In the gospel of John, Jesus ends his earthly ministry by calling attention to these deep friendships that have marked his life. There are risks that pastors take by becoming friends with those in the parish.
“No one has greater love than this,” Jesus says, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. First, an element of trust is needed, both on the part of parishioner and pastor.
Establishing this trust — and learning how much one can trust in both the giving and the receiving of friendship — is often a fine line and also requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence.Perhaps the most common experience among pastors, as far as friendship is concerned, is trusting a parishioner with one’s thoughts, feelings, and even vulnerabilities — only to discover that these are betrayed.Ask ten pastors if it is a good idea to have close friends in the parish and you are likely to get several answers, with nuances ranging from “some of my best friends are in the church” to “it is not a good idea to be friends with anyone in your parish.” Other pastors, as indicated by the alarming statistics assembled by John Maxwell (CEO of In Joy, author of books such as , and former Wesleyan pastor) would indicate that over 70% of pastors have no close friends at all.Indeed, many pastors live out their ministry in isolation and loneliness.Or, as Barbara Brown Taylor describes her decision to leave parish ministry, she eventually suffered from “compassion burnout.” Translation: she cared too much about the people she was serving and could not divest herself, emotionally, from the cares, tribulations and struggles of her friends in the parish.
Friendship in the parish has, of course, always been debated among pastors.
I can sense discomfort from the other side of the table, as the man across from me tells me about his devout parents who make yearly trips to Israel, or reminisces about the church camp he went to as a kid, or jokingly confesses all the reasons he is certain he’s going to hell. I’m sure my brain blocked it out as part of some anti-creepy defense mechanism. “No,” I yelled back, “I’m the officiating minister.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say, and was gone before the bartender finished mixing our drinks. Some were from Christians who felt the need to share with me their belief that women couldn’t be ministers.
Then there was the guy who responded with, “A minister? I went to Catholic school, and there was this one nun . Bars aren’t my usual scene, and even when I am in one (on a rare night away from work), I mostly stick with my friends. So, like a lot of twenty-first century singletons, I turned to online dating sites. Their messages were made up mainly of quotations from the apostle Paul about women keeping silent.
But friendship is also invested with enormous grace and abundant blessings — far more than a pastor’s small compensation and long hours can reward.
The pastor as friend is also the model that Jesus used in his relationships. Servant leadership — the kind exhibited by pastors — is fraught with the struggles and hardships of friendship.
Essentially, Peterson served one congregation his entire ministry, and in and through that time could not have survived (nor thrived) without the friendships that developed over those years. Some of these ingredients include: Pastors need not suffer from “compassion burnout” — becoming so engrossed in every nook and cranny of pain — in order to be a great friend, or to have friends in the parish.