“Son,” the pastor whispered to me as he put his hand on my shoulder, “You need to listen up to what I’m about to tell you, because it will be the key to your ministry success.”
I leaned in, eager to hear this crucial insight.
“Don’t become friends with anyone in your congregation.”
This pastor was only a few years older than me, but he’d grown up in a pastor’s home. He was scarred from the abuse he’d seen his father suffer and from his own experiences in ministry.
To be fair, his advice did contain some bits of wisdom. There is a danger for leaders in allowing friendship to cloud judgment or show favoritism. If we’re not careful, we’ll allow ministry to either damage relationships or to keep us from necessary confrontations. I think he was genuinely trying to warn me about these pitfalls.
But is this detached view of leadership, espoused in many leadership models, a good one for the pastor? Is the risk of being hurt by possible betrayals a good reason to adopt an “above the fray” approach?
I didn’t think so, for a few reasons.
First, my wife and I just didn’t know how to not make friends with the people we served. We are both natural extroverts who thrive on relationships. More important, we didn’t see a way to faithfully serve our small congregation without investing fully in their lives, forming friendships, and being vulnerable. In other words, how would we live and work among humans without being fully human?
Second, I don’t see a detachment from people in Jesus’ public ministry. Yes, Jesus took time to get away from the crowds and be alone—something too few pastors do—but this is the same Jesus who purposefully chose, discipled, and cultivated 12 men to walk closely with him for three years. What’s more, Jesus further winnowed his inner circle to three: Peter, James, and John and had perhaps a best friend in John, often described as “the Apostle whom Jesus loved.”
So Jesus, the Good Shepherd, had good friends. He chose a best friend. How can we do less? Of course, there are a few considerations. Unlike Jesus, by choosing and forming deep friendship with a few parishioners, we can form an unhealthy bubble and be isolated from real issues and legitimate criticism. We can also send a signal that we favor, both in our preaching and in our service, certain people over others. Jesus didn’t allow his close friendships to keep him from ministry to others—and neither should we.
Third, not developing friends with your parishioners leaves you isolated. And isolation in ministry is dangerous. I’ve observed that every pastor is a preacher, but not every preacher is a pastor. There is a tendency among pastors who (rightly) prioritize personal study to disconnect from the congregation and function as glorified conferences speaker. We become someone everybody shows up to hear once a week to deliver a sermon.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of preaching. Jesus told Peter in that famous walk on the beach in John 21 to “feed my sheep.” God’s people need the regular, systematic, lifelong feeding on the Word of God. Pastors cannot be less than preachers, but they should be so much more. In fact, I feel strongly that a pastor who is isolated from his congregation, who never makes deep friendships, who is detached from the real-world, daily struggles of those who walk in the doors will not be able to effectively shepherd his own people.
It shows up in your preaching. When I pastored, I preached differently after having conversations with my people. I had their faces in my mind as I prepared. I thought of the restaurant executive who was under constant pressure to see his franchises pull bigger profits. I saw the college student who faced a daily barrage of anti-Christian rhetoric from his professors and classmates. I saw the homeschooling mom who felt inadequate, most days, to do her job.
If you don’t know your people, if you are not friends with them, if you do not share your life, your vulnerabilities, even your fears with them, you will not have the relationship capital to then shepherd them well through the seasons of life.
In my current role working for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, I’ve had the chance to hear a lot of different pastors in a lot of different churches. I can tell the ones who have been among their people. There is an earthiness to them. They are . . . shepherds. I can also tell the pastors who are essentially conference speakers. They preach awesome, well-crafted sermons, sermons that edify and educate. But there is a kind of academic, ivory-tower feel to what they are saying. It sails right past the guy who works 70 hours at the warehouse and the single mom who waits tables.
There are a lot of people who can preach well. But far fewer are willing to pastor. Some argue that these are separate gifts and it is true that, especially in larger churches, different people will be called to different roles. Pastors of large churches can’t possibly befriend everyone who walks in the door on Sunday nor should they be guilted into thinking they should. Neither Jesus nor Paul were personal friends with most of those who heard their preaching.
And yet, pastors should at least be friends with some in their congregations. Some of their best friends should be from among the people they serve. There is certainly a risk to forming these kinds of bonds, but there is also great reward, both personally and for the ministry as a whole. Some of my best, most enriching and sanctifying relationships are with people whom I pastored.
So, with all due respect to that pastor who gave me the advice to “not get too close” to the people I served, I would give the opposite advice. If you are going to shepherd God’s people faithfully, don’t do it from afar, detached, and disengaged. Roll up your relational sleeves and live among them. This will be the key to your ministry success.
This article was originally published here.