An emerging profession: the frightening thing about friendships


Drew Ditzel, a student at Columbia Seminary and the Middle School Director at Peachtree Presbyterian, is conducting a blog/research/conversation for a class on “Emerging Church Models.” Including Drew, seven different bloggers are participating: Josh Brown, Julie Clawson, Adam Walker Cleaveland, Wess Daniels, Anthony Smith, and me. You can read his intro, and join in with the conversation on the other blogs as well.

Drew talks about his worries regarding pastoral leadership, namely that he’ll be elevated by position and won’t be able to have a real community or friendship in his church. He also hates the thought of being a facilitator, someone who finds just the right program so that a person can follow Jesus. So, he’s attracted to the emerging church. He doesn’t want to become a “professional Christian.”

The emerging movement is one of friendship. It’s that powerful, loving covenant between people that forms us and informs us. It reminds us that we’re not our own, but we have responsibility to one another, to care for each other in the deepest ways. In a new generation, friends have become more important. As we move from one place to another, farther and farther from our families of origin, as we try to find some stability in our sputtering careers, we’ve learned to rely on our friends in meaningful ways.

I always remember what my precious friend, Sue Duffy, told me. I was in college and celebrating Thanksgiving with her and my fiancée at an Indian restaurant. She rolled her wheel chair from the nursing home to this restaurant in downtown Chicago. Brian opened the door as I manuevered her chair over the threshold. The air suddenly billowed with the smell of beans and rich curry. Sue turned to me and said, “You have the family that you were born into, and you have friends–the family you choose. Thanks for being my family.”

I smiled at my husband, knowing what she said was true. For years to come, I became more intentional about my friendships. I enjoyed them more. And I began to realize what a gift it was when I lived in the same town with my friends and was able to share my life with them.

Friendship within a community of faith can become even more significant, because the picking and choosing has been taken out of the equation. So often God draws together an eclectic group–people that we would never, otherwise, have contact with. This makes our worshiping bodies unique, because friendships form in the oddest places: across generations, political spectrums, socio-economic divides, and ethnic differences. The Holy Spirit moves through the bond of friendship, strengthening the Body of Christ in amazing ways.

I’ve always been friends with people in my church, and I don’t have a particular sense of an elevated position. The members of my congregation usually have a much better education than I have. They make more money than I do, and they’re a whole lot more powerful than I am. It would be a little ridiculous if I thought of myself as on some higher plane.

Yet, they have called me to be their leader. It’s not my hobby. It’s my career, it’s a sigificant part of my life, and I have to be paid. In Louisiana, I tried doing the job with very little pay–full-time for 15k a year. It didn’t work. And, after many years, I’ve learned to be comfortable with that position. It’s not how I was raised (as a former Southern Baptist, it was drilled into my head that women had to submit at all times to men, and they certainly couldn’t be ministers), but it’s authentically who I am.

I walk into any group, anywhere, and by the time that our work together concludes, I’m the pastor. Even when I don’t mean to be the pastor, at the end of the day, I’m counseling, guiding, helping, and leading people. I’m a big-picture person. I love to imagine how things could be, how they ought to be, and I can’t wait to figure out a plan on how to get there. It’s just who I am.

(Although it’s not always true with my clergy friends. I’m not the pastor with them. And I cherish that.)

It may not be this way with every gathering, but our congregation needs leaders. Paid pastoral leaders. In our church of 250 members, we’re all working very hard. We feed 250 homeless men and women every morning. We’re building a health clinic in Ethiopia. We’ve begun art programs for homeless children and ministries to prostitutes. We have a ministry to the GW campus. All of these are ways in which we live out the reign of God in our world, and they would suffer without the pastoral staff.

I’m a friend to the people in my congregation. That’s certainly the best way to describe our relationship.

But…I wouldn’t be honest if I said that was the whole story. It’s a very risky way to do ministry. I know why so many pastors have built up the boundaries and walls. Even when you don’t want them to, the stones can stack up after years in the ministry.

Friendship means that we’re vulnerable. As a pastor, I’ve come home devastated many times, with reports of a damaging complaint, or after hearing about a scheme, or seeing a brutal attempt to sabotage. I’ve been called some terrible names….

As soon as I’m home, I slip in the door, drop my bag, and lean up against the wall. With my hand over my chest, I take a deep breath, and try to explain to my husband what happened. And somehow, the first thing that always comes out of my mouth, when the tears start to well up in my eyes: “I thought that we were friends….”

And, I tell you, there’s no worse feeling than being betrayed by a friend.

the photo’s by Jody Yawa


23 thoughts on “An emerging profession: the frightening thing about friendships

  1. Carol – something that always irritates me in classes here at seminary is the constant banter about how “you cannot be friends with your parishioners.” Your post is encouraging to me. And realistic as well – of course it’s not easy to be friends with people who may be critical of you at times – to be friends with someone who might try something new with “their church” – with their worship services, etc.

    But what is the other option? To have a nice “cordial” relationship, a “professional clergy/laity” relationship? I don’t really see that working out – don’t really see that as the messy body of Christ.

    Thanks for your reflections.

  2. I agree with Adam WC regarding the seminary “don’t be friends with your parishoners” take. That said, I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m a particular person who finds it difficult to be friends with everyone.

    What does a pastor do when a congregation member is so hard to love that a friendship seems impossible? Or, worse, (and it’s all over my internship currently), what if the pastor falls out with several members of the congregation?

    Thanks for the conversation.

  3. carol. nice thoughts.

    i agree, it always centers on the friendships and the natural relationships. and i have no problem with people taking a “paid” position. i think it can be both/and. and it work well either way.

    i do agree with you wholeheartedly on how you always come out the pastor in a group. i think when you’re gifted a certain way, when it’s in your dna, your personality . . . you’re always going to “rise to the top” so to speak. i think that is a great carry over in a non-hierarchical model in that leaders will always move towards their giftedness. but i think it’s also important that those who aren’t “leaders” are still able to serve, participate, and collaborate alongside the “leaders”. perhaps we should even rethink what it means to be a “leader”. i think what you described above is a pretty good indication of where it’s going. thanks for sharing.

  4. I am glad you brought up the importance of friendship in all this, whether emerging or elsewhere – it seems to me that this would be the one major virtue necessary for confronting the abuses of power we see not only in the church but the world as well.

  5. Thank you for this. I too have been annoyed by some of the books I read about clergy boundaries. I don’t understand why it is thought that you cannot serve someone who is your friends. I have made some wonderful friends at church even as a leader. We serve together, but there would be very little serving for them to do if us leaders didn’t do the groundwork ahead of time.

  6. Adam C. said, “What does a pastor do when a congregation member is so hard to love that a friendship seems impossible? Or, worse, (and it’s all over my internship currently), what if the pastor falls out with several members of the congregation?”

    Ugh. What a difficult position to be in during an internship. I’m feeling for you. At least it looks like you’re in a beautiful place….

    I remember when my husband was at a church in LA, and there was an extremely racist woman in his congregation. He wouldn’t tolerate the comments, of course. But there was a point when he determined that he had to be her pastor too. The same happened with me and a incarcerated pedophile/member. In both cases, “friendship” was not the description. At those points, it was all covenant.

  7. My whole ministry has centered around the “with-me” principle of Mark 3:14 “And Jesus appointed twelve to be WITH him” – those of whom Jesus said, “I have called you FRIENDS!” John 15:15. I can imagine what Jesus would say to profs and others who contend a pastor’s “real” friends should be outside the congregation. Indeed, “real” ministry offers the potential of real friendships. Some people don’t want to be friends of course and others make friendship at any depth virtually impossible, yet my dearest friends in three states come from the congregations I served and in which they participated.

  8. Stanley,
    my pastor growing, Dr. Frank Harrington, used John 15:15 in his benediction after each service, and i have never thought of it terms of ministry. thank you for that perspective.

    It just grounds, for me, Jesus’ experience of his friends, not just his disciples, deserting him throughout the passion narrative.

    It is here, where I resonate most with Jesus, where i can project the emotions of my own friends abandoning me, that I am most fearful.

  9. Drew, I think you touch very accurately on why the betrayal was, well, betrayal! And why Peter’s pain was so overwhelming after his own betrayal. At the same time it is obvious Jesus found great joy in his friends and not only the Twelve, but also Mary, Johanna and Susanna (Luke 8), Mary, Martha and Lazarus and so on. My sense of Frank Harrington was that he had a genuine heart for people and for friendship. Stan

  10. Re: friendships with parishioners. I think that if a person serves a congregation in a remote area and his/her parishioners are his/her only (local) friends then there is a problem. I was hesitant to “be friends” with my parishioners as a 20 something single pastor in a town of 700 because I didn’t really trust that I could handle it well. I was going through my own issues (broken engagement, etc.) and found that 1) people didn’t want to hear about the pastor’s woes b/c it seemed to make them nervous (“she’s supposed to be more together than this”) and they expected the pastor to have some mystery/secrets – or something like that, and 2) I wasn’t sure whom I could trust with issues that might well have gotten me in trouble (even pre-“Amendment B”).

    In a perfect world, I suppose parishioners and pastor can be close but those friendships need to be made selectively (i.e. everybody can’t be privy to my personal life, but if I share with only a few – esp. in a small town – then I’m accused of having favorites.)

    The whole situation requires balance and healthy people, which doesn’t always happen in ministry. In a perfect world, the professional pastor has 1) a partner/best friend who knows everything, 2) good friends outside the church, and 3) healthy friendships with church members.

    Sorry to be so long-winded.

  11. I’ve never had a problem with the friendship thing. I think Jesus was a close friend of the disciples and he was God incarnate. If Jesus is our model for ministry then intimacy and vulnerability are an important part of an incarnational ministry (oops I forgot, we are called to “professional” not incarnational ministry!).

    Yes, there are real risks to letting our guards down and being vulnerable but I just don’t see any other way.

  12. The friendship ban is a pretty recent phenomena isn’t it? Of course, I know ministers who told me that it was expected that men would graduate from seminary single and find their wife in their first congregation!

    It seems to take the humanity out of the pastoral relationship if you say there can never be friendship.

    But, I see Jan’s points, and I could add one to it. That is, what happens when the pastoral relationship ends? I’ve felt like a jerk leaving a congregation, and I know that the friendships have to change (it’s become even more difficult for that change to occur with better technology). If they don’t, then it can be really hard for the next pastor…

  13. In response to Neil, a question: IS Jesus our model for ministry? I mean, he was single and died after 3 years. I don’t know anyone who’s following those footsteps. Don’t know that we’re called to. I don’t even know if Paul is our model for ministry. Darn good question. I DO know that this is one reason I feel like I’m making up my life as I go along — before I did it, I had never seen a woman do what I do: be married, be a mother, pastor a church. And I don’t think it’s gratuitous to add: stay sane. Jan’s post touched on many of these issues through her story of friendships/not. I guess I just like to clarify loud and clear: I’m not Jesus.

  14. Yet another teaching to ignore from seminary. Much of my ministry is spent learning the things I wasn’t taught and/or unlearning much of what I was taught.

    My family and i have been blessed by a few deep friendships in our congregation. Just as I am here to minister to them, they have also ministerd to me in profound ways. I thank God for that.

    However, that is one of my biggest fears when the time comes to move. I pray that those friendships will last a lifetime as Rev. Ott has experienced.

  15. I believe it’s possible to have close and meaningful relationships without having a continuing friendship after leaving a ministry. I don’t believe it’s easy, but I do believe it’s possible. And I believe it’s necessary, based on my experience of serving a church where a previous pastor had friends only in the congregation. A minority of the church felt he was their best friend; the rest of the church felt rejected. The feeling persists to this day, although he left that church in the mid-90’s; some people still socialize with him and other hear about it but know they are not part of the inner circle. That was hurtful to the church, and it is no surprise that in times of tension, the church still divides on similar lines of “in” crowd and “out” crowd.
    But perhaps I have never been tested, since I have not served a congregation full of likely friends. I’m willing to consider that there was an over-correction with regard to pastoral boundaries when we finally caught a collective clue about sexual boundary violations.

  16. Songbird,

    I have seen the “in” and “out” dynamic at work in a church as well. It wasn’t pretty.

    I think you and Jan hit on an important point: you can be friends with the congregation, as long as you have friends outside of it.

  17. When I was the pastor of a PCUSA church in a small town, I found that it was a good thing to have friends both inside and outside the congregation. I think that I was a little uncomfortable with the fact that I was much closer to some people in the church than others (as the pastor, shouldn’t we love everyone equally?), but at the same time, it was good to have a core of people whose support was dependable. At the same time, I really valued my friends outside the church. One of the great gifts I received was friendship with a widow of a United Methodist minister. Right away, she said “I’ve lived with a minister and know what the life is like. I’m not a member of your church, and won’t be, so you can say anything you want to say and I will understand, and it will go no further.” This wonderful lady was as good as her word, and she helped me weather many hard days.

  18. it’s true… there’s nothing worse than being betrayed by a friend…
    the comment about not wanting to be a professional Christian… ouch.
    Is that how we are perceived?

  19. Yeah. It’s too bad, isn’t it?

    I’m also saddened to see that so many people see the traditional pastorate as a top-down operation, when that’s so far removed from the realities of what most of us do on a daily basis.

  20. Wow,

    what a thoughtful and wonderful piece. I’m dealing with the same dynamic. My community is, well, a community. We love each other. But that is dangerous. Your last line is killer, as was the one on the piece about televangelists.

  21. Pingback: A De-centralized and Emerging Ecclesiology – Lo-Fi Tribe – Preaching Emerging Faith

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