Friday, September 21, 2007

Friends or Friendly?

Being new in ministry, other pastors felt the need to give me advice and lots of it. Standing in the Danville Mall, my family had bumped into another pastor and his family. Talking shop, my brother pastor related the story of how a church member, who he claimed was a friend, "stabbed him in the back" (I'm not very fond of that phrase.)

He then offered this piece of advice: "You can be friendly; but don't be friends."

That piece of advice I have not followed. Yesterday, as I stood behind the pulpit preaching yet another funeral service, I understood how atrocious that piece of advice was.

Brother Billy and his family have grown very special to my family in our tenure at our church. They have nearly adopted us as part of their own family, something (unfortunately) unheard of in many churches. There seems to be a presupposed distance between church member and pastor, as well as his family. I understand this distance, but it just does not mesh with my personality and who I am in Christ. I am a very relational person, and I think that is vital for being a successful minister.

The distance breeds an artificiality that is simply impossible to overcome. How can you minister to a flock of God's people and not get close to them? Relationship implies nearness.

Billy's wife regularly kept nursery and my wife and I, as has been said of us, "are determined to keep the nursery full." Billy had progressed to the point where the pulmonary fibrosis he was diagnosed with several years ago needed constant care. Billy's wife had been unable to come to church since our new baby was born, so my baby boy and I made a trip over about six weeks ago. He was passed around like a sack of taters and Billy was thrilled to get to hold him for a short time. There is something about the "babyness" of a baby that just makes elderly people feel good.

About two weeks ago, I made another visit to see Billy, his situation having gotten worse. He felt like the end was near, but still seemed like he had not digressed; there was no noticeable difference in his health. However, this past Monday evening, Billy's son called and said that his daddy had gone on to be with the Lord. I quickly got dressed and spent the next four and a half hours with the family.

As Billy's wife and I stood at Billy's bedside, awaiting the funeral home to come pick up the body, I remembered a promise I had made. I had told Billy the last time I visited that I would bring my boy back over to visit. He was elated and said he couldn't wait to see the "little feller".

As I was preaching yesterday, I related the story to the assembled family and friends. I made a public apology to Billy and his family for failing to keep my promise, and then it happened. The tears began to flow. Perhaps it was because I had failed to keep that promise; perhaps it was because I had sinned, fallible as I am. However, I think I know why. Death is unexpected. We cannot predict it. And Billy's death also caught me off guard.

The shortest verse of the Bible has profound and deep meaning. Jesus wept. He was not afraid to show His emotion. He was not afraid to be transparent. He was not afraid to get close. At the grave of a close friend, Jesus' eyes dripped water, an indication of His humanness, His identification with frail humanity, His love for those to whom He was close. Why should the pastor be any different?

23 comments:

rrbj said...

Bro. Tony,

Thanks for sharing this with us. I agree with you about the verse "Jesus Wept" ?

I have heard it said that a man is not strong if he cries but I disagree with that ! I was told by an elderly pastor when my Dad passed away in 1984 that it was ok to cry that it only showed emotionaly that you was full of Gods Love and shared it with the ones around you !

Blessings.
Ron.

Cameron Cloud said...

I cannot say Amen to this post loudly enough.

I have been in the ministry long enough to have been hurt by being "friends," but the blessedness far outweighs any pain. For every one that has "betrayed" that friendship (and there are more fellow ministers that have done so than church members) there are scores who have multiplied the blessing of mutually shared Christian love.

Thanks for a great post!

Tony said...

Thanks for stopping in, fellas. I needed the encouragement you have bought my way. God bless the both of you and grace for a blessed Lord's Day tomorrow. Cameron, may you be strong in the pulpit tomorrow.

selahV said...

Tony, dear brother, I cannot count how many promises I've broken such as this you related. And all the good intentions in the world do not erase the sin of omissions when one knows what to do and doesn't do it.

You're apology preached a sermon that all the sermons in the world could not have preached to the congregants at the funeral. It preaches on now. God bless you my brother for the willingness to share this with us and encourage us to be careful what we say and how needful it is to recognize the power in our words and the unexpectedness of life.

Again, I say--you are a true man of God and I'm honored to know you. selahV

Steve Sensenig said...

I affirm that showing emotion is completely appropriate and should not be held back in some misguided attempt to be "manly". Yes, Jesus wept, and I'm sure there were many occasions when he did.

Also, I completely agree with you that relationships are vital. "Shepherd the flock among you", said Peter. "Among" has to include relationships, when the rest of the NT is taken into consideration.

I don't know where the idea ever crept into Christendom that shepherding could be done while holding a flock at arm's length, but it was a horrible day for sure when it happened.

Tony said...

Selah,

Thank you--I'm honored to know you, too. :)

Steve,

There is a curious irony in all of this. Of all the ministers I know personally, the vast majority of them hold to this type of view of pastoral ministry, that you must hold the flock at arm's length. And it is for fear of being "betrayed".

I am still trying to overcome this because it is such a prevailing attitude. I'm seeking solutions and not just in my own personal ministry, but overall--Christian life in general.

I am reminded in this particular instance of one of the first pastors' meetings (a waste of time if I ever saw one) I went to.

One of the senior ministers came dressed in a coat, slacks, and tie; the rest dressed casually. Another pastor asked him why he was dressed that way. He responded with an air of conceited arrogance, "Well, we've got to separate the clergy from the laity."

Why? What good reason can you come up with to do this other than your own ego? A horrible day, indeed.

Steve Sensenig said...

Yeah, I know. I had the same "training" when I was a pastor, too.

Something I didn't think to comment on earlier, though, was Cameron's statement above:

I have been in the ministry long enough to have been hurt by being "friends"...

While I'm glad, Cameron, that you have found the blessings outweigh the hurt, and I guess you agree with the perspective Tony and I are putting forth here, I do want to make one point. Being "hurt by being 'friends'" is not in any way limited to clergy-laity friendships.

I think this is perhaps what gets in the way (for a lot of pastors) of a proper understanding of the relationship between pastors and the flock. Somehow there's this idea that pastors are the ones who get hurt all the time, and that the answer is to not be "friends".

Yet how many people have been hurt by other people, whether or not one of them was a pastor?

Tony said...

Steve,

A second irony I failed to mention in my previous comment was that the only pastors who genuinely believe this way are those whom I know online; not pastors (and others) whom I minister alongside in this geographical vicinity.

To me, it seems this understanding, this embrace of a presupposed "distance" is antithetical to ministry and community, not conducive.

And though my post was strictly related just to pastors and their relationships to their flocks, I agree with your assessment that the worst wounds we can suffer come from other Christians.

Somehow there's this idea that pastors are the ones who get hurt all the time, and that the answer is to not be "friends". I know several pastors who after having been hurt just get out of ministry altogether and then remain bitter over it. They cannot seem to get past that "bad experience". Or, people become objects, nothing less than the "goods" a church "manufactures". Does that make sense?

Steve Sensenig said...

Makes perfect sense. I have come to the realization that whatever concerns I may have about institutional church (I'm not trying to open that topic up here, so bear with me), it is not a "pastor vs. congregation" situation. Pastors as well as laypeople are affected by the system.

I hope that makes sense and doesn't appear to be a shot at the institution, since I don't intend it as such.

Cameron Cloud said...

Steve,

I can appreciate the point you are making, but was not my intent to infer this was exclusive to pastors. As I said, I have been hurt (the few times a friend has done so) more often by friendships in ministry than by those out.

Just because I am a pastor now, I have always been. I have been on the "congregational" side of such pain more often than on the pastoral.

The point I was trying to make was that you can't let the rare time you will be hurt keep you from the blessedness of friendships. This is true of all relationships in general. I only make the point in relation to pastors because Tony's post was about pastors.

Cameron Cloud said...

My previous comment should say:

Just because I am now a pastor doesn't mean I have always been.

It is a Monday!

Tony said...

Steve,

I understood. :)

Cameron,

Thanks. I think we are all on the same page here and I don't think Steve's question was too far out of the way. Your clarification is my sentiment as well. Being hurt by a friend stinks whether you are a pastor or not.

Anonymous said...

Tony-
On the other side of the coin...we felt betrayed and hurt when our pastor (whom we thought of as a good friend and co-laborer) announced to the entire Body one Sunday morning that he was resigning and answering a call to a church in the Pacific Northwest. He'd taught that there should be plurality of leadership and open communication, but when he considered moving on, he failed to share that with anyone! Surely that should have been a matter of prayer for the other elders, too, rather than a solitary decision.
Pastors have been betrayed...but so have their people.
That river flows both ways.
Kat

Steve Sensenig said...

The three of us do seem to be in agreement. I wasn't trying to contradict anyone. :) Just expanding the point, similar to what Kat has posted here, too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Tony about the anonymous comment. Don't know how I did that.
Kat

Tony said...

Kat,

I have heard of pastors doing this, just "up and leaving". I have always felt it best to be as open as candidly possible. In many churches if they were to know that the pastor might be looking elsewhere, his ministry would be over. The folks would not trust him and they might feel betrayed.

My very good friend, Lee, was recently called away from a church in our county to another in NC. He was perfectly honest with the church he was serving, even when the committee drove up to the current church to hear him preach.

Though it was not easy for the church when he left, it lessened the "blow" because he was open and honest. He wasn't there one Sunday and gone the next.

I think the pastor should be sensitive to the congregation he serves but it does seem a tad hypocritical on his part to teach those things and then fail to follow his own admonition.

Thanks for dropping in; it been a while! How is your hand? have you recovered yet?

Anonymous said...

The hand is getting better. Now if I could just get my act together and start thinking again, I might actually post on my own blog :)
Kat

Raborn Johnson said...

Tony,
I once had a pastor friend of mine give me the advice that "you can't get close to the people in your congregation". What bad advice! What was the whole point of the incarnation if not God becoming one of us, sharing in our joys and our sorrows? I think that it is great that you have such close relationships with members of the church. If someone is not close enough to hurt us then we probably don't have a real relationship with them, do we? Thanks for the post. God's comfort be upon you and the family of your lost loved one.

Tony said...

Kat,

It is a blessing to hear that you are doing better. Praise the Lord. And I'll be looking forward to the next post.

Raborn,

That view is prevalent, no doubt. The fact that Christ came as one of us speaks volumes to how we ought to do ministry among one another. Not only does it give us this example to follow but is a great encouragement that when we do get hurt, there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.

And as I have been thinking on this and the great comments that have followed, it is really selfish of any Christian to guard themselves in such a way. Christ did not respond in this way to relationally needy people and neither should we.

Gordon Cloud said...

I'm getting here a little late, as usual, Tony, but this is an outstanding post.

The "ministry philosophy" of which you speak (the bad one, I mean) is rooted in fear and pride. Fear of being hurt and/or losing "control", and pride because I have actually known some pastors who felt they were better than their people.

This philosophy is not only counter-productive in the ministry, but I would also suggest that it is un-Christian as well. God has clearly called us to love one another. Love always involves a risk, but it is imperative that we do it. Perfect love casts out fear and leaves no room for pride.

As for the betrayals of friends, we have all been there. The quote comes to mind, "That which does not kill me, can only make me stronger."

As for the funeral service, twenty years from now the man's family may not remember a word you said, but I'll bet they never forget your tears. God bless you for being real with your people.

Tony said...

Gordon,

I think I have said it to you before, but better late than never!

I LOVE this excerpt from your comment:

Love always involves a risk, but it is imperative that we do it. Perfect love casts out fear and leaves no room for pride.

My prayer has been to always be real; never fake, never shallow. Thanks for adding your thoughts, brother.

Vicki said...

God bless your ministry. Just found you blog and was very moved by this wonderful post. Jesus did not keep a distance, and neither can we. I appreciate your heart AND your tears.

Tony said...

Vicki,

I am so glad you found my humble corner in the blogosphere. Thank you for dropping in and visiting, and your blessing upon my ministry.