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Can a lead pastor have close friends?

This question was posed to me by a client last week. My initial reaction? “Yes of course.” But as we dug deeper, he wondered if it’s safe/advisable to be close friends with his staff and congregation. The longer we talked, the more I realized the answer to his question isn’t a simple yes or no.

So I sent out three questions related to this subject to several lead pastors. Each of them have proven ministries and served successfully for 7+ years in their role. Here is a summary feedback:

Can/should a lead pastor be close friends with his staff?

“It can happen, but it should be organic, not a defined goal. I think there may always need to be a separation between friendship and leadership roles. I’m not sure successful pastors in the future will be able to keep the lines as defined as they may have been in previous generations. Relationships with your staff absolutely matter, but at what level depends on the staff and lead pastor. “

“Yes, but with clear understanding of not losing respect. There’s a difference between a friend and a buddy. It must be clearly understood there will be times of tough conversations in love.”

“I struggle with the word “close” as it can mean a number of things. The most notable definition is a friend who I can be myself with, enjoy myself with, and talk to about anything on my heart.  I think we can walk in “close relationship” with our staff without being BFFs with everyone. I’m close with my staff. I can hang out with my staff. But I set certain boundaries in the relationship. I see that with Christ. Sometimes He was with the multitude. Sometimes He was with the 12. Other times He was with the 3. Then there were the moments He needed limited solitude away from everyone.”

Can/should a lead pastor be close friends with people in his congregation?

“A church should expect the lead pastor (as well as the lead pastor’s family) to have every kind and level of relationship experienced by other believers in the church family.  These include everything from casual acquaintances to intimate friendships.  These relationships won’t be static but dynamic and will change from time to time, as all relationships do.”

“Yes. I have met with a group of guys for coffee for the past 6 years almost every Tuesday. They’ve walked with me through dark times and I have walked with them through dark times! They’ve been a HUGE BLESSING to me. They have been a big help in my longevity.”

“I think there can and should be friendships. But there can be a difference in “closeness” and “connected” in relationships. But boundaries must always be understood. There are people who “feel” they are closer to me than I am to them (which gets me in trouble more often than I like). There are others, because of the closeness of ministries I’m involved in, are a bit more connected to me by virtue of proximity. But unfettered relationships within your congregation is dangerous, because a lack of boundaries = a lack of stewardship. For example, I do my best to avoid those I’m close too and more connected to for most of my Sunday AM. It seems to me Lazarus was (1) someone who followed Jesus and (2) had a deeper connection to Jesus. You don’t read much about him other than Jesus spent time in his house whenever he came to town (and the obvious raising of Lazarus from the dead). Jesus had a friendship that didn’t consume him away from effective ministry.”

What are some landmines to be aware of in regards to being close friends with staff or attendees?

“If staff are close friends then sometimes a lead pastor may be too kind when he needs to be directive. If staff are close friends, then some staff may feel jealous of that relationship and it can create contention.”

 “Allowing the friendships to trump leadership. I have in the past not confronted out of fear of how it would impact the friendship. I try to be proactive now in communicating that due to my calling and our corporate vision, tough conversations in love are a part of the friendship.”

“For both staff and congregation: lack of boundaries. Giving someone permission to be your “friend” doesn’t give them access to every part of your life. Like the CIA, there are levels of security clearance. It’s not about favorites, but levels of trust.”

“Considering friendships in decision making: A healthy/correct decision is healthy regardless of who’s going to like it. When you start considering your friendships more than right directions to take, well…”

“Motivation: Are you really looking for friendship or validation? Are you needing relationships or are you just looking to surround yourself with people who love to be the pastor’s friend?”

“People looking to position themselves as your right hand person.”

“Giving someone a position just because of a friendship.”

 

Great feedback from my friends, wouldn’t you agree?. If you’re a lead pastor working your way through the complexity of friendship, their thoughts provide a lot to chew on.

Let me close this out with three ideas:

All friendships carry risk

Friendship risk is not isolated to church settings. Every relationship we have inside and outside the church carries the potential for injury. But to me, the benefits of deep friendship outweigh the risk. In fact, we’re probably at more risk without friendships than we are with them.

God created us for friendship

Lead pastors need ministry from the body of Christ just as much as the body of Christ needs ministry from them.  I understand the church as it’s constituted today can make that impractical. Congregations tend to put lead pastors on a pedestal (sometimes leaders put themselves up there). Church people often think their pastor doesn’t struggle with the same temptations they do. Unfortunately, these behaviors make friendship difficult.

Satan can take out pastors more easily when they’re isolated

Periodic solitude is a good thing. Long-term isolation is not. When isolated, it’s easier to believe the lies Satan whispers to us. It’s easier to believe the lies we tell ourselves. Without deep friendships, we’re vulnerable to the devil’s attacks. Even Jesus needed friends. He said to His disciples: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials.” (Luke 22:28)

So when it comes to friendship and the pastorate, wisdom suggests we avoid the extreme of no friends, or the extreme of everybody’s my friend. Health is somewhere in the middle.

I’m rooting and praying for you!

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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