Should Pastors Be Close Friends With Church Members?
Relational dynamics in the church
Ministry can be a lonely profession. Pastors may feel like lay people can’t relate to them. And church members can easily isolate ministers unintentionally.
Of course, loneliness is a problem throughout society. More than half of the U.S. population (54 percent) is lonely, according to a 2018 survey from Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company and the market research firm Ipsos. But pastors face a unique dilemma, since figuring out where to find friends can be just as difficult as forming those relationships.
Like everyone else, pastors need friends. And it only makes sense that they would find them within the one group they spend the most time around: their church. On the other hand, friendships can be complicated. Is there a risk in befriending members of your congregation?
Should pastors become close friends with church members? In this issue’s Perspectives, we’ll look at two sides of this question. One argument is that pastors can and should seek out friendships among attendees. The other is that pastors can best serve the congregation when they seek close friends elsewhere.
In the end, there may not be a definitive answer. But looking at the question from different angles can help you make a more informed decision on how to develop friendships as a pastor.
Pastors can and should be friends with the people who attend their churches. Consider Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew 11:19, people criticized Him for being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And in John 15:13-15, Jesus called His disciples friends. Jesus wasn’t afraid to develop close relationships with those to whom He ministered.
In fact, Jesus established a paradigm for how ministers should relate to their congregations. He traveled with them, ate with them, cried with them, taught them and sent them out to teach. Jesus didn’t see them as servants or adherents. He treated them as friends. Pastors should do the same.
Churches are a great place for people to find close friends. The members of your congregation should be building relationships with one another. You want to see them strengthening, encouraging, sharpening and praying for one another. And they need to see you modeling this kind of friendship.
As a pastor, you are not just leading a church; you are part of that church. You are following Jesus and growing in your faith along with everyone else. Why not grow together, in the context of authentic friendships?
You are already close to those in your church. They share some of the most personal details of their lives with you. You share interests with them. And you already have a faith connection with them. At least once a week, you gather together in the same place to worship. These principles are foundational for healthy, Christ-affirming friendships.
Pastors face a unique dilemma, since figuring out where to find friends can be just as difficult as forming those relationships.
Where else besides your church will you find friends who are closer, share more in common and have a deeper faith connection? It would be hard to find them. Don’t neglect the best circle of friendships God has provided.
We understand that friendships can be complicated. But any relationship can be heavy with problems and tension. Think about those you minister to. You often see them at their worst, when they need the most help from you. That level of vulnerability can create fear and insecurity.
But it’s also an opportunity for freedom. You also see your church members at their best. And by being a friend first, you can share grace and hope on a whole new level with them. You get to show them a picture of Jesus, who is our first and best Friend.
There is a difference between being friendly and being friends. Of course, every pastor should be friendly with congregants. A personable and relatable minister is more effective. And authentic goodwill is a foundation of any influencer.
However, when it comes to developing close friendships, pastors are well advised to look beyond the walls of their churches. If you truly value friendships and what they mean, it is incredibly difficult to pastor someone while being close friends with them.
There are really three reasons this is the case. First, being friends with members of your church can lead to partiality. Even the most well-intentioned pastor can fall into this trap. As you spend time with a select few members of your congregation, they have your ear on certain matters. Their opinions will naturally shape yours. But by maintaining a distance from your flock, you can remain objective in all matters of church work.
Second, when you have friends in the church, you are tempted to play favorites. When others in the church see that you are spending time with one or two or even several people outside of services, they may wonder why they aren’t included. As a result, being friends with some in your church may undermine your efforts to come across as friendly to all.
Finally, friendships require vulnerability. Are you ready to share your struggles with people in your church? Yes, you need to show openness and honesty to everyone. But you may also need to keep details of your personal life to yourself — not to hide sin, of course, but to protect yourself and your family. That can make for a somewhat one-sided and inauthentic friendship.
But pastors do need close friends. How do you find that level of relationship with those who understand and can relate to you? The best place to look is not in your own church, but in other churches.
Seek out and develop friendships with other pastors and ministers. That may require some creativity — such as developing long-distance, or even online, friendships. Having a person close to you who understands your position and can be a safe sounding board for all your struggles is invaluable. It may be the only person who can fill that role is another minister like you.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Influence magazine.