We have an unhealthy friendship culture in church because we have an unhealthy friendship culture in church leaderships. I remember being told that a pastor can’t have any close friends in his congregation because it will lead to favouritism and jealousy and cliques. And there is a danger of that, let’s be honest about it, it would be stupid to deny that there isn’t that possibility. But that doesn’t negate the Bible’s call to pursue friendship, to pursue close relationships where we can fulfil the one another’s. It just means we need to be watchful that doesn’t happen. In fact a failure to build friendships in our congregations as elders and pastors means that we stand open to the charge of hypocrisy whenever we preach or teach on those very issues. It will also leave us isolated and lonely and make burnout or moral failure so much more likely.
We need to develop a culture of friendship and we need to start by modelling it in our leadership teams. So why not do a bit of an audit: How much time do you as leaders spend together outside of leaders meetings? Do you ever just sit back with no business on the table and be together? When did you last laugh, really laugh with your leaders? Have you ever? How well do you know your leaders? Do you know one another strengths and weaknesses? Or does that very thought fill you with dread? Do you know where each other is struggling with sin, the battles you are fighting to believe God’s word, the temptations you face? Are you good at encouraging one another, do you say thank you to one another for your works of service, do you have a culture where you can encourage one another with the growing Christlikeness you see in one another?
I’ve been privileged to be part of some great leadership teams, where there was openness and honesty. Where we started our meetings not with the business of the church but with concern for one another’s walk with God. Over time we were able to be honest in those meetings about our struggles, our temptations, how we were spiritually, how we were within our families. And we trusted one another with those things, prayed for one another with those things, followed up with one another with those things. We didn’t do so perfectly, I’m sure there were times we didn’t bear everything or failed to follow up well. But those relationships have lasted, in some cases, even though people have now moved away from Doncaster. We didn’t just lead together we were friends who spurred one another on in loving Christ and leading the church he had blessed us with. Those friendships eased the burden of leadership and pastoral care because we knew there would be a candid but grace and truth filled support and discussion.
But what if we don’t have those? What if that simply isn’t how our leadership functions? It’s easier if we’re starting a new leadership team to build that in, it will feel clunky at first and don’t be afraid of silence, don’t do what most pastors do and rush to fill it, let the silence breath as God works. Press in with questions and be ready to follow up. It will take time for trust to build, lay the ground rules about confidentiality at the start and make sure people keep to them.
But this can feel so much harder in an existing eldership, but if elders are going to lead the church in the spiritual battle they need one another, they need friendship that “strengthened his hand in God” just as Jonathan did for David. How much time do you spend together outside of business meetings? How much do you speak to one another of one another or is it just about the church. How can you build the relationships outside the meeting that will enable you to spur one another on in following Christ? As for reshaping the business meeting so it is more pastoral for each other, introduce this sort of thing slowly, build trust, take a risk by beginning yourself in sharing. Don’t let awkwardness or even a little bit of resistance put you off. Pray for one another, either after you’ve all shared, or the next person along simply prays after the person next to them has shared.
We need to friendship in our churches, but our churches also need to see friendship modelled and that has to start with the leaders, leaders who are willing to open up, to show vulnerability, apply grace, and spur one another on to follow Jesus. And don’t believe the lie that pastors can only do that with other pastors, don’t leave friendship to the fraternal because I don’t that’s a weight it can or should bear for all sorts of reasons, not least our prideful desire to measure up to others. We need friends and we need friends among our leaders and in our churches.