Friendship in the Church

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship in these days.  Friendship and ministry.  Friends in congregations.  In my seminary experience over 26 years ago, there was an emphasis (and often there still is) on maintaining such boundaries that we do not become friends with the people in congregations we serve.  The danger of getting too close to be their pastor has been outlined in detail. There is the danger of favoritism.  The danger of losing objectivity (the whole concept of objectivity in ministry can be called into question.)   Our friendships were supposed to be outside the congregation.

Indeed, some are beyond the congregation and those friendships carry traits and qualities that differ.  They can offer a freedom that we may not be able to achieve when we are someone’s pastor.  But the truth is that I have never been successful at limiting my friends to those outside the congregation.  I do have dear friends within each congregation I serve.  And I have come to see that as good.  Not only good, but grounded in our faith.  I grow to love the people with whom I live in church community.  It is a love that I call friendship.  Hopefully, the kind of friendship in which we call each other to accountability in ministry.  And the kind of friendship in which I remain clear about my role as pastor, and each person is able to relate to me as pastor and friend.  That complex relationship takes on a different look in each individual case.

Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.”  In that claim, a level and quality of relationship is established between Jesus and those who follow him.  Surely ‘friend’ is lifted up and even redefined as the basis of a relationship of faith and trust. As we in the church model faithful relationship, are we not called to be friends?

Within our role as pastors, we care and pray for those who are ill. We stand at the threshold with those who are dying to this life and entering the next.  We journey through grief with those who experience loss.  We are present with those negotiating the hurdles of life.  We work with the church and the community through conflict and differences as we address issues of justice.  I have discovered over many years and am currently reminded that ministry is transformed by friendship, just as friendship is transformed by ministry.

When I call one ‘friend’, my presence in illness and in grief, in conflict, joy and pain is transformed.  It is  harder and it is richer.   When I call one ‘friend’ I can no longer hide behind a mask of invulnerability; I learn that we care for each other in the community of the church.  I’ll never forget a sermon preached by Dr. Fred Craddock.  It was at a General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciple of Christ) when he was addressing pastors in particular.  At one point he said, “if you are feeling alone, join a church!”  As I remember there was laughter; some of it nervous laughter.  Unspoken questions floated on the air:  Are we supposed to find our community in the church?  How can the church meet our needs for friendship when we are the pastor?

I don’t know the answers to all the questions about pastoral identity and friendship within the church community.  I do know that for many of us, our lives are in the Church.  The people with whom we share our deepest passions and faith are in the Church.  In particular, they are very often in the congregations we serve.

And so I know that I ache when my friend is ill with cancer or with AIDS.

I shed tears when a friend grieves a painful loss.

I grieve when a friend leaves the congregation … for whatever reason.

I miss and long to see those who are away — whether across the country or across the world.

I am overwhelmed with joy when a friend has a baby.

I am proud and want to celebrate with a friend who graduates or begins a new job.

Thanks be to God, who calls us friends.