Can Pastors Be Close Friends With Those They Also Pastor?
If I heard it once I heard it two dozen times. “Pastors should never be friends with members of their own congregation.” More than one of my professors in both my undergrad theology classes and my mDiv graduate classes offered this advice. As a young person I didn’t understand where they were coming from. I’ve always been a take me as I am kind of person. I have never liked being fake or inauthentic. It has always upset me when I’ve discovered that someone had lied to me. So for me, when my professors would suggest I could not be friends with members of my congregation, what I heard was something like, “Don’t trust your people. They’ll stab you in the back and use the personal information they have gleaned from your friendship to manipulate or control you later.”
Betrayal is a Fact of Life for the Leader
I’ve written elsewhere that I have come to realize and accept that betrayal isn’t optional for leaders. It comes with the territory. I had always been caught by surprise when I was betrayed by someone I loved, especially if that someone was a person I had come to see as a close friend. There isn’t one of us that enjoys being betrayed. It hurts deeply. It destroys trust and it robs us of our capacity to open ourselves up to others and be real with them.
As I write this article, my mind wanders back to times I have been betrayed by close friends. In high school I had a close friendship with a teen. We spent much time together. We had many interests in common. We enjoyed each other’s company. Yet, at certain times, one or the other said or did something to anger the other and we ended up either trading insults or sometimes even coming to blows over our disagreements or hurts. Inevitably though, we found a way to forgive each other and resume our friendship. As I think about it now, I was learning then that betrayal didn’t have the mean the end of a friendship.
I Have Been the Betrayer As Well…
If I am honest with myself and with you, I have often been betrayed but I have also often been the betrayer. When I was the betrayer I was usually not actively trying to hurt the other person. I was simply doing what I thought was best. Sometimes it was what I thought was best for me personally and sometimes it was what I thought was best for the organization. I know I have been responsible for deeply hurting some of the leaders I served under.
Some of these friendships recovered and others did not. Sometimes I’ve been able to help the leader understand why I betrayed them and sometimes it permanently hurt our relationship. Regardless of understanding of lack thereof, betrayal hurts the trust between leader and follower.
Don’t Love Because You Might Get Hurt
A few years back I was betrayed by an elder under my leadership who was almost like a father to me. The whole experience was very painful. It felt like a part of my heart was being ripped away. I had known that there were some issues between us but instead of being proactive about it, I kept hoping the person would come to me or that things would just work out. Now I see how I was trying to spare myself from difficult conversations with this person.
To make a long story short, this elder was influential in the congregation and was directly responsible for causing a third of the church to leave with him once he was disciplined. Many of my members didn’t understand how I and the leadership team could be so unloving. Many became convinced that we had a bitterness problem and were not willing to let bygones be bygones.
I had come to see this person as a member of my family. I shared things with him that were meant for his ears only. I often asked him to pray for me or for my marriage and family in very personal ways. When the conflict developed between us, these confidential conversations were used as a pretext for having me removed from leadership in the church.
I remember thinking to myself, “it was a mistake to share so deeply with someone in my congregation. My professors were right!” I immediately had a competing thought in that same moment. “If I didn’t share deeply, I could not love deeply.” I knew right then that my decision to love this person and my church was a decision to expose myself to deep hurt.
We Cannot Love Deeply if We Avoid the Risk of Getting Hurt
Consider the example of Jesus. To the crowd, Jesus often hid his true identity. He never did so with his disciples though. With his disciples Jesus chose to be open and real. Most times his disciples couldn’t relate to him. They couldn’t understand why he was doing the things he was doing. In spite of these challenges though, Jesus loved them. He believed in them. He was patient with them.
To make the choice to withhold our friendship from those we lead, we make the choice not to love them. We are also choosing to live behind a mask. Our people can never truly know us. We will be projecting a false self to them. I believe it is a major contributing factor to the lack of love and trust found in too many churches. As the leader does, so do the people. If we aren’t open and honest about our struggles, failures and doubts, how can we expect our people to be?
I’m not suggesting that we tell everyone all of our deepest darkest secrets. Even Jesus was careful about what he disclosed to whom. No, I’m simply suggesting that we need to be more open about our feelings, our struggles, our joys and our failures. You and I have always been and will always be sinners in need of salvation. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t always practice what we preach. We do sometimes get discouraged. Sometimes our doubts get the better of us. Sometimes we are paralyzed by fear.
The greatest gift I can give to those under my leadership is the gift of weakness and failure. I am not all things to all people. I am not the most holy person in my church. I am not the one who has it all together all the time. I fail more often than I succeed.
One thing I do have though. I have faith in my Saviour. I have faith in His love for me. I know that no matter how much of a failure I am or will be, God will always love me and will never give up on me.
Should we be friends with our parishioners? I can’t answer that question for you but I know that with God’s help, I will. I will lean into my pain. I will embrace the hurt. I will welcome the betrayal. Not because I am a masochist who loves pain. No. I hate pain as much as the next person. I will lean into the pain because that is the only way to truly love another person. I must have the courage to face the hard times. To face the possibility of being hurt knowing that with it come the joys and thrills of love.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments below…