How does a pastor do what he's called to do without developing friendships and making himself and his family vulnerable to the hurt that accompanies relationships? Jesus showed us the greatest love when he laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13). How can a pastor follow the Master's way if he's unwilling to do the same? No one likes getting hurt, and it's especially difficult with a family in tow. So where is the balance? How can a pastor protect his own heart and his family from the emotional blows that sometimes accompany friendships in the church, while simultaneously being willing to be hurt for the sake of Christ and his bride?
Friends or Acquaintances?
The consistent drumbeat of Scripture is that Christ's powerful, inwardly constraining love compels the believer to deny self for the honor of God and the good of others (2 Corinthians 5:14a). Some of my sweetest pastoral moments have come when I've put friendships in the church above deadlines, expectations, and to-do lists. Sitting beside the bed of someone I can genuinely call a friend in the last moments of his life is far more meaningful than just being his pastoral acquaintance. I have found that my chief pastoral duties of prayer and the ministry of the Word are far more effective when I am known and seeking to know others despite the inevitable difficulties that may arise. I don't generally yearn for my acquaintances like I do for my friends with "all the affections of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:8).
Pastoral ministry can be lonely, but I am convinced that more lonely than the pastor is often his wife. While most pastors have fraternal relationships with other men in ministry, most pastors' wives don't have a lot of women to share their burdens with in a meaningful way. And if pastors' kids are going to value the local church throughout their lives, it seems appropriate that at the very least they should be able to call others in their church-going midst "friend." Some people in the church that my wife and I have considered our closest friends have hurt us in significant ways. We want to prepare our children for the same results should they have to bear them, and yet we want their friendships to be genuine, not filled with doubt and uncertainty.
Being a pastor is a unique calling, and while others may hurt any and every member of our family, I must remember that I have hurt my friends as well (Eccl. 7:21). It's inevitable in relationships, but Jesus didn't avoid the hurt of friendships--neither should I! As well intentioned as my friend was to encourage me to keep my friendships out of the church, I can't agree with his advice. Some of my best friends are members of the church in which I serve, and I know that we may hit some bumps along the journey together; but, bumps in the road with a friend are far better than smooth sailing alone.
Trust Your Neighbor as Yourself?
That being said, pastoral friendships require great wisdom. Several years ago it dawned on me that I know more collectively about the personal lives of everyone in my local church than anyone else. Such knowledge could potentially be harmful if improperly handled or wrongfully disclosed in an unguarded moment with a friend. God has uniquely gifted and given grace to pastors to hear and handle information about His people. We may think very highly of our friends within the local church, but we must remember that not everyone is called to bear the same burdens. It is wise to remember "Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble" (Proverbs 21:23).
On the personal level, sharing our lives with God's people as friends doesn't mean all of our friends need to hear about everything in our hearts and minds. Pastors are men, and as the old adage goes, even the best of men are men at best. We have our own sin struggles and temptations that need to be dealt with, and we need accountability. But the pastor's accountability should be with his fellow elders and other pastor friends, not the people in his congregation. Any congregation should know their pastor is accountable to others, and that those he is accountable to are trustworthy and concerned about his holiness, and the good of the church he serves. But a pastor loving his brothers and sisters as friends doesn't always mean that he should trust them with every detail of his life. I have no reason to doubt that my friends are trustworthy and are not ill-intentioned, but I also know that a church can be hurt deeply by miscommunicated, misunderstood, or wrongly used information about their pastor.
Be a wise friend for your good, for your family's good, and for the good of the church. But by all means, be a real friend and not just an acquaintance. Your life with fellow Kingdom citizens will be far greater and a lot less lonely. Pastors and their family members need good friends, and many of those friends could be sitting in front of them each and every Lord's Day.