiding their sins and problems from church leadership. Accountability and support in the church the pastor serves are crucial. There’s much to be said for having local church friends, as opposed to just having old friends who are far away. As Proverbs 27:10 puts it, “Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” I am saying that we should be sober and vigilant in revealing our struggles to others, because we do have an adversary who would love to use our transparency as a way to tear us down. We must be careful how much we reveal and to whom we reveal it.

  9. says

    Probably not, I’d say. I’d also say that there isn’t much Biblical guidance on this. It’s more cultural and sociological.

    Here’s what I would do/not do:

    1. I would never not be authentic and transparent. That’s more or less just being yourself. Took me a few years to figure out I wasn’t Adrian Rogers.

    2. I would be open to some level of friendships within the church. Problem is, we stay about 4-5 years which may not be long enough to develop close, lasting relationships.

    3. I would never be so transparent as to disclose to any church member a problem such as depression, having viewed internet porn, or similar. The former makes one damaged goods and the latter, and other sins, is like loading someone’s gun to be used against you if necessary. We need more assurance of confidentiality which I think is difficult within the church. I would make an exception for depression if it was debilitating.

    4. I would attempt to have honest conversations with people in the sense that their pastor isn’t always in a preaching mode, or bulletproof, or hyper-spiritual. Honest conversations with good church folks is not always possible but I would not be the one to make it difficult.

    5. I would attempt to find social outlets and friendships outside the church family. The primary source of these are affinity groups and other pastors, preferably not Baptist though possibly so.

    6. I would not seek a ‘soul friend’ in the church unless it was my wife. I feel sure that if asked, she would say she’d pray about it and let me know.

    I now consider it a mistake to have not taken time for some level of interaction outside of the church and other SBC church staff locally. That would have been beneficial to the entire family.

    Good job, Dave.

    • Andy says

      Regarding #3, I think those 2 issues are exactly the reason we need to have some people close to us who are within our churches. The phrase “if the depression was debilitating” also reveals a common problem, that often nobody knows a pastor is struggling until he has to resign…and it surprises everyone…perhaps some of those could have been prevented if the pastor had close friends within the church who could have CONFIDENTIALLY helped him.

      After a relativly short time(1-2 years) of knowing several people, I have revealed personal sins to a small number of men in my church, one a pastor, and several lay-men. Those conversations have never brought anything but good spiritual fruit. That’s not to say one of them might not use something I said down the road against me, they might.

      Lastly, I wonder, for those opposed to full openness with at least a few in ones home church….Is it your position that (hypothetically), if you have been at a church a long time, and have seen it grow and mature spiritually as much as you could have hoped, that you consider it to be, on the most part, a congregation full of godly, mature Christians…that EVEN THEN, you would not think it good to have one or a few of them as very close, open friends?

      • William Thornton says

        I respect your view on this but just don’t buy it. Once you admit depression you are damaged goods. You may continue to serve and a few high profile pastors have done this but most average pastors would find their stature permanently diminished.

        Once you admit to some specific sin (porn would be common enough to be a good example) you have given immense power over you to someone on the church. Under the right circumstances they will certainly use it. I would strongly advise my colleagues not to do this. Find someone outside the church for accountability on this level.

        I certainly hope that you continue to have good results from your openness but you might consider the several here who were once where you are and regret it.

        • Doug Hibbard says

          I am with you on the depression issue, especially. It introduces this dynamic into the congregation: “Can I call the pastor about (fill-in-the-blank) or will it makes his depression worse?” or other questions.

          In the end, it drives a wedge between the pastor and the church he serves.

  10. says

    I neither have close friends outside of my marriage nor am a professional minister. But I do have an observation. That is, first, it’s ideal that a pastor be able to participate in the full fellowship of his church. That means having gracious friends in the church with whom he can confide without causing a power struggle or having to assume that the Miranda rights be applied (what you say can and will be used against you in the court of church gossip and the deacon’s meeting). However, second, we all know the world isn’t ideal, and we have plenty of the world in our churches.

    My church is an exception where we have some incredibly godly deacons as well as a ministerial staff that gets along as well as any bunch of close friends. I envy the friendships my church’s staff has because I don’t have that kind of friendship, but I don’t begrudge them. Their ministry is a blessing to our church because of it. But I know that churches typically aren’t that way.

    So I would caution pastors in general. I stand as a testimony that it’s possible to make it without that kind of friendship, but if you can find a pastor of another church nearby to befriend, that might be the best thing practically speaking for most pastors.

  11. Tim B says

    The short answer is focus on being their pastor. The close friends you make in your church will either hurt you or will be hurt with you.

    • andy says

      Sorry, but I cannot express in words how completely wrong this sounds.

      This logic would lead all Christians to live life with no close friends.

          • John Wylie says

            I think that Andy really fails to get the set apartness of pastoral ministry. As a pastor there is a higher standard that you are held to, there is a greater stewardship and accountability to God you are given. One of the main reasons that I look to other pastors for friendship is because laity do not understand what we are going through.

      • Tim B says

        I’m going to assume you’re fairly young in the ministry. I hope your experience is different than the vast majority of ministers. From a theological perspective I believe that it is important for a pastor to understand that he is shepherd first and above all. At times social friendships in the body can interfere with that role. A good study that I do not have time to do would be to study Jesus relationship with the disciples as teacher/friend, the apostles/disciple relationship, the tension between being shepherd/friend and the tension between being parent/friend. I am using the word “friend” in the contest of deep social relationships.

        Over the years the greatest pain I’ve experienced in the ministry has been either close social friends in the church turning on me or close social friends being deeply hurt by taking up my offense and leaving the church and in some cases never to invest themselves again. In both cases both me and them would have been better served had our relationship been more limited to my pastoral role of building them up as disciples and not social needs.

  12. says

    In my years as a student pastor, I was close with a few families in the church. We shared things pretty openly with each other, but I never felt comfortable disclosing private struggles with them. I reserved that level of intimacy for my accountability partners all of whom were outside the church. I have had the same group of accountability guys since college- that dates back almost 19 years now and that level of relationship would be impossible to replace. I know those guys have kept me from some really dark paths and have walked me through more than I could ever have imagined- and I for them as well.

    I’ve spent the last 10 years as a church planter/pastor. My church is elder led and I serve in the capacity of “first among equals” on the elder council. That means I am responsible for pastoring/shepherding the other elders and their families and I am pastored/shepherded by them. I am fairly open and honest with our church as a whole about my humanity. We count “authenticity” as one of our four cornerstones, so to not be would be disengenuous. That does not mean that everyone in the church knows every struggle I have. It does mean that the elders are aware of them. One of our elders- who is a staff member- has talked openly in front of our church about his struggles with pornography. He has gained- not lost- respect and influence as a result.

    I think the answer to this question of close friends in churches lies in the make up of the congregation as a whole and the length of time and depth of relationship that the pastor has with the church. If the church has expectations that the pastor is Superman, it’s probably not good to let people get close to you (and I might counsel you to find another church with more biblical expectations). However, I think it would be important to build relationships to some extent before opening up your entire life for others to examine, so that they are not drinking from the fire hose of your depravity- cause we are all broken people no matter how good of a front we put up.

  13. Mike says

    35 years as a pastor – 4 churches in 2 states. Total # of close friends in the church = 5. Only 1 in my current church, where I’ve been over 20 years. The reason he is such a close friend is he can see right through my facade. He knows when I’m faking it. And he does not have me on a pedestal.

  14. says

    Dave, When you blogged on this topic back in September of 2012 it impacted me as a layman. Not just the article but especially the comments. I see the same themes in today’s post. This impacted me so much, I wrote a blog of my own about it from a lay perspective.

    http://thesbclayman.blogspot.com/2012/09/yesterdaywhile-enjoying-some-labor-day.html

    I reread my old post before adding this comment and it still sums up my thoughts. I have to say that after the 18 months or so since your 2012 blog, you post has radically affected my view of pastor/laity relationships. It has helped me understand a pastor’s struggles more. I’ve referenced the post many times in discussions with pastors and staff, and while they are reluctant to admit they feel the same way, it is obvious that they do.

    It’s still sad to me. There are people in your churches who’ll walk with you no matter what. It also makes me think about the inherent conflict of interest in taking pay for ministry. Do not hear me say taking pay is wrong – Scripture deals with that and I am happy to see our pastors and staff well compensated. But many of the pastor comments in this thread highlight the fact that fear of loss of income impacts relationships and actions. I have personally witnessed this many times. Not a popular comment among pastors I’m sure, but I do think about it. Maybe tent-making Paul had this one figured out better than we realize.

    Grateful for the post. Very transparent.

    • John Wylie says

      SBC Layman,

      You said, “There are people in your churches who’ll walk with you no matter what.”

      Could you expand upon your point a little more? I’m interested in knowing what you meant by that. I thought that the whole point of the article was just opposite of what you articulated in your comment.

      • says

        If I have understood the point of the post, Dave is saying that he’s been burned when he bared his soul to church members. I have absolutely no doubt that this is true. My point is that there are godly church members who recognize that a pastor is a co-laborer with flaws and struggles. There are people, I believe in almost every church, who will stand with a pastor who serves genuinely in spite of flaws and mistakes.

        The trick is to find them. They are probably not the people pounding on your doors and seeking your attention the day you arrive on the pastoral field. They are probably not the ones offering you game tickets and weekends at the condo the first week you are there. They are the ones who put their hands to the plow whether you notice them or not. Their self-worth isn’t based on a relationship with the pastor because they know he is human, but they would welcome a relationship. They are there – but there is some risk involved as you’ve all pointed out. I don’t have a magic answer on how to always get it right.

        I don’t think I have to tell you pastors that just because you have pastor friends you won’t get burned. Maybe that’s why I hear some of you saying you don’t really trust anyone.

        • John Wylie says

          Thanks for the comment SBC Layman. I totally misunderstood what you were trying to say, and I appreciate the clarification.

          • says

            My comments could probably have been a little clearer. Mixed a couple of subjects there. To borrow from Bacon, I regret that I did not have time to write a brief comment.

    • Dave Miller says

      You know, I don’t remember that post from 2012. I’ve done that before – written essentially the same post twice, not remembering the last one.

      Anyway, thank you for your comments.

    • Jeff Johnson says

      I don’t think “loss of income” is the primary motivator for pastors reluctant to have church members as their closest friends. Much more is at stake for many pastors other than their salary. If a pastor is terminated from his church in, say, metro Atlanta, there’s a decent chance he can find another ministry position in the area without uprooting everything else in his life. But if he is terminated from First Baptist Church of Grump Swamp, it’s unrealistic to think that he can keep living and ministering there, even if he had another income source. I know of a pastor in a rural locale who was terminated and ended up moving across the country because his wife had to be hospitalized for mental health issues, and the church didn’t want to deal with that. I’m sure others could share similar stories. People want to chide pastors for not being open, but they just don’t stand in their shoes.

      A few years ago, when I worked in the secular world, I shared some personal struggles with close friends at church. Yes, there was some risk. I risked feeling embarrassed or having them judge me. But my job wasn’t in jeopardy. I was in no danger of losing my house. I wasn’t going to be kicked out of the church. We wouldn’t have to move. If I shared something similar now as a pastor , there is a real risk that all of those things would happen if I told the wrong person.

  15. Andy says

    “I think that Andy really fails to get the set apartness of pastoral ministry. As a pastor there is a higher standard that you are held to, there is a greater stewardship and accountability to God you are given. One of the main reasons that I look to other pastors for friendship is because laity do not understand what we are going through.”

    John,

    First, regarding laity not understanding what pastors are going through: While I understand that this is true to an extent, I also have gradually become convinced that it is also (1) overstated by some pastors who fail to recognize the real stress that other church members have in their lives and work, as pointed out in the most recent SBC voices article on the work of volunteers…and (2) sometimes can be exacerbated if a pastor is holding themselves too far apart from their fellow church members, perhaps putting unneeded pressure on himself, or by being unwilling to actually tell another church member what he is going through.

    Second, the biblical higher standard is one of giving account for souls, yes, but NOT a higher standard of Christian living….because of the elder qualifications Paul gives, all of them are reiterated in one form or another elsewhere applying to ALL CHRISTIANS….with the exception of the “ability to teach.” I believe that many churches and pastors have placed an artificial divide here where there should not be one.

    Finally, I realize I am perhaps using too aggressive a tone in some of my posts, but I feel very strongly about this. I totally agree with what SBC Layman is saying, and understand that finding those trusted friends takes time, but I believe it should be the goal, and have yet to see a strong case made for such a separation of a pastor’s ministry from his own personal relationships. It is, perhaps, because I have seen the carnage that can come when it is taken too far: this final paragraph is completely true, yet extremely sad to me:

    –> from my own age of 6-21, my home church had one pastor. When he retired (somewhere in his 60’s, not amid any sort of scandal that I know of), he told the church he was moving away, and that he felt it would not be appropriate to have any contact with any members once he was gone…NONE! He had been there 15 years, and had somehow determined that he had zero friends with whom he would continue friendship, even if they wanted to.

    • Jeff Johnson says

      I totally get what you are saying, Andy, and I think I agree with your main points, especially given the caveats you listed in an earlier comment. I don’t think a pastor should close off the possibility of having close friends in his congregation. It would be ideal to have men that he can implicitly trust in his own church. But the setting in which many pastors serve makes that ideal so difficult to attain.

      Some ministry settings are more conducive to close friendships for pastors in the church: e.g., friends planting a church together, churches with multiple ministry staff or elders, or a church that raises up ministry staff “in-house.” When my former church (where I was a lay leader) had an opening on staff, I submitted my name for consideration. Had I been hired, I would have had men in the church I could be open with from the outset. But coming to a new church in a new town where we didn’t know anybody completely changes the dynamic. I am investing my life with men in this church, and I hope some of them will truly become my close friends.

    • John Wylie says

      Andy,

      With all due respect have you ever considered why that pastor issued that statement? Could it have had nothing to do with who he was friends with? Could it be that after 15 years of pastoral ministry in that body that he felt that contact with the members would have been detrimental to the ministry of the new pastor?

      Andy without trying to be insulting you are obviously young and idealistic. Given 15 or 20 years in pastoral ministry I will just about guarantee you that you will feel differently than you do now.

      I would consider myself friends with a number of the people in my church. I cannot tell you how much I love and respect them after 14 years of being their pastor, but having said that, there are some struggles and concerns that I choose to share with other pastors for a variety of reasons. I have personally witnessed pastors make the mistake of being too transparent and losing the ability to lead effectively because no one has confidence in them any longer.

    • says

      “He had been there 15 years, and had somehow determined that he had zero friends with whom he would continue friendship, even if they wanted to.”

      If that was his reason, it wasn’t a very good one. I know pastors who remove themselves form their congregations when they retire because they don’t want to be seen as undermining their successors. That’s a better reason although it shouldn’t be that way. Once again it’s the difference between the ideal and the real. Many people will demonstrate loyalty to their former pastor over and against a new pastor. If a retired pastor is strong willed it’s going to be hard not to speak up if he doesn’t agree with what the new pastor is doing.

      I see this pattern with a retired minister of music in my area. He served successfully for years upon years until he retired and he is well-known in the community. Since his retirement, they’ve tried to replace him with little success. His family is in the church and in the music ministry and everyone expects a new minister of music to be the same way, but it’s not going to happen. No one can fill his shoes to the satisfaction of the congregation. So now the retired guy is back in place. I could do the job and I live in walking distance to the church. But I wouldn’t want that kind of pressure if you paid me good money.

      But this is related to to the topic at hand. In most churches a pastor who isn’t careful about who he confides in will find himself unfairly compared not to a predecessor, but to a false idea about who he should be.

  16. Dale Pugh says

    This brief post really made me think. At first, I was thinking of how opposite my experience has been in ministry. I’m bivocational and serve a small rural church. I have some good friends there.
    But then I re-read what Dave said. Do I have a “soul-friend”? No, I don’t. I have no one to whom I could bare my deepest struggles. I’ve rarely had that kind of friend.
    I guess I’d have to pay a counselor $85 an hour to do “come clean” about life. Now THAT’S depressing……

  17. Tom Bryant says

    At 62 and after 33 years in local church ministry, I understand what people are sayng about not having close friends in the church. But I guess I wonder if this fits the Biblical picture of the church as a body or of a family.

    I think part of the reason why we don’t have vacation friends (people we would spend a week with away from church) is because we have been burned and don’t want it to happen again. But would we tell people who have been burnt in a church split to stay away from other churches?

    My closest friend is my wife, right behind that is another pastor whom I have known for over 20 years and have breakfast with once a week. But close behind that are some people in our church with whom we have shared the highlights and lowlights of life. I am thankful for them.

    • Doug Hibbard says

      Tom, I think longevity has that effect–the longer we are in a place, the more those relationships develop. I also think we tend to be closed off as pastors more than people are closed to us.

      Yet the burned hand teaches us not to grab the skillet handle. Even if there’s no risk, we still approach more carefully the next time.

      • tom Bryant says

        By the very idea that we must be guarded and keep ourselves from close friends in our church, we deny the Biblical picture that the church is a body.

        Everyone in ministry gets burned, but guess what? Everyone in every job gets hurt by people. We have this poor overworked, under friended pastoral syndrome.

  18. gloria dyet says

    My husband has been a pastor for 55 yrs. You are right. He learned at Moody Bible Institute to have friends from outside the church. Today all this being open is not working. I see the friends in the church think they must please the pastor and not the whole church.

  19. Greg Harvey says

    In an effort to offer perspective: openness and transparency in the secular world has similar potential issues. Most people who move up an organization towards senior leadership tend to play their cards pretty close to the vest and even have legal obligations to keep confidences with respect to information about employees and material information about the business.

    The place of business is a very, very tough place to conduct close friendships and especially if there are differences in responsibility or especially authority. Suggests human nature is at play…and not of the redeemed variety.

  20. Doug Hibbard says

    You know, I tried to call a pastor friend last week, even left a message on his secretary’s voicemail…but he hasn’t called back :)

  21. says

    Let me attempt to re-phrase some of 1 Corinthians 12:14-26 from the vantage point I’m hearing here. I don’t mean this to be mean, but rather tongue-in-cheek…

    “For the body is not one member, but many [and then there is also the pastor]. If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body [except in the case of the pastor, who cannot afford to be a real part of the body but is merely a prosthetic appendage loosely attached to the body]…But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body [except for the pastor, who is sort of tacked on there as a supplementary…thing], just as He desired…But now there are many members, but one body [and then, of course, the pastor, who cannot be a normal part of the body]…But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body [apart from the obvious clergy-laity divide], but that the members may have the same care for one another [except for the pastor, whom no one is allowed to know]. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it [except for the pastor, whose struggles are off limits]; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it [Okay, yes…especially in the case of the pastor].”

    Forgive me if this comes across as overly sarcastic, but I just can’t track with the mentality that God has set apart pastors/elders/overseers/whatever else from being Christians of the same stock as everyone else. It just doesn’t compute for me. I hear a lot of talk about being put up on a pedestal, and we all know that feeling. Any time we are placed in a position of leadership, expectations come with the gig. But none of us are meant to place ourselves on that pedestal that Christ alone can bear, the pedestal that says this man is free of sin and victorious over temptation in every shape and form. When we sin, is it really best that no one know? Really? That sounds like the men of darkness in John 3:19-21. Bonhoeffer says, “Complete truthfulness is only possible where sin has been uncovered, and forgiven by Jesus…The cross is God’s truth about us, and therefore it is the only power which can make us truthful. When we know the cross we are no longer afraid of the truth. We need no more oaths to confirm the truth of our utterances, for we live in the perfect truth of God.” God knows we are sinners and knows our sins. We know we are sinners and know our sins. I do not see how it follows that our brothers and sisters should think that we are sinners but have no clue about our sins.

    • says

      David,
      I agree completely.

      The only problem is that the Western church works strongly against it. We have an individualistic culture and the Protestant church still has vestiges of the Roman Catholic Church in that it imagines the Protestant pastor much like the RCC priest as a go-between the people and God. This works whether the particular demonination is more hierarchical or congregational. In hierarchical denominations, there is a natural divide between pastors and laity. Any loss of confidence in the congregation reported to the bishop or district leadership and it could result in removal of the pastor. In congregational churches like those in the SBC, individual congregants feel personally empowered to take any sign of weakness in the pastor as an opportunity to make themselves look strong by complaining against him. So a certain social divide is necessary to hide weaknesses from those of weak faith and strong will.

      So there’s a severe tension between the ideal that Paul gives in the Bible and the reality of a culture that has an unbiblical bent that otherwise masquerades as biblical. It’s not a tension that is easily resolved. A pastor can preach until he is blue in the face and he will still have this problem because most pastors and congregants can’t understand the world outside of their shared cultural norms. I’m not being cynical by observing this truth, only realistic. Should it change? Yes. Will it? Possibly, but not without a drastic change in the culture of most churches. This is probably one of the reasons so many young pastors today would rather plant a new church with a few close friends as a core than try to change an old church.

      • Tim B says

        “This is probably one of the reasons so many young pastors today would rather plant a new church with a few close friends as a core than try to change an old church.” I’ve watched enough guys start a church with a “few close friends” to realize that it doesn’t always work out so well for them either. What began as “close friends” turned into bitter rivals and hurt lives. We have to be pastors, leaders, overseers first and foremost in role.

  22. says

    I think most of us agree that the way it is, what the typical experience in the average Baptist church is, is wrong.

    It does make divides that should not be there. It does make pastors bear burdens alone that they should not bear alone. It does build an isolation that risks pastors deciding they are “above” their congregations. More often, it leads to isolation that risks pastors deciding they are below and only worth stomping on.

    The point at hand is how we deal with the situation that is structured badly? Where do you go for support to make that work?

    Not a single pastor in this thread who has said a pastor cannot find his closest friends in the church he serves really wants that to be the case. We’ve just experienced that it is not the case. It’s part of that same tension between “church as it shows up in the Bible” and “church as it shows up in the culture” that sparks so many other discussions.

  23. Louis says

    Can a pastor’s closest friends by church members? Of course.

    It seems natural to me that a pastor should love the people he pastors. And to love someone means to be their friend.

    Authentic discipleship that gets in the trenches with people requires a level of self-disclosure, as well as giving to others.

    This does not mean that pastors should not use wisdom, just as we do in all relationships, about what is shared and with whom. Having close friends in the congregation does not demand unfiltered disclosure to everyone. No one does that.

    There are certain tasks that do not require close friendship. One can preach effectively – walk up to the platform, preach, pray and leave the platform without even saying hello to people. Just think of all the radio and TV preachers with large and sincere followers whom they will never meet.

    But those pastoral duties, as important as they are, do not sum up the entire pastorate.

    Also, it seems that the pastor would benefit from having close friends in the congregation.

    I have seen this work well in our congregation for over 20 years. Our pastor’s closest friends are in the congregation. Our pastor has also been candid about his struggles with anxiety and depression. That has enhanced, not diminished, his ministry. Of course, problems like those, if they are debilitating, would disqualify one being an effective pastor. Also, if a pastor has serious moral failings, he should not be in the pastorate until he matures and is able to control those.

    Also, if a pastor has built or tries to project a model of pastoral ministry that is aloof so as to retain a certain prophetic distance, sharing struggles is disastrous because it ruins the image that the pastor is trying to project.

    But I question the wisdom and biblical warrant for such an approach. Though I realize it has been the approach and model for many pastors over decades.

    Lee Roberson, for example, the legendary pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church, whom I admired greatly, did not have any close friends in the church. Even his Associate Pastor, J.R. Faulkner, never had a meal in the Roberson home over the span of 40+ years of service with Dr. Roberson.

    But even the pastors of large churches such as Highland Park often had a handful of confidants in the church.