November 16, 2015

Ministry Myth: You Can't Have Close Friends in Your Church

Photo: Flickr/Steve p2008
Recently, my husband and I had coffee with another pastor and his wife. Over the next few hours, we discussed our Christian testimonies, our families, and our churches. Eventually, one of them asked, “So, who are your friends?”

My husband began to list some of our dearest friends. The woman with whom I had a weekly prayer date for ten years. The woman who warmed our hearts with encouragement and our bodies with early-morning scrambled eggs and hot coffee. The woman who walked into my life as a teenager and stayed on as a kindred spirit.

I don’t know if it surprised the other couple, but it surprised me, a little. All of those friends were members of our church.

In my twelve years as a pastor’s wife, the one ministry manifesto I have heard repeated more than any other is: You can’t have close friends in your church. This prohibition is handed down to seminary wives and passed around ministry families like it’s gospel truth. Church people might be objects of ministry. They may be burdens or blessings. They could be acquaintances, neighbors, fellow-laborers even. But they can never be friends.

This, sisters, is a lie. The church of Christ is never—never!—us against them. It is never ministry families on one side and church people on the other. It is never pastor’s wives above or beyond or away from the women in the church. It is all of us together in Christ.

So, not only can we be close friends with church members, we ought to be close friends with church members. Here are three reasons why:

1. You are, in fact, close to the people in your church.

Whether or not you acknowledge it, the people of your local church are closer to you than almost anyone else. They are parts of the same body (1 Cor. 12), branches on the same tree (John 15), stones in the same building (Eph. 2). They are fellow-heirs of the kingdom, fellow-workers in the gospel, and fellow-citizens of heaven. Together, you are joined to Christ—both now and for eternity.

And the people in your church are the people with whom you engage in life’s most intimate activity. These are the people with whom you worship. We are most truly ourselves when we are offering worship before our God, and—week after week—it is the people in our church who alongside us lay themselves bare in prayer and song, in receiving the Word read and preached, in meeting together with God.

Friends outside the church are a blessing. But it’s the people who worship with me—who notice when my shoulders are slumped and my voice is weak, who share my tears and hear my “Amen”s, who are equally accountable to practice the Word we all heard preached—who are my dearest friends.

“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18). And he says to the pastor’s wife: I have chosen these particular people for my glory and your good. Here, right in these pews, are your friends.

2. Constraints are an incentive, rather than a hindrance, to true friendship.

I have written before, quoting Anne of Green Gables, about how the pastor’s wife can act as an “extra conscience” for the people in the church. But church members are also an extra conscience for the pastor’s wife. And this is a gift of the Spirit.

Too often, I fear that the reason we think we can’t be friends with the people in our church is that we misunderstand the nature of true friendship. If our friendships are based on the freedom to gossip about others, or to complain about our spouses and kids, or to worry aloud about our tight finances, or to find fault with Christ’s church, then we will not find those kind of friendships in our local body. But, of course, we should not seek those kinds of friendships anywhere.

Friendship with church members will necessarily be walled off from gossip and malice and foolishness. And if we are prevented from sin, we are freed to righteousness. With church members, we can rejoice in the Lord, seek his face, and pray to him. We can talk about his Word, savor the goodness of his creation, and thank him together for our blessings.

Our blessed contraints free us to delight together in the mutual Friend who first befriended us. What better friendship could we have?

3. Our friendships in the church encourage other friendships in the church.

Every pastor’s family I know would say that they desire the people in their church to form close friendships with one another—mutually encouraging and exhorting one another, caring for one another’s needs, seeking to love one another in their daily lives.

And yet pastors and their wives too often hold back from the very relationships they want others to have. If we do this, we fail to set an example for—and provide much-needed encouragement to—the body.

Friendship makes us vulnerable. Pastors’ wives know this, and I believe this is often the fear which underlies our failure to form friendships in the church. If you become close friends with church members, you might be misunderstood. You might be abandoned. You might be mistreated, accused, slandered, or manipulated. You might get hurt. Friendship requires that we—like our Christ before us—venture everything knowing that we may be rejected and despised.

But our willingness will be a blessing to our church. Every person in the church—pastor’s wife or six-year-old or single mom or elderly widow—must face the fear of rejection and form friendships anyway. And if the pastor’s wife will go ahead and point the way, if the pastor’s wife will reach out rather than holding back, if the pastor’s wife will lay herself open and lay herself down, others may find courage to do the same.

A few months ago, we moved to a new church. I’m not yet sure who my close friends will be, but I know they are there, chosen by my God, sitting in these pews, ready to grow up into Christ together with me.

_____
Other Ministry Myths:
Your Children Will Reject the Church
You Must Know All, See All
Your Husband is Married to Your Church

You  Must Have Musical Talent or Teaching Gifts

6 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, there are (many) situations in which it doesn't work to have close friends in your church...& it's not just because I want friends to gossip with and complain to about my husband and kids. Pastor's wives who ARE in situations where they are blessed to have close friends in their church should praise the Lord for that tremendous blessing...and please don't look down upon those of us who aren't in similar situations and make us feel like we don't have close friends in our churches because we're doing something wrong. It's hard enough struggling through the heavy loneliness, without feeling like our "ministry sisters" are against us too.

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    1. I realize there are some extraordinarily tough situations that my sisters face in the church. I'm just objecting to making "no friends" a rule for life in ministry.

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  3. Dear Anonymous sister in ministry, I believe that the intent of this fine article was not to put anextra burden upon already tired shoulders. In no way is this article saying that just because you do not have those kinds of friends, then you are doing something wrong. That is only between your conscience and God, and only you can determine that. It surely is not the intent of the article to hurt your feelings or to look down upon persons. Its purpose was to analyze the validity of this idea, of this rule of thumb that we have been feed by the previous generation of pastor`s wifes. The first time my wife and I heard in a PCA related seminary was shocking. It seems that this very rule is feed to seminarians everywhere. Sadly! It should not be like that, and I say this 36 hours after my wife and I were tempted to think that our professors were right. This article came to us in the right time. We shall get hurt again, and that is ok by us. That rule is wrong no matter how many times we get hurt.

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  4. Often, those people become your friends, who are close to you most of the time and who think in the similar way as you do. I am pretty sure that those are people from your church.

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  5. Another anonymous... :) It is an interesting subject. When we started off the ministry (15.5 years ago) I had the same advice by all older pastors wife's at a meeting for pastor's wifes. (If there were some with opposite ideas they did not speak up.)
    After a little more then 15 years in ministry I can understand why they said that.
    Most of their advice came from their own negative experience and wanted to protect us- the young ones from hurt. Lets be honest, as in any relationship if you open yourself up you might be hurt.
    It is also a question of how close our close friends should be? How much do we tell them about our personal life and struggles. One finds it easier to befriend people then the other. Also our "need to talk with someone" other then our husband is different. I thank God for my closer friends from our church. We can pray together and have fun too, but I also have an older friend who is not a member of our church and I confess can be more open with her. Conclusion would be my closest friend is not from our church.  Yes, it could be very difficult and challenging to have close friends from our church. But Jesus had close friends too among the twelve, and had singled out John from the three close ones and he was called "the loved one". While we were told not to have close friends in order not to get hurt or not to offend the other members in the congregation, Jesus did not care about that. His example is enough for me. :)

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