Clergy & Laity: Why doesn’t the minister have any friends at church?

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_bLBPZAiyuwA/SQkMldOkY5I/AAAAAAAAAJY/FlxoD65cNcE/s400/clerical_collar_9.jpgAs I’ve said before, I’ve never been in full-time ministry. But I’ve hung around ministers and ministers’ kids all my life. And I’ve observed that many ministers struggle to make friends.

Think about your home congregation. Who are your preacher’s best friends? Who will preach his funeral? If he couldn’t do it, who’d preach his daughter’s wedding?

Now, there are, of course, levels of friendship. The preacher may some friends who invite him to football games or to go fishing, but whose home does he visit on Friday nights? Who does he call to help fix the garage door — when he’s the guy who broke it? Who knows how much trouble he’s having raising his 12-year old daughter? Who at church is his BFF?

Charles Crismier writes,

On my daily broadcast, Viewpoint, I interviewed H.B. London, head of pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family, on the topic Pastors at Risk. London disclosed that at least 70 percent of pastors in the United States claim they have no friends.

In “How to Be Your Pastor’s Friend,” Robert P. Fry, Jr. writes,

Why is it that many of our pastors — ”the people we respect and admire most” — lead lonely lives?

And why do many lay leaders feel frustrated in their attempts to build a friendship with their pastor?

On the one hand, there is a tendency in every congregation to canonize the pastor in a way that Catholics wisely reserve for those long dead. We don’t often argue politics, complain about the schools, ask him (or her) to help fix our fence, or tell him our favorite jokes out of a misguided notion that these things (and our interest in them) are somehow beneath him.

On the other hand, in many congregations the pastor is also the designated target of criticism. If the sermon is too long or the hymns are too new, if the denomination is too liberal or there is not enough parking, the pastor takes the heat.

You see, I think one of the biggest causes of burn out among ministers is the lack of tight friendships — sometimes combined with a Messiah-complex, that is, the idea that he has to do all alone.

People need friends. It’s one of those fundamental need things. The preacher’s wife should be his very best friend, but she’s likely not the hunting/fishing/football watching kind of friend. Some men have such wives, but most do not. Men need someone to golf or repair the house with — someone they don’t sleep with.

And, I should add, I suspect one reason so many preacher struggle with sexual sin is the lack of strong connections with a male friend. Women are more relational than men and often much easier to befriend. But male-female friendships often morph into affairs.

For some reason, preachers as a class struggle in this area. And here are my theories –

1. Preachers move. Job turnover is high, and leaving good friends behind is painful. Sometimes it’s just easier to focus on the church and family and leave friends out.

2. Preachers are often the most highly educated person in the church. The preacher with multiple graduate degrees in a blue collar congregation may have trouble finding someone who enjoys what he enjoys.

3. Many preachers are introverts by nature. They may do very well in front of a crowd or a classroom and yet struggle in one-to-one relationships.

4. Preachers have to minister to the congregation, have to recruit, rebuke, and assign duties. Having friends can create political issues when it’s your buddy who needs to be rebuked. And it’s just plain hard to counsel your best friend on divorce — because it hurts so much.

5. Then there’s that Messiah complex again. If the preacher lets down his guard, says a naughty word on a fishing trip, loses his temper, leers at a pretty girl — there are repercussions. He just can’t let down his guard with members of the congregation.

6. People often don’t feel comfortable befriending the minister. After all, he’s awfully busy. And he’s bad to use stories about his friends in his sermons. Besides, such a great guy probably already has more people calling him than he can handle. And maybe the person just doesn’t feel comfortable in the presence of such, you know, holiness. I mean, imagine going fishing with someone who always speaks with three points each beginning with the same letter!

So I have this crazy idea. Someone in every church should make a point of befriending the preacher. It’s not enough to invite him over for dinner. He’ll feel he has to be “on” and might even have to counsel someone. Invite him over for cards. Or to play golf. Or to watch a game — but don’t just meet him there. Pick him up. Talk about kids.

And don’t ask anything from him other than his presence. Don’t ask him how to improve your marriage or to define the meaning of “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” or his views on Obama. Just talk about the kids, the weather, how he met his wife … that sort of thing. Flee any subject that requires him to put his collar on (you know, the collar all our preachers wear all the while denying they wear a collar).

Oh, and I’d make a point of making him the butt of a joke or two. I might laugh as his golf clothes, or his hair, or his ears. Women find this sort of male bonding ritual just terribly puzzling, even offensive, but it’s how guys say, “You aren’t perfect and I love you anyway. And I think you love me so much that I can make fun of you in front of our friends and expect our friendship to survive it.”  That’s how guys do it. Make fun of your preacher! Not cruel fun. You know the difference.

And keep secrets. Without exception. If your preacher friend confides in you about his struggles with the elders, don’t tell anyone else — even your wife. Be a safe place. Even if you don’t know the answer. Unless you have his express permission: “I don’t know Br. Jones very well, but my wife does. May I ask for her input? She’s good at keeping a secret.” Not all men can keep a secret. Be one of the few who can.

Don’t be afraid to initiate the relationship. Guys can be painfully shy about this stuff. Just call and invite him to do something. Better than golf is yardwork. Acquaintances golf. Friends break up dirt for the garden. If he says no, try again. You may not hit it off, and so don’t let this become a ministry. Just give it a shot.

Don’t be afraid to be yourself. The last thing you should do is pretend to be Mr. Super-Christian. You’re not. He knows it. And that’s not what he needs.

Now, I’d add that your preacher also needs friends outside the congregation. He needs someone he can talk to about the elders, the congregation, his wife — someone truly safe and not even in town. As a result, many ministers have joined networks of minister support groups — meeting periodically for mutual encouragement and support.

Be sure your ministers are part of such groups — and don’t complain when they leave town for a few days to participate in such a retreat. They need it. And don’t ask what was said. That’s not how it works.

If you’re an elder, you should ask your minister about these things — in a private meeting. It’s not likely that you, as an elder, can fill this role, because you are also his boss. You can be very close, but you can never be his best friend. After all, one day you may have to fire him. You will certainly have to set his pay and benefits.

PS — If the preacher does have friends at church, some very good things happen. No longer will he seem like a different kind of person calling the church to impossible standards. He won’t seem so, you know, alien. Rather, he’ll be a member of the congregation urging his friends to deeper devotion and faithfulness.

And he’ll see the congregation from an entirely different perspective. If all you know about your church is learned in program meetings and conversations in the lobby and counseling sessions, well, you have a pretty messed up perspective. Become a member of the church, then you can see the church from the members’ perspective. It’s different.

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22 Responses to Clergy & Laity: Why doesn’t the minister have any friends at church?

  1. A much needed post!

    When I was preaching full-time, I seldom had real friends in the congregation. And, I never had the kind of support group you mention. I had friendly acquaintances – but few (if any) real friends.

    Now, that I am semi-retired, I have finally found a wonderful support group – and friendships are developing. It feels good and makes me more whole as a person.

    Jerry

  2. John Dobbs says:

    Well said Jay. I will never forget the awful feeling of finding out that one of my dear friends and confidants had written a letter full of lies to the elders in order to try to have me fired. That event and the division that he quietly led following, did tremendous harm to my soul. This happened many years ago, but even yesterday after having lunch with one of our members (a friend) I found myself wondering if I had said anything I shouldn't have. Though I have forgiven the offending brother, I find myself struggling to trust.

    Still, I feel welcomed and accepted, befriended and loved by so many at our church. I know it isn't that way for everyone. I have several friends of 20+ years that I keep in touch with almost daily. Again, I know not every preacher has such. Great thoughts in this post…love your suggestions.

  3. Ray says:

    Jay,

    Thanks for the article. As a minister, number 2 in your list of 6, for me, hit home the most.

    But there is another issue that I have seen. When people from the church become "friends" with the preacher, some of the church will label the "preacher's friend" as a "yes man" which is terrible leavening. And the church wonders why the preacher is an introvert and does not want to really "befriend" anyone; if the preacher is concerned about this happening, he is primarily concerned about protecting the faith of his "potential friend."

  4. Rich W says:

    Excellent recommendations.

    Twenty years ago our family became close with our preacher's family. We and our children were the same age. Then the elders fired him. We had already been looking at switching. That was the last straw and we left.

    They moved out of state. Often our family's vacation was to visit them or they us. Four years ago, our daughter asked him to preach her wedding. Last year, we attended his oldest's wedding. We have either called or emailed each other at least once a month over the last 20 years. Our wives also converse as often.

    With that being said, I'm sure he would overall agree with your comments. This post has caused me to assess what kind of relationship to have with our current preachers (we moved to this state nine months ago).

    By the way, I'm sure you already know, but this is probably an even bigger issue with the preacher's wife.

  5. Kent says:

    Rich is right that this is an even bigger issue with preacher's wives. This is absolutely the #1 issue my wife and I face with our current congregation. We need people to be close to. People like that make you want to go to church; they make church feel not so much like a job. I think the "hired-gun" mentality is the big thing I see as creating the separation. I have been at my current congregation for almost 3 years and I am trying to make friends with people who have been here for most of their lives. Even the people who are my age, of which there are few, have been here all, or most, of their lives. I think deep down it's tough to make friends with the minister because he has not been through what others have been through with a church and many feel as though he will just leave by the time they become friends with him. Also, I know in my case, I have a wonderful congregation but the majority of people are old enough to be my parents or my grandparents.

  6. Bill Perkins says:

    Great Article. I have been in the ministry 8 years and this has been my biggest disappointment. Before I was a preacher we were always out with someone from church, we were at their home or they in ours. But now, those occasions are rare. I think you hit the nail on the head as to reasons why. I never dreamed that I would be in a congregation of 300–600 people and be lonely.

    One person actually told me that he had been friends with the previous preacher and it hurt him so badly when he left that he would never get close to a preacher again. We actually did become close and I did leave. It's just the nature of the beast I guess.
    Thanks Jay, I hope people will circulate this far and wide.

  7. Bill Perkins says:

    Kent is right on about "preacher's wives". I hate it more my wife that she feels so isolated and really has no one she can bear her soul to (besides me), but she doesn't want me to feel guilty.

    Also, the hired-gun comment is profound. I personally don't want to be considered an employee, I want to be part of the family, a friend that just happens to preach.

  8. John says:

    Hello Jay

    The minister is likely conscious of encouraging cliques. If he is close friends with someone at church, then someone else might say, "He likes them more than me…he has real friends, and then the rest of us…etc." I have known of people quitting the church because someone didn't speak to them at an assembly a couple of times. I seriously doubt the silent party intended to be rude. Where are you, maturity? But, there you go.

    The minister likely feels that it is virtually impossible for him to be socially intimate with anyone in the congregation because anything he says to them could get repeated. He may find it impossible to be open and candidly discuss things he has been thinking about. With the minister model we use, he may pretty much always be an outsider, the congregation may never let him in – if he does something that doesn't suit them, they'll just fire him. But, if one of the long-standing members did or said the same thing, no one would blink. He's an outsider, by congregational acclamation.

    Both of these matters are related to the model we use. Instead of the elders doing the preaching/teaching with some itinerants visiting from time to time, we bring in someone who is an outsider and expect him to function like he's not. Doesn't look like they had professional, located preachers in Acts.

    BTW, if the minister is often the most highly educated in the congregation, why is he not, as a matter of course, appointed to be an elder? That has never made sense to me. Would you keep one of your better players on the bench if you were coaching a ball team?

    John

  9. John says:

    Hi again Jay,

    This is John near Winfield. What happened to my picture?

  10. Guy says:

    Jay,

    Out of about 7 congregations i worked with during my stint in ministry, there was only 1 where i felt like i had friends.

    i'd add a "#7" to your list that was a big factor for me. For me, there was always an air of obligation in the room when i was with people from the congregation–even the ones i liked. I had a job, and these people were my "clientele." Thus, relating to each other and becoming friends always felt *forced.* There was always the nagging question in the back of my head, would this person really be hanging out with me if i wasn't the minister? Because it was my job, i had to play "friendly, go-getter preacher-guy," and they had to play "gracious host." So it was very, very difficult to ever discern when relationships were truly natural, truly genuine.

    And it was work! i mean, who wants to be at work 24 hours a day? Most everyone else got to go home at the end of the day and leave work at the office. But these people were my work. If i was hanging out with them and even having a good time, there was never a clear feeling that i wasn't still "at work" in some sense.

    And making friends outside the congregation is near impossible. You move to a town where you don't know anyone to take a job with work with a few hundred people. That consumes so much of your time that, when and where are you going to meet people that aren't already in the congregation?

    i think if we made it a point to raise up leaders from within our own congregations rather than importing people from out of town, some of these difficulties would diminish significantly.

    –Guy

  11. Kent says:

    My "hired-gun" comment from above also can be extended to the relationships that ministers have with elders. I think this is sometimes a huge source of conflict between the two groups. Elders, typically, know that they are going to be at the congregation long after the minister is gone.

    I will also add that I have seen a couple examples of a minister being too friendly with his congregation and that can backfire easily. I know of one congregation where they have gotten close to two ministers. Both ministers had many friends in the church, real friends. Both ministers ended up leaving, one of his own volition, the other due to marital problems, and it really tore at the church. Ministers need friends in their congregations but there is danger, too, when you gain them.

  12. K. Rex Butts says:

    I have found friends in the congregations that I have served but I also know that I must be careful about what I say, how I say it, etc… and so that changes the dynamics of the friendship. I guess it comes with the territory of being a minister in a church.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  13. JMF says:

    Okay, I'll admit to being an outsider. I am 33, not married, and definitely not a preacher. Here are a few thoughts:

    1) It seems we are dancing around the core issue. Paying a preacher simply creates some real challenges!! I am convinced that this is why we are warned so frequently about money…it just really screws things up.

    2) I am self-employed. Guess how many of my employees I "hang" with? I have as many friends as the preacher does. The situation is simply not conducive to long-term friendships/relationships.

    I just truly think paying a preacher creates a really jacked-up situation. It is kind of like hiring a personal trainer; you are paying them money, yet they are the one that is "in charge." So they tell you what to do…but only to the extent that you don't fire them. You pay them to challenge you; but, that challenge better be exactly what you are paying for, lest you get another personal trainer!

    So imagine having 300 personal training clients whose needs constantly need met. They are paying you to beat them up…but only to the point they are still comfortable. And you are training 300 people at once, and all have different thresholds.

    …And we wonder why a preacher doesn't have any friends?!

    Money is the problem. It simply screws up everything.

  14. JMF,
    I think you just hit the nail on the head!
    Jerry

  15. paul hume says:

    The reason the pastor has no friends is because religion is false. It is a life-destroying force which destroys first the ones engaged in spreading the lie.

  16. Tom Forrester says:

    Our minister’s solution was to first start a weekly prayer group with a number of the ministers from different denominations in our area. In my discussion with him, it started slowly, but after a while they began to really be a support for each other. Now at least 15 of them have become very good and close friends.

    They hang out and do things together and are able to confide in each other. As you might suspect, this overcomes some of the problems listed above. In addition, our minister’s wife now hangs out with some of the other wives.

    While it’s really cool that our minister goes camping with them, sports events, dinner, etc, it also has opened the door for something that is looking like the Buenos Aires model (article on Unity from Christian Living posted by Jay 6/25/10).

  17. K. Rex Butts says:

    JMF,

    I think you completely missed the nail when talking about paying a preacher. I have served as both a "paid" minister and a "non-paid" minister. Money had nothing to do with the role I found myself in where people, for better or worse, saw me as a spiritual mentor, where I realized that some people were not ready to hear something I might have to say, etc…

    I have made friends in every ministry I have been a part of, it is just a different sort of friendship when I am viewed as a preacher/minister/evangelist/pastor/etc… And if for some, money does have something to do with…then that is unfortunate. I made the deciscision years ago that I would not let money impact my ministry. That decision has result in some other struggles but it has helped me avoid what I preceived to be some disasterous situations.

    So, I think the problem has more to do with the fact that in the church we have "clergy" and "non-clergy" (even if we don't like that terminology). Since scripture recognizes certain special leadership roles in scripture that are too serve the church, we can't do away with, for example, the APEPTs (cf. Eph 4.11) but how can we lessen the sharp distinction that has been made between such leaders and the rest of the church without diminishing the necessary role of such leaders? (and I don't think it is as simple as opting out of paying certain church leaders, since my understanding of 1 Cor 9 is that are times and situations where a church leader should be paid for his service).

    Any ways, I hope my comment is not read as being hyper-critical but more of a inquiring dialogue where my disagreement is more of a result of the abiguity of this entire issue.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  18. K. Rex Butts says:

    Paul Hume,

    I am not interested in religion either. I am interested in life…where we've been and where we're going…because I tasted both the overwhelming joy of my first son's birth and the devistating horror of his death three days later.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  19. Darin says:

    Certainly a lot to think about. I will say this, I play basketball with a bunch of guys and the one I like the most always gives me a hard time about something. That was something I had never really thought about until you mentioned it.

    Thanks.

  20. Jay Guin says:

    John,

    I think you misspelled your email address and the gravatars are indexed to the email.

  21. John says:

    Where are you spell checker?

  22. nick gill says:

    Jay,

    I think the comment above about the minister being very leery of generating the appearance of cliqueishness is a major hindrance to ministers even attempting to develop friendships within their own gatherings.

    Establishment by the elders of a culture of grace and mission would go a long way towards transforming that struggle.

    Also, it would help a great deal, I think, if members stopped thinking, "*I* pay him." Again, as was mentioned above, much healthier is the model where the minister is understood to be a member of the assembly who we choose to support in order to equip and enable him to serve the kingdom more effectively.

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