Pastors' Forum


Friendships vs. Professionalism

How does one in a middle management position (associate pastor), foster friendships within the congregation and remain effective in a leadership role with those same people? When relationships develop into friendships it seems to result in a lack of respect (or less effectiveness) when I later have to function as a leader toward them. It seems to be a balancing act that I have not yet mastered. I want to be friendly, but I don’t want to minimize my effectiveness in leadership. What guidelines would you give to a staff minister who is trying to get this area right?


Pastor Al Jennings – Fort Wayne, IN
That is an excellent question. I think it all depends. The word “congregation” is a broad term; so I’m not sure if you’re talking about your volunteer/helps ministry team or the congregation at large. So to be clear, I’m going to address the volunteer/helps team within the congregation.

There is a philosophy that says you shouldn’t get too close to people as a Pastor or they will disrespect you. If handled correctly, friendships with key leaders in the congregation do not have to result in a lack of respect. I think it’s healthy to develop relationships and friendships with the key leaders who report to you. When you lead a godly and exemplary life in front of people—a life of integrity and honor—I think developing friendships and being transparent with them will actually increase their respect for you. That said, I think those friendships should be limited to a small circle of people, not the entire congregation. In addition to that, I believe that it is important to teach the congregation along the lines of spiritual authority and how to honor, respect, and relate to the pastoral staff.

Pastor Stan Saunders – Chillicothe, MO
Michelle and I have a wonderful relationship with our staff and members of the congregation. We are closer friends with some than with others. People see our flaws and weaknesses as we are around them. I have never tried to hide my flaws. I am transparent from the pulpit and try to be “real” with the people. If one is living an authentic Christian lifestyle, I don’t believe that friendships diminish one’s ability to also lead friends effectively as their pastor. I am human, a husband, a father and a Christ-follower all before I am a pastor. I relate to others on all of those levels.

There is a dignity and grace that a pastor must maintain in all settings. Certainly, inappropriate comments or behavior will reduce one’s ability to lead. When necessary I have apologized for my carnal moments. It happens. If this were my normal behavior, then I am in trouble as a pastor anyway.

I have friends who are school administrators, doctors, dentists, and bankers. We participate in sporting events together or have dinner together. Yet, in the professional setting of their offices, I easily submit to their leadership. It is not a problem at all. I believe pastors can do the same. Jesus spent every day with his disciples and was able to speak into their lives. He even spoke harshly in correcting them.

The bottom line is that we all need friends. I need friends. I have friends at church, in the community and friends in ministry all over the world. I don’t have enough friends to lose any or to restrict my options. We live in a small town, far removed from larger cities. If I cannot be friends with the people that surround me every day, then I would be a lonely person. Leadership at times is lonely. There are frustrations that I can only share with my pastor friends. They are the only ones that understand and can help me in these areas anyway. It is beneficial for me to have a variety of friends. I seek out safe friendships where I can be myself. Friendships must refresh me, not drain me.

I have friends that sit in the congregation and receive from me every week.

Pastor Thom Fields – Kennewick, WA
This is such a tough topic. This friendship issue creates quite the drama and produces a lot of trauma. Here is how I view it. Friends aren’t easy to find and friendship is difficult to develop. After 25+ years in the ministry, my wife and I have come to the realization that our “true friends” are out-numbered by the nuggets offered in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. True friends, mind you, aren’t being added to the church daily. I could go on quite a lengthy dissertation describing the qualities of a true friend versus those found in long-term church relationships. The fact is, however, most of the people you’re attempting to develop relationship with need you to step up and be a leader and to stop attempting to be their friend. After several years of growing, sharing and caring together, I’ve seen many, whom I considered to be great friends, get up and walk out the door. I’ve learned much through the process. First—be a leader at all times first. We weren’t called into the ministry to build friendships, but to develop disciples. Don’t build relationships and see if leadership works out. Lead. Maybe you’ll build a friendship, but if not…at least you didn’t leave them where you found them. Secondly—be tougher than your average sissy. Leadership isn’t always fun. A few have been crucified due to it. Hard and cold isn’t the answer, but tougher skin is a must! “Be strong” and “endure hardship” aren’t popular—but they are Bible words.

Pastor Walker Schurz – Lusaka, Zambia
With Jesus as our ultimate example in life, leadership and ministry, He certainly had more than just a professional relationship with His disciples. He did a host of activities with them: dinner parties, funerals and weddings, vacation, business trips and festivals. He lived his life with them—and very closely. He called them His friends.

He also never had trouble correcting them and was very secure in His position and His relationship with His Father. He did not chase down the rich, young ruler when he rejected His terms. Perhaps the disciples were also helped by the very clear cultural understanding of the roles of a rabbi and his followers. When they signed up, they knew this was much more than a social relationship.

Jesus also had friends that He was closer to than others and perhaps John was his closest human friend. He did not treat everyone the same and included a select few in activities and conversations that others did not have. This did not always go over well as there was quite a bit of bickering and jockeying for position within the group.

Jesus was also limited in what He could do in His home town, not because of a Jesus problem, but because they did not recognize the role God had given Him. They still saw Him as one of the guys and remembered Him as He grew up in their town.

I think that in following the example of Jesus, we can and should have friendships with those that we work with and with whom you may have authority over. It would seem we can be selective in this regards. Not everyone can handle a friendship and still also submit and recognize the position you may hold in the church. This may be especially tough for someone with whom you have had a relationship with in the past or when your position changes and their position does not.

I also believe it is incredibly healthy to have some great, long-term relationships with people who are not in your church or ministry. They know you for simply who you are and not what you do or the position you have. I appreciate and cultivate these relationships and find them a great source of fun, care and joy.

Pastor Dennis Cummins – Puyallup, WA
Boundaries are so important within any leadership role. The military figured this out long ago with the officer and enlisted personnel. While I am not advocating such roles in church, your role as a pastor comes before any level of friendship within that church. An associate’s role is much more like the role of the sergeant’s role in the Army. You may be in the trenches and more connected with certain people than your pastor, but you cannot allow a friendship to trump your calling and pastoral role. Ethics would say that any relationship nurtured in your church while occupying a staff position should always be held in a secondary position to that of your pastoral responsibilities. I as the Senior Pastor can be friendly to all in my church, hang out and have fun with the guys in my church, but I never abdicate my Pastoral role. I am always a pastor in their eyes and never off the clock. Anything that I do with the guys outside of church directly reflects on how they view me as their pastor. One thing that may make a big difference is discerning what to share and not to share with the people in your congregation. This means good news flows down and bad news flows up. Personal issues related to spouse, family or your leadership should never be disclosed with those you’re leading, but should be held in trust with those you are under to help you navigate and grow through them.

If you want more respect as a leader in your church then you will have to make some tough decisions; by showing that your loyalty is with the vision and leadership of the church over the opinions of those that surround you. Remember it is not the work we do on the platform but it is the actions and words off the platform that determines the level of respect that people have for us.

Good hunting!

Pastor Doug Foutty – Washington, WV
When I was an assistant pastor back in the late 1980’s, the church I worked for had around 700 people. Naturally, you were not going to have the same relationship with each church member. Some of those people I had known for many years prior to being in the assistant pastor role. Many of them, I was just meeting for the first time. They had one name to learn, mine, and I had 700 names to learn.

I had people that wanted to know everything about me and my background and I had people who might not do more than politely smile at me from across the room. Friendships began to develop just from the aspect of a shared common interest and sometimes the people were nice enough to invite me into their home for a meal and I had more time to talk with just them. I always felt that it was my place to keep the professionalism aspect of my role in place. I was careful not to share too much personal information and I didn’t talk about problems at the church or things going on with other families within the church.

It was important to keep in the back of my mind that these people would probably need me as a minister more than they needed me as a buddy. I wanted them to respect the office and if they did that, God could be glorified. This is not to say that I didn’t have fun and enjoy the people of the congregation. You have to be real. People will appreciate a genuine relationship, even if it is not an intensely personal relationship. If you are praying and studying and asking God for wisdom, then He will guide you in all of your relationships.

Don’t over-analyze your relationships. You are allowed to have friends. Yes. Some church people get jealous of your friendships at times. Be led of the Spirit and you can lead by example and glorify God in what you do. Your friendship with your Heavenly Father will spill over into all of your other friendships. Be a blessing and you might be surprised who will trust you in their time of need.

Pastor Tim Kutz – Bartlesville, OK
An associate minister can be a very valuable asset, or he/she can be a tremendous detriment, or anything in-between. This is a hard question to answer, because the premise in the question is, for the most part, not possible. You stated, “I want to be friendly, but I don’t want to minimize my effectiveness in leadership.” Being friendly and making friends are two entirely different things. Please understand that the moment that you move to make friends in the congregation, you are taking steps to minimize your effectiveness in ministry.

The biggest thing that a staff member needs to remember is that he/she represents the senior pastor, and his/her number one concern should be the upholding of the vision and position of the senior pastor. Yes, you represent Jesus, but the number one place that can limit your effectiveness and can even bring strife and division through you is the way that you represent the senior pastor.

It is hard to have friends in the ministry for at least the following reasons:

  • A person will get too close to you and see you in your humanity, and will lose the honor for you that is required for them to receive from God through you. When this happens, either you or this parishioner is not long for your church.
  • A person will become friends with you and in the process of time will want to discuss with you issues that ultimately concern the leadership ability, leadership style, or the decisions of the senior pastor. The moment that you enter that conversation, you have become a liability to your senior pastor. But then if you don’t enter that conversation, the chances of retaining that friend are diminished. The next thing that many times happens is that words start circling around the church about you, and all you are trying to do is act in integrity.
  • In one case, a staff member went into business with one of the pastor’s eventual board members, and then left the church. Now the parishioner’s loyalties are divided and he cannot make up his mind. It has caused him useless heartache, and he has a health condition that stress can amplify.
  • A staff member and another person or persons become friends, and begin to spend a little time together doing something they both like (like golf) and no provision is made for others to join. Others who may want to join, begin to feel that the church is clique-ish and find a new place to call their home church.

All four of these things are your fault.

If you are going to have friends in the church do this:

  • First and foremost recognize that this is a potential “powder keg” and even the most innocent mis-step could cause the church to blow up.
  • DO NOT have a best friend. Spend time frequently with various people. Spread yourself around. If you have to have a best friend, find them at another church with a similar position as yours.
  • By all means, do not strike up any business deals without first getting the blessing from your senior pastor. Please be prepared for his answer to be NO!!!
  • You need to be reasonably friendly to those that you are recruiting to help you fulfill your responsibilities, but include the whole team in that friendship. Also demand of those team members that they foster friendships outside of the team.
  • By all means, keep a weekly log of your activity and give it to your senior pastor including all church contacts, subject matter discussed, and your personal thoughts about your relationship with this person.
  • Give your senior pastor the opening to speak into your life by asking him what he thinks about your level of friendship with each person you are being friendly with.

If you do these things, you have a good chance of being successful. Remember, always make the senior pastor shine. This shuts the door to the devil to bring in strife and division.

Pastor Matt Beemer – Manchester, England
All ‘true’ leadership is born out of relationship; the deeper the relationship, the greater the ability to influence. As my pastor always taught us, “Rules without relationship breeds rebellion.” Too many leaders are trying to lead without any, or very little relationship. In fact, some of the new ‘church planting moves’ have been so successful primarily because they are emphasizing the importance of relationship in leadership.

A good parallel to knowing how to manage relationships between leaders and those whom they lead is that with your relationship with your children. There is that ‘line’ that is important not to cross, from both sides. One time in talking to my daughter who was about six, I said, “We are best of friends aren’t we?” And she said, “No. You’re my dad!” Though my daughter and I do in fact have a great friendship—it is very, very close—even at 6 years old she knows there is a ‘line’.

To lead effectively you will have to correct people sometimes and the stronger your relationship, the easier that is to do. However, there is always that ‘line’ that shouldn’t be crossed. And, both you and those whom you lead will know it when it’s crossed. When it is crossed, it must be spoken about and used as a ‘discipleship’ opportunity.

Pastor Dan Morrison – Farmington, NM
Having friends in the church can be challenging but not impossible as long as you establish boundaries in your mind before doing so. Having served in ministry for over 27 years, I have had the opportunity to observe coldness among church leadership from coast to coast. People love it when the pastor and staff know their name and the names of their children. They love it even more when leadership is touchable and will get involved in their daily lives. Once again, boundaries are important and will be different from minister to minister depending on your personality, leadership style, and the size of your congregation.

By definition, a friend is a person whom one knows well and has an intimate association. It is a close acquaintance that you support and sympathize with. By considering what a friend is, you must decide how intimate you want to be with others and how far you want to go, before you get involved. Just like a dating relationship, you better have a plan before, and not after, or else you may regret something later.

Here are some key points in my mind:

  • Acceptable fellowship would be: eating meals together, shopping, and recreational activities. Just be careful that others don’t perceive you to have possible favorites in the church. Be considerate and friendly to all men.
  • Set boundaries ahead of time. Items that are off limits in discussions with friends in the church are: the inner business workings of the church; personal frustrations that you might have with other staff members; faults and weaknesses of the senior pastor. These are juicy topics of discussion but should never be discussed with friends in the church.
  • Refuse to talk about other staff members without exception. Example: Your friend may comment, “Pastor Smith’s wife is not a very friendly person is she?” It would be a mistake for you to agree and say, “You’re right, I feel the same way….”
  • Recognize the fleshly, human nature of some to gossip. Some will try to get the “real scoop” from you because you happen to be on the church staff. Even the best of friends will take your comment or quote and repeat it to others. Be guaranteed that it will not be repeated the same way or with the same attitude that you meant to share it.
  • When a friend brings up very personal issues and struggles-issues that are beyond your expertise, refer them to the senior pastor or seasoned professional counselor in the church. The moment that your friend shares the deepest of information and emotions with you is the day that you will lose the ability to lead and correct them.
  • When you have personal challenges and struggles, go to mature mentors, pastors, and staff in your church, rather than your friends. That doesn’t mean that you can’t agree in prayer for a personal need like healing for your body or a financial need, but when it comes to relationship struggles, keep it to yourself. You would never want to discuss serious frustrations about your spouse with a friend. Look to your pastor for spiritual support and counsel.

It can be lonely at the top of the leadership pole but I don’t believe that you have to be alone. There are wonderful people in your church that can make tremendous investments in your life. There are people who will sharpen you as only a friend can do. Just be careful.

Pastor Ray Almaguer – Glendora, CA
This is a great question. In my early days as a pastor, Dr. Roy Hicks Sr. gave me a piece of advice along these lines. He said, “Be sure the people you allow to get close to you love you. If they love you, they won’t judge you when they see your humanity”(this can be especially dicey if you have family in the church). Even though you don’t wear your “pastor hat” twenty-four hours a day, the fact is you are always a pastor. Some people can handle your humanity and some people can’t. You must always maintain integrity with everyone, especially yourself. Beware of getting so close to someone that you compromise a difficult decision.

As far as respect goes, if you see the level of respect decreasing, you may consider backing away from those relationships a bit. Remember, even Jesus wasn’t equally close to everybody, and there’s no way a pastor can be either.