Pastors shouldn’t have friends in the congregation…

I’ve heard several pastors discuss boundaries and friendship within their congregations. Seminaries and other pastors trained many of them not to make friends in the congregation. Several years ago, I heard an older pastor say that he didn’t have close friends. “I thought that was one of the sacrifices of ministry,” he said.

One pastor writes here about how he used to have his closest friends in the congregation. He refused to be like those older pastors “who stood somewhat aloof from their congregations.” But then he noticed something: he’s not perfect, and his congregation didn’t like grappling with the realities of his flaws. Now, he says, “I keep my spiritual struggles and personal issues to myself (and my wife).”

This mentality persists for preparing pastors. I share often in seminary classes about discipleship groups in our church. We ask questions like, “How is your soul?” and “Have you done all the good you could and avoided all the evil you could this week?” One question I receive every time: “Do you participate in one of these groups?” Most of them have been told by someone that a pastor shouldn’t share in that way with his or her congregation.

My answer to those classes: You better believe I participate. How could I expect any culture of honesty and vulnerability and growth if I stand outside it?

I tell those classes each time that if I’m living in a way that’s inappropriate for a pastor to live, then the problem isn’t that I’m sharing it, the problem is that I’m a pastor. I need to go confess to the right person (which in this case wouldn’t just be my group) and get out. But if I’m confessing to my group—even my congregation on occasion—that I, too, have spiritual struggles, I don’t think this diminishes my ability to lead. In many ways, it’s part of my leadership imperative—to be honest that I’m a fellow struggler.

In his brilliant book The Witness of Preaching, Thomas Long says, “How a preacher enters the place of worship is not just a practical matter; it is a theological issue.” He talks about how most preachers emerge “from somewhere outside; the preacher comes from somewhere else into the place where the congregation waits.”

But then he notes that theologically, “we come from within the community of faith and not to it from the outside.”[1] That has theological implications for how the preacher would enter the place of worship, according to Long:

We would come from the pew to the pulpit, from the nave to our place in the chancel, from the middle of the congregation to the place of leadership. For most church settings it may seem somewhat far-fetched to imagine a minister rising from a pew to give the call to worship or to preach the sermon, but this is precisely the picture of the Christian church at worship portrayed by Jürgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit: […] ‘How, then, are we to understand the position of [those who lead the congregation in worship]? They come from God’s people, stand up in front of God’s people and act in God’s name.’”

According to Long, the whole vision of the preacher should be as one who comes from within the community of faith and not from outside. The pastor is one of the people—yes, set apart for a particular role within the community, but always still coming from within. If we take that view of the pastor to heart, we should be concerned with far more than how the preacher enters the place of worship. We should be concerned with how the pastor interacts with the congregation—not as an outsider sent or called to do a duty, but as a member of that community, with the privilege of serving it in this way.

If Long’s view of the preacher/pastor is correct, then it would be absurd for us to avoid deep friendships within our congregations. Instead, we may even find our own spiritual support from within the congregation. This may sound frightening for those who view the pastoral role as more akin to a licensed counselor (who for good reason should not be friends with his/her clients). But maybe that view of the pastoral role needs to go. I much prefer how Long and Moltmann understand it.

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[1] Of course, this notion draws into question not just how preachers enter worship, but how pastors are appointed. In the UMC, we expect our pastors to be sent to us “from the outside.” Churches that “call” their pastors from somewhere else expect the same.

How few congregations embrace the crazy idea that their next leader(s) may already be in the room! How much would that one change of assumptions change about a church?

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