Pastors and Close Friends

I quoted some statistics from Christianity Today in a post awhile back, but the point was to address another article written about those statistics. I was looking at the stats again, and another figure caught my eye.

It looks like most pastors (in this survey, anyways) have 3-5 “close friends” in their congregations (this excludes family members). Some have more, and there are even a few that say that they have 0-1 “close friends” in their own congregation. I wonder if this is by policy (befriend people outside of your church so that you have someone to talk to about church issues without causing drama) or by the nature of the position (hard to befriend someone who you think of as a true authority figure, or something to that effect). I’m only speculating, but I did find the numbers fascinating.

For starters, I have no idea what Christianity Today asked that led to this figure, or if they clarified the term “close friends.” Does that mean someone who you consider a peer, but who is close enough to you that they come over for holidays? Or perhaps someone who calls you on your sin, specifically and directly? Or maybe it means someone that you take time to see that you normally wouldn’t see, and do so regularly? I’m not sure how “close friend” is defined for me or for a pastor, some days.

And yet, I know for a fact that I have close friends. I have people that I trust, that I confide in, and people who both suffer and rejoice with me. I think perhaps the last point is where I’d likely define “close friend” if pressed; someone who I consider to be a close friend mourns when I mourn and rejoices when I rejoice. Perhaps I place empathy high on my list of concerns when considering how to ‘rank’ my relationships, but it does seem to speak some truth. After all, if you are going to mourn with someone, you need to not only know that they are mourning (which may be more or less obvious, depending on the person), but you also need to know what it is that makes them mourn. The same goes for rejoicing, I think. I have some friends that can predict what sorts of things will bring a smile to my face, and they pass those sorts of things along when they can. Sharing joy and fun comes easily to most people (who doesn’t like to be happy?), but taking mourning and embracing someone else’s pain as your own is far more difficult.

This is what makes those friends who do sit in mourning with you all the more valuable. There are some people who are consistently willing to step into my emotional and psychological state (and I into theirs) when we spend time together, but I wanted to relate a short period in my life where it seemed that everyone around me was a “close friend.”

I went off to college half a decade ago (actually a little more than that, but I don’t even want to admit to that time), and I was privileged to live with someone I’d known for a few years. Beyond that and a cousin, I knew no one at my school. I spent my first semester getting to know people as best I could, between schoolwork and keeping up with friends from home, that is. I made some friends, and definitely had a lot of fun, but I didn’t have many “deep” friendships. I hadn’t gone through anything that shattered my conceptions of the world, and save for one friend, I had barely witnessed anything dramatic at all. I had laughed a great deal and grown to care deeply for the people I had met, but there was no easy way to determine which friendships would last the test of time.

And then it happened. The unthinkable. My world felt like it was shattering around me. My dad died.

It wasn’t quite as sudden as perhaps it sounds there, but no matter the preparation I had (which was limited), it still felt like I had only just seen the truck that was smashing my little car.

I instinctively turned to the people around me, and they supported me. Never had I known what it was for people to weep with me, and I will never forget those people. Some have drifted off and our lives have separated, but I will never forget the compassion and love they showed for me in those days. A few have stayed close to me ever since, and I have only continued to grow in my affection and care for those people.

It seemed that everyone who heard about my story was deeply and truly grieved not just for me; these people were grieving with me. This, I think, was the definition of Christian love and hospitality. These people became my brothers and sisters in function and not just word, crying as if their own fathers had just died as well.

These people, I think, are people I would call brothers and sisters in Christ more aptly than close friends, though many of them have become close friends since then.

To bring it back to the statistics, close friends are the sorts of people who live our lives with us, in community. I think that, ideally, our lives should be deeply integrated with our church home. This group of people we worship with on Sunday is, after all, the same group many refer to as a “church family,” and I think the term can be accurate. I’d hope that pastors find their friends in their churches too. I don’t think being in the position of pastor needs to negate friendship as a possibility. I may have never been a pastor (in spite of my Grandma insisting on calling me Reverend Arnold, based on my undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies), but I’ve been friends with my pastors. I’ve been able to sit with my (former) youth pastor and ask about what he is struggling with. I’ve been able to grieve with elders and rejoice with pastors. I once even got a pastor of mine to play Rock Band during Thanksgiving.

I don’t know how many close friends one can maintain at any given time. I suspect this varies with work duties, personalities, and other circumstances. But I do think that part of a pastor’s “job” should be maintaining some sort of friendship with the members of his congregation.  After all, even Jesus called us friends, and he was the savior of the world. It seems to me that a good number of a pastor’s close friends, percentage wise, should come from within his congregation. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it strikes me as a good principle.

(Image is from Flickr.)

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • J Arnold

    Well written and well expressed … Love you son! Mom