Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Going It Alone

Yesterday while enjoying some Labor Day relaxation, I stumbled onto what personally may have been the most eye-opening blog post I have seen as a layman.  The September 1, 2012, post titled “Should a Pastor Have Close Friends in His Church?” was written by Dave Miller at SBC Voices.  The blog caught my eye as I was expecting some kind of tongue-in-cheek piece based on the title.  I could not have been more mistaken.  Pastor Miller was quite serious when he stated:

What I discovered is that people did not want to come face to face with their pastor’s flaws. Worse, I found that whenever there was conflict, people were using those things as weapons against me – throwing back in my face that which I had admitted to (or sometimes demonstrated). And frankly, through the years some of the deepest hurts I have received have been from people I thought were my friends.

Gradually, through the years, I have pulled back a little. I have friends in the church and try to be friendly with everyone. But I do not have “soul-friends” – people with whom I share my soul. I have found it preferable to have my closest friends outside the church and to maintain a pastoral relationship with people inside the church.
I have to admit I was taken aback. It had never crossed my mind that a pastor would not want to be close to at least some people in the church.  My initial reaction was that Dave was alone in left field, but I could tell from the way the piece was written that he believed he was not.  Frankly, I was amazed that the general consensus of the pastors in the comment stream (the vast majority) was that keeping some distance between themselves and church members was the best course of action.  When I realized the number of pastors who took this as a truism, I was really stunned.

I know how from my side, I’ve always valued a close relationship with my pastor.  I’ve always wanted to support him and help him to minister and be successful any way I could.  I honestly felt hurt, misunderstood and stereotyped by this attitude in the comments, even though I don’t personally know any of these pastors.  Then I began to reflect on it.  Have I ever heard rumors about my pastor’s private information?  Yes, many times.  Have I ever seen people once close to the pastor turn on him?  Yes, many times and often for no good reason I could see. Have I frequently heard gossip, or judgments or innuendo against a pastor?  Yes, many times.  Have I always fought for him as I should?  Not always.  It's no wonder they feel the need to be guarded!

Having served in some highly visible lay positions, I have experienced my share of misunderstanding, gossip, slander and outright lies.  But there was always an end in sight and light at the end of the tunnel for me.  I also had the knowledge that if things got too bad, I could just walk away from the controversy (though I never did).  I couldn’t help but engage some of the pastors in the comment stream of this blog post out of a genuine desire to understand and to try to give a different perspective.  I stated:

I have witnessed the pain and trouble resulting from pastors trusting laymen, staff, or essentially anyone else in the church. Something “juicy” about a pastor seems to be almost impossible to hold in. Inside knowledge of the pastor is the “significance currency” of the church. My observation is that for many, if you are “in the know” you believe your importance in the church goes up. I’ve seen the unrealistic expectations and nit-pickiness of the congregation. I hear the grumbling and griping about this and that, and the constant criticism about the way things are handled.
So, I get it. I’ve even experienced some of it as a layman myself. But I would like to say this: there are people in the church you can trust – they just may not be the ones pounding your cell phone with texts to meet for lunch or breakfast. They may not be the ones begging you to go to dinner, or to take you to lower arena tickets at the game or to let you use their lake house. My advice to any pastor, particularly at a new church, is to be cautious with those who press hard and who press quickly. You experienced pastors already know that.
But I also want to emphasize, there are members in your church who don’t expect perfection, who love the Lord, who pray for you, who defend you and who will extend tons more grace than you may think. They are just not the ones clamoring for your attention, even though they desire to know you. They are focused on God. If you will allow these people in, you might just be surprised at what an encouragement, and at what true friends they can be to you. You won’t find them at the front of the line to get your attention. It’s always going to be risky to be vulnerable, and that’s true for anyone. I posit that the rewards are worth the risks of cautiously letting people in. It seems to me (and I think I hear you pastors saying this) that is really difficult to go it alone. It also points out to me how I need to be even more vigilant to make sure you know when I support you.
While my comments created some interesting dialogue, I don’t think I changed any minds.  The general pastor’s feeling seems to be that the risks outweigh the rewards when it comes to getting too close to church members.  The sad fact is that these pastors may be right.  This realization concerns me greatly, and it also explains a great deal.  It explains why there so often has seemed a wall, a divide, between me and my pastor and staff that is hard to breach.  I want to be there to help them.  I want to know them.  Yet they always seemed somewhat aloof for reasons I could never understand.  Now I think I at least understand a little more than I did.

This leaves me puzzled as to what to do.  My last comment on the blog included the following:

This has been an “aha” day for me. I never before comprehended that it was common pastoral wisdom in general (based on how I’m interpreting this thread) to keep church members at a distance in at least some sense. I’m not judging it – I even think I kind of understand it – but I had never before realized it. My mind has been spinning on it all day. It makes so many things make more sense to me now.
Pastors, how can we break down this wall? There are always going to be folks you can’t trust and who may attack you, but there will also always be something missing between you and the genuine believers in your church if they don’t know you. When they don’t really know you, they won’t go fully to bat for you.
It’s a catch 22 – you don’t know who you can trust so you keep people at arm’s length. People at arm’s length can’t quite put their finger on what the issue is, but know they’re missing something. An invisible, but real, barrier exists and when the time of trouble comes, you don’t find anyone fully in your corner. You move on, convinced that you should never again trust a church member. Church members view the next pastor with suspicion assuming he’s got something to hide too.
I’ve witnessed and experienced this since I was a child (and that’s been a few years). The cycle continues. How do we break it?
The question remains.  How do we break down this wall?  It seems to me that believers are not supposed to live this way.  I’m really pondering this one.

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