When A Pastor Can’t Find A Friend

By Joe Hellerman Sep. 4, 2012 8:26 a.m. Church Life, Ministry and Leadership, New Testament

I recently received an inquiry from a Talbot student who wants to organize a small group for youth pastors from different churches who are starving for peer fellowship.

Due to the institutional orientation of so many of our churches, and the corresponding professionalization of the ministry, it seems that more and more pastors are finding it difficult or impossible to develop meaningful “brother” relationships with persons in their own congregations. Ecclesiologically uninformed deacon and elder boards that treat the church as a business (and paid staff as employees) only make things worse.

Is it biblical, the student inquired, for a pastor to develop his closest relationships with fellow-ministers outside of his own church family?

Well, it just so happens that I have a book coming out early next year that addresses this issue (and others like it): Embracing Shared Leadership: Power & Authority in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Kregel, February 2013).

I strongly believe that a pastor should be in community with persons in his or her own church, especially with fellow-staffers, for so many reasons, biblical and pragmatic. This is the heart of the message of Embracing Shared Leadership.

And yet I must confess that I remain conflicted between (a) my ideals and (b) the sad reality of “church,” as so many of our seminary students and graduates are experiencing it today. How could I discourage this well-intentioned student from trying to provide some kind of relational support for fellow-pastors who are starved for meaningful fellowship?

So, yes, if close relationships within the church prove impossible for a season, I suppose that any alternative is preferable to no community at all.

And yet there are good reasons to continue to pursue the biblical ideal.

I think a pastor ought to be in community in his local congregation for the following reasons:

1. New Testament Patterns of Leadership — The NT churches seem to have been led by pastors (plural) and not a pastor (singular), with all the implications for peer community involved in such an approach to leadership.

2. The Example of Paul — Paul enjoyed close relationships with both his co-workers and with persons in his congregations, in spite of the fact that he possessed the kind of God-given authority that no senior pastor has today. 

3. The Credibility Factor — Paul notes that the whole law is fulfilled in the command "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Gal 5:14). I think it is fair to conclude from this statement that “neighbor love” should be one of central themes of a pastoral teaching ministry.  Yet if we are not modeling the give-and-take of genuine community before the eyes of our people, in relationships with others in our own churches, then where in the world do we get the pastoral credibility prophetically and effectively to challenge our people do the same?

Each of these three points are developed in some detail in the forthcoming book, so I won’t elaborate here.

Some of our problems arise, I suspect, from a distinction we often make between "fellowship" and "service," between “community” and “outreach.” 

Consider this definition of community: Biblical community is about transparently bearing our souls to one another, in order to give and receive the kind of unconditional love, support, and moral accountability that can only be found in Christ.

Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this definition is incomplete. It is an only partially biblical take on community. Yet it pretty much sums up "community" as understood and championed by numbers of leaders in our churches and, at times, in certain non-theological disciplines in our seminaries, as well.

Biblical community, however, is about much more than this. It is about experiencing all the relational intimacy described in the above definition in the midst of the sacrificial ministry of the Gospel.

Jesus left us to pursue a Great Commission, not a great community. Great community comes from working together to fulfill the Great Commission. Fellowship and service, community and outreach, thus form a holistic package in New Testament Christianity. There is to be no dichotomy between "being" and "doing."  

Note how Paul refers to Epaphroditus as both a "brother" and a "co-worker" (Phil 2:25). A pastor who tries to be a "co-worker" without being “a brother” turns the ministry into a job and the church into an institution, at once exposing himself to all the dangers associated with a lone-ranger approach to the pastorate. Our “co-workers” in the ministry need to become our “brothers” in the faith, with all the relational solidarity implied in that sibling metaphor.

To return now to the student’s question, finding close friends outside the church may allow a pastor to be both a “brother” and a “co-worker,” but he will function in these capacities with two different groups of people. As outlined above, I see this as a compromise that creates an artificial environment which falls short of the NT view of pastoral ministry.

And then there is the issue of youth pastors seeking community with others who are too much like themselves, age-wise and interest-wise. Peer community like this contrasts sharply with the delightfully variegated NT image of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free persons, men and women (young and old) sharing life together in the early church.

I have met with the same group of pastors at my church for over more than a decade. Only three of the nine of us are paid staff. The other guys come from all walks of life (aerospace, pharmaceutical, graphic arts, advertising and promotion, etc.). There is a 30-year age span among us, and we represent at least four different ethnic groups (Cuban American, Mexican American, African American, Anglo American). We meet for the "brother" stuff every Tuesday morning and the "co-worker" stuff one Saturday a month. Those differences—in age, background, interests, vocation—make for a wonderfully rich leadership community.

I concluded my reply to the inquiry that generated this post as follows:

 “You have a wonderfully big heart to be concerned about this issue, and I would not want to shut the door on what you are considering. But, as outlined, above, I see the idea you are proposing as (at best) a brief stop on the road to a much healthier—and more biblical—ecclesiological destination, as far as community is concerned.”

This is a tough issue that I hope will elicit some comments. If you happen to have some seasoned thoughts about this, please weigh in! You’ll make us all the wiser.


  • Andrew Yee Sep. 4, 2012 at 11:15 AM

    Hi Dr. Hellerman,

    No wise comments (yet), but I just wanted to say congratulations on getting your book published! Assuming it's the same book I read in your class a couple of years ago on the issue of pastoral authority, it's definitely a good read and a much-needed one.


  • Andrew Faris Sep. 4, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    I love this, first of all.

    Second, my own experience has been that when my church circumstances were most difficult, the biggest thing that God used to keep me from simply running out the door was relationships I had formed with people who were, technically, "under" my ministry. These guys knew the worst of me, chose to accept me and my leadership anyway, and were certainly both co-workers and brothers.

    So I suppose my thought is that even if the youth pastor you know can't find that community in other pastors in the church (which is perhaps a warning sign about the church more generally), perhaps he can seek it in some people who are not pastors there at all.


  • Tim Sep. 5, 2012 at 12:05 AM

    While I was in my Pastoral Education major at college, one of the BIG name preachers in the country came to town so they gathered the young budding pastors for a heart to heart talk. He said, that "we must keep a professional distance from the people "under" our care. We are the shepherds and they are the sheep. There is a key element of incompatibility there."

    Right there and then I knew I was in trouble since this directly contradicts EVERYTHING the N.T. speaks of in body relationships, specially from those who considered leaders. I determined I would not be the kind of leader he recommended. I ignored his warning and was asked to resign within 2 years. I "threw off" professional ministry at that point because I realized I could "run the race marked out for me" without a title, a paycheck, a pedestalized spiritual purch, and a bunch of crowd oriented programs to setup weekly, or future prospects of being a weekly Bible lecturer at my prime.

    "Due to the institutional orientation of so many of our churches, and the corresponding professionalization of the ministry, it seems that more and more pastors are finding it difficult or impossible to develop meaningful “brother” relationships with persons in their own congregations."

    "So many of our churches"?
    Maybe 99% of them would be close.

    "…it seems more and more pastors are finding it difficult…"
    It's been this way for hundreds of years. This is nothing new. I would say that 99% of seminaries actually teach the pastorate just like that preacher of renown did in my training. It's all completely excused and scripture is twisted and wound around it to protect it for the next generation to posture.

    "Ecclesiologically uninformed deacon and elder boards that treat the church as a business (and paid staff as employees) only make things worse."
    What? It's the elders and deacons fault? No, they were set up for it by "their pastor". They have been trained well in being perpetually dependent on "their pastor" to "feed them". They don't think one thought outside the institutional box because that would be "disloyal". I did the "golden layman" trip for 15 years and saw it for the body of Christ farce and sham that it is set up and perpetuated. This can only be fixed by starting over outside the system or having the top dog put his paycheck and title on the line, teach the truth, and pray for the saints to follow his example as he walks away from the systemic dependency.

  • Tim Sep. 5, 2012 at 12:06 AM

    Part 2

    Your 3 points are a good start. Can I add more?
    4. The nature of our identity as members of one another in the body. The only other position is the head, and no one here is Him. When we take on a chain-of-command pyramid scheme for members of an institution, we completely substitute in a bogus dynamic. It is little different than a homosexual who substitutes his alternative identity for the one he was created to be by God.

    5. Jesus own instructions "you are all brothers" and "let this not be so among you" is rendered meaningless in the institutionalized system. We must give up all the titles and patronizing posturing in our chain-of-command control systems. Only then will our hearts be free to be mutual and intimate with each other.

    6. 1Tim 3:1 Oversight is for anyone who aspires to it. It is not merely for "some" who have experienced some "call to the ministry. Every brother should be challenged to qualify and pursue this "noble task". "God gave some to be…pastors and teachers" is only about a gifting. Oversight is beyond any specific gift.

    7. Oversight is only oversight. It is not over-talking, over-ruling, over-visioning, over-thinking, over-bossing or anything else that is commonly done under the banner of leadership. It is "setting the example" which is almost never done. Have you ever considered that every hired staff member will only be seen doing that which only he is supposed to do and no one is to consider that they do what he does? They set the example in nothing, that that is what they are supposed to do. All the scriptures where it is translated "ruling" by elders is a bad translation because it directly contradicts Peters forbidding of all "lording over". The greek term behind ruling is a broad term that does not need to be translated as "ruling", specially when it contradicts other warnings against such posturing.

    8. Restore Pauls teaching and example on "refusing the right to be paid". Acts 20, 1 Cor. 9 the WHOLE chapter, 2 Thes. 3 and more. The right is there but it should be refused from those whom you minister to, and only when it is needed between paying work. All of these marvelous passionate texts from Paul are just ruined and eisegeted out of the work of God by 99.9% Phd experts. (I did leaver room for some there.) When believers are consuming 86% of their "giving" to buy this institutionalized system that benefits mostly themselves, our heart will be corrupted in many ways. "For where your treasure is there will your heart be also." 86% is from an article by Leadership Journal in 2001 called "Normal Church Budgeting" complete with graphs.

    With your unique staffing arrangement that fully values ministry leadership by marketplace ministers, what is your churches percentage of "giving" that actually goes beyond the "poolers"?

  • Tim Sep. 5, 2012 at 12:08 AM

    Part 3
    I have set on following Christ in what I call 100% church.
    100% giving goes out the door - no pooling for us
    100% mutual relationships - no power pyramid
    100% two-way communication - one-communication is never asked for
    100% reproductive leadership - no turf protection. Everything is "entrusted" to others
    100% intergenerational gatherings - never send the children or teens away. Include them.
    100% participative gatherings - we're one body with many parts, all are needed to contribute

    I have not found this to be popular with believers, but there is no Biblical basis for thinking that should matter to me. I do want to be direct but kind. I won't reject anyone who disagrees with me and offers their basis for their current beliefs. I always respond in mutuality. It is common for saints to not take kindly to being "rebuked and corrected", two of the key purposes for the Word of God.

  • Joe Hellerman Sep. 5, 2012 at 7:16 AM


    I won't get into a back-and-forth with you, since you've clearly thought through this stuff, and you have very strong convictions. Yes, I have noticed that you are more than willing to correct and rebuke the various posts on the Good Book Blog. I am not convinced, however, given your tone, that you would be as willing to be challenged on some of your views. So I will leave you with these observations as my response:

    1. You have some real good points that people need to hear, and I am glad that you posted. I asked for wisdom and I got some here. Some, at any rate. Thanks.

    2. Much of your post, however, represents an over-reaction in the opposite direction, for example, the idea that the church should have no recognized leadership (strongly implied in your comments) and no recognized teachers, etc.

    3. You strike me as a person who has yet to learn the wisdom of compromising (yes, I said "compromising") his ideals, in order to share in the real world of church and ministry, while at the same time not letting go of those ideals where opportunities arise to implement them. There has not been a pastor in the history of the church who has not had to take this approach, Tim, nor will there be until Jesus returns. It is much easier to stand aloof from the messy reality of the people of God and enumerate what is wrong, than to jump in and try to be a part of the solution.

    4. There are, to be sure, situations where the institution virtually snuffs the life out of those who want to be "part of the solution." Get out of those while you can! I have little doubt, Tim, that you've been badly burned by power and authority structures in the church and that your ecclesiology and, more importantly, your relationship to the church as a believer, have been profoundly marked, even skewed, by those regrettable experiences.

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