More Than A Pastor: A New Year’s Resolution

by Chris TerryNelson

It all started with an article in the Christian Century by a pastor and professor (and soon to be president of my alma mater, Princeton Seminary) Dr. Craig Barnes.  It has the rather straightforward thesis as its title: “Pastor, Not Friend.”  Landon Whitsitt has done a remarkable job in responding to Barnes with his post entitled “Pastor AND Friend.”  

There is a lot happening in the subtext of this topic (a favorite word of Barnes in his seminal book, The Pastor as Minor Poet).  Obviously we need to name the pastor/friend dichotomy as unnecessary.  But, in a sense, the distinction IS necessary depending on who the pastor is, and who the congregant is.  There simply is no one-size-fits-all-approach to this issue.

In my first two years of ministry that I have become close friends with certain congregants – mostly those who are of a similar age/life situation (young parents).  There are others with whom I am colleagues, much like Barnes’ elder Jack, and we share quite a bit of life together beyond our church business.   There are many who attend church who I sense a kinship with but simply haven’t been able to get to know better yet.  There are others who are very glad I’m at the church because they like my performance, and their support is all the mutuality I will receive.  There are perhaps others who are not so happy with my performance but are still coming to church for other more important reasons.

These last two groups I would not consider friends.  Through an organic negotiation over time, it has become clear that, for now, I am their professional pastor.  The first two groups, however, center on trust and intimacy, and that means that while I am their professional pastor, I have become more than that.  I have become their friend.

On the one hand, I am realistic.  The Church is a diverse group of people, and it is clear that one cannot find a sense of kinship and friendship with everybody.  And surely, one can even speak to varying degrees of trust and intimacy between friends, which why Facebook allows us to label our friends as “Close friends” vs. “Acquaintances.”

On the other hand, my personal preference would be for all of us to be friends.  I would rather use my preaching/teaching profession as a means to this end.

Barnes speaks about being ordained to a kind of holy loneliness by virtue of the nature of the call, and I’m sure that accepting one’s role as a professional keeps things very decent and in order.  But our world is not decent and in order, and frankly people my age are not willing to share their lives with a professional (only an emergency will send them into my office, or that of a therapist).  Instead, they want a friend.  Not a professional friend either, where friendship is a means to some other end.

The good news is that this mode of relation is itself a medium of good news.  Jesus called his disciples friends.  He depended on others.  He was vulnerable with others.  He did not have friends outside of his ministry.  And yes, it was messy – they wanted to be his favorites, and yet they misunderstood him, disappointed him, even betrayed him.

I sometimes wonder if the reason pastors prefer to keep a professional distance and have a universal rule of “no friends in church” is to keep themselves from getting hurt.  Or, perhaps more likely, if this is intended to keep pastors from hurting others unintentionally (like Elder Jack).  But the question I sense my own generational peers asking is this:  “How do I know you’re for real?”  The answer?  Friendship.

I took the call to my current church not knowing anyone as a friend.  Instead, I was known and installed as the professional pastor.  I tried to find friends outside of church, and I did.  They have been wonderful.  But that was not enough, and it shouldn’t be enough.  I needed to be more than a professional pastor, I needed to be a friend.  And this is about meeting two needs: first, the need to be faithful to my own vision of what a Christian community should be like.  And second, the need to be loved and appreciated as the person who I am, not as the professional.  Now you might say: “why can’t being professional be incorporated into your person, Chris?”  Well, the truth of the matter is, I don’t want my relationships with people in church to be made or broken based on my performance.  That is not mutuality.  That’s business.  It’s also called works-righteousness, which is possible not only in our relationship with God but also (especially!) with other people.

While I will remain faithful to my calling as Teaching Elder, I will do so in a way that refuses professional distance (sorry Barnes).  I will be pouring my best energy into those I can call my friends, because I would rather drink deeply from waters that are sustaining rather than attempting to please people by becoming someone I am not (or not yet).  This is who I am.  This is what I value.  And even if not everyone can be my friend right here and right now, my hope and prayer is that everyone will have a friend in our community.  One must simply love friendship for its own sake.  We must love people for their own sake.  We have failed at this, using relationships and people as a means to an end, usually compensating for something we think we lack in our lives.

I am no doubt failing according to the traditional metrics of church health and success, and this has caused me unnecessary grief and heartache over whether I belong where I am.  Giving is down, attendance is down, and I have not baptized a single convert in my time as pastor.  But I have more friends than I started out with, and I have seen friendships form that did not previously exist.  Some might say I’m settling for less than what God wants.  I think what God wants is right under our noses.

Finally, I implore you: do not make a new year’s resolution that attempts to add something extra to your self.  If anything, make a resolution to accept who you already are.  And enjoy the next year with people who accept you as you are.

*note: I have not offered an exhaustive definition of “friendship,” beyond vague notions of mutuality.  That’s because I don’t really know what it is I’m looking for: friendship is a mysterious thing, like love.  Like God, even.