Pastor As Friend

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from Pastoral Identity: True Shepherds in the Household of Faith
by Douglas D. Webster

Nurturing friendship, I contend, is the first step pastors can take in nurturing a culture. Pastors are called to nurture a Christoform culture, one where the life, teachings, death, and resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are formative, and friendship is quite often the front door into that culture.

—Scot McKnight  

God designed us in such a way that the measure of our communion with God is reflected in the depth of our relationships with others. As Christians, we look at friendship from the unique perspective of God’s love for us and Christ’s love in us. The wholeness we find in Christ empowers us to make friends. These friendships consist in mutual respect, shared concern, and common cause. They involve a meeting of minds, an enjoyment of each other’s company, and the freedom to feel at home with one another. Friendship with God and faithfulness to one another, then, are two sides of the God-centered.[1]

Institutional Christendom frustrates and inhibits the formation of this kind of friendship within the fellowship of believers because it institutionalizes relational life through specialized job descriptions and successful programs designed to meet the needs of passive recipients. The demands of the organization crowd out the friendships born in organic relational life. There are gifted and dedicated Christians serving in a Christendom setting who do everything in their power to build fellowship, make disciples, and foster meaningful spiritual growth, but their efforts are sadly frustrated by impersonal, consumer-orientated structures. Multiple service times built around music and generational preferences tend define an audience, not a congregation. Jonathan Leeman makes the New Testament case for a gospel-grounded, single-service church structure that “demonstrates, proves, embodies, illustrates, incarnates, makes concrete, makes palpable and touchable and hearable and seeable the unity we possess in the gospel.”[2] The gospel “produces its own kind of space” that glorifies God and knits believers together in holy fellowship.[3] “The gathered, assembled, congregated church is the kingdom of heaven made visible on planet earth. It’s Christians bound together—experiencing the first fruits, the first taste, the first experience of God’s society-creating rule.”[4] 

The organizational dynamics of the household of faith are meant to nurture and enhance the relational life of the congregation. Organization and order are necessary, but they are there to serve the organic character of communion with God and community with one another. Christians who are gifted relationally and who embrace their call to strengthen the fellowship of believers will find working in the household of faith freeing and fulfilling. The pressure to preserve the institution will be replaced by the freedom to grow the church spiritually, organically, and numerically. Instead of following a business plan for a corporate culture, the household of faith follows a biblical balance of organic and ordered relational life centered in Christ for the sake of God’s glory and human flourishing.  

Associate pastors, whose senior pastors evaluate their performance by institutional metrics, struggle to harmonize what they learned in seminary with the demands of the job. There is a conflict of conscience when success is measured statistically, by increasing numbers and innovative programs, instead of by discipleship and prayer for spiritual growth. Christendom’s vision of pastoral ministry proposes an alternative relationship with parishioners, a relationship that was never envisioned in the New Testament. Since the pastor is Christ’s representative in a way that is distinct and different from his brothers and sisters in Christ, he is advised by his fellow pastors to find friends outside of his church family to prevent confusing his pastoral responsibilities with his ordinary friendships. Since he needs to be pastored by pastors, because he himself is a pastor, he is counseled to look for friends in “the company and support of colleagues in office.” The pastor should find friendship among his “indispensable brothers,” who know that “this office is bigger than any one of [them].”[5] This conception of pastoral friendship is reinforced by the legacy of the sacerdotal priesthood and the Christendom model of church and culture, as well as by the image of the CEO or of the politician who is always running for office. Even when it comes to friendship, then, the burden of ministry falls heavily on the pastor. 

A One-Way Street

Before leaving the pastorate to become a seminary president, Craig Barnes wrote an article for The Christian Century titled “Pastor, not Friend.”[6] Barnes insisted that it is important for pastors to “maintain healthy friendships outside of the church,” but in the church pastors must “maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor.” Barnes wrote that when the elders of the congregation ordained him to be their pastor, they were “being led by the Holy Spirit to push me away from them. They were essentially saying, ‘We are setting you apart to serve us. So, you can’t be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.’” Barnes continues: “It wasn’t long after I stood up from the ordination prayer that I discovered this. But the elders have a hard time understanding the holy distance they created by their decision to make me their pastor.” This is the high cost of ordination, says Barnes, “this lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.” 

Ordination places the pastor on a one-way street of meeting needs. All the giving, caring, and responsibility flows in one direction from the pastor to the people. Barnes paints a bleak but realistic picture of the Christendom pastor who is drowning in obligation and unrelenting pressure. Barnes envies the freedom of the layperson: “Parishioners are freed by a spiritual anonymity pastors will never know. Best of all, they’re free to tell the old ladies with thin lips that they can take a flying leap if they complain one more time. Pastors have none of these freedoms, and they resent that so much of their individuality was lost on the day of their ordinations.”[7]

But does it need to be this way? Is this how the apostles and the early church experienced the household of faith and exercised spiritual leadership? Barnes loves the church. There is no doubt about it. He is an insightful, winsome communicator of the gospel. He is a wise and humble church leader—one of our best. He has devoted his life to helping people experience Christ’s peace. Barnes is more than willing to pay the high cost of “crowded loneliness.” He insists that this distinction between pastor and people has nothing to do with ego or power, but everything to do with the pastor’s vocational responsibility. “This is the uniqueness of the ordination to Word and Sacrament,” he writes. “It has nothing to do with hierarchy and everything to do with the different apportionment of gifts. The cherished Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers does not mean that we are all the same. It means that we are all called to fulfill our mission to live in Christ in the places where we have been called to serve him.”[8] However, I question whether we are laboring under a false burden.

Only the pastor, Barnes believes, can “delve into the soul of the congregation in search of holy mysteries.”[9] For Barnes the uniqueness of the pastor’s vowed commitment distances him from the congregation he serves. “This is what pastors really mean when they complain about the loneliness of their calling,” Barnes writes. “No one can do this priestly work for them, or even with them. It is ironic that a profession that surrounds pastors with so many people leaves them alone with their own ponderings. And this is the part of the profession that is completely missed by everyone the pastor serves. . . . The pastor is forced to make the solitary journey into the Holy of Holies to offer exhausted prayers over a cup of tea. There is nothing hierarchical or elitist about this loneliest dimension of the job.”[10]

The work that Barnes attributes to the pastor alone is the work that the New Testament attributes to the body of Christ together. There is no way that one person can or should do everything Barnes insists the pastor should do. We just don’t have such a one-sided pastoral description of responsibility and authority in the New Testament. The traditional model that has been reinforced over time through institutional religion is bound to leave the pastor feeling alone and trapped. 

Led by the Spirit of Christ the apostles envisioned a very different kind of church. They sought the freedom to know and be known as consonant with the freedom to serve in love and truthfulness. Barnes’s description of congregational anonymity and pastoral loneliness is true of many churches. Undoubtedly many pastors can identify with it. But to conform our pastoral theology to the cultural Christianity of institutional religion is neither necessary nor inevitable. We need pastors who lead, certainly. However, assuming authority and humility in a passion for Christ and a love for the household of faith and laboring to preach the whole counsel of God and to offer biblical spiritual direction does not exclude pastors from also receiving within the fellowship of the body of Christ. 

Of all people, pastors should make good friends. The reason Jesus gave for calling his disciples friends instead of servants was that he had confided in them. Servants don’t know the master’s business; they simply do their master’s bidding. But Jesus affirmed that friends know what’s going on. There is an implicit trust between friends as they experience life together. The matrix of friendship is companionship and conversation. In a nonhierarchical, open, informal, spontaneous way, friends confide in one another, trust, and depend on one another. There is a natural, organic development to friendship that leads to deep feelings of responsibility and intimacy. There is no formula for achieving this, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus makes friendship possible. There is no better expression of true friendship than to share with a friend everything God has given you. 

I confess that I should have done a better job teaching a biblical theology of the household of faith in the churches I’ve served. When I left my pastoral responsibilities in San Diego for a teaching position in a seminary in Birmingham, my wife Virginia stayed behind to sell our house and organize our move. On the first Sunday I was away she naturally went to church—the church where we worshiped for fourteen years. After the worship service, an elder came to her and asked her, “Why are you back? You don’t belong here anymore. Your presence here will only confuse people.” Virginia was surprised but calmly explained that this is where she worshiped and where her friends were. Unexpectedly, she learned in the weeks that followed that she had two sets of friends: those who had related to her all these years because she was the pastor’s wife, and those who related to her because she was their friend. Transactional friendship is a product of a Christendom model of pastoral theology; transformative friendship is the fruit of the gospel-centered household of faith.

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[1] See Douglas D. Webster, Soulcraft: How God Shapes Us through Relationships
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 71.

[2] Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice
Church Models (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 23.

[3] Leeman, One Assembly, 57.

[4] Leeman, One Assembly, 47.

[5] Senkbeil, The Care of Souls, xviii.

[6] M. Craig Barnes, “Pastor, not Friend,” The Christian Century, December, 27,

[7] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 6.

[8] Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, 61.

[9] Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, 62.

[10] Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, 108.

This post is adapted from Pastoral Identity by Douglas D. Webster. This title was released on July 18, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

A charge for pastors to re-envision their role in a world suspicious of Christianity

Webster calls pastors to reject “Christendom” approaches to church leadership that require the pastor to exert control over the church’s direction and ministry. Such models differ fundamentally from the New Testament “household of faith” vision of pastoral ministry, which affirms the disciple-making responsibility of the whole community, the priesthood of all believers, and the shared gifts of the Spirit.

Rather than perpetuate pastoral leadership based on individual initiative, institutional power, and personal charisma, experienced pastor and seminary professor Douglas Webster defines a New Testament model of the pastor, outlining the major features of pastoring among the household of faith, such as:

  • Viewing the church as an every-member ministry
  • Seeking synergy between pastoral identity and congregational identity
  • Prioritizing a pastor’s daily rhythms of grace in prayer, study, and care for the body
  • Supporting pastor-theologians who shepherd believers in the whole counsel of God

Such pastoral authority and guidance require mutual submission in Christ. Pastors and laypeople alike let go of dominant cultural models of pastoring and embrace the values of Christ’s kingdom.


About Author

Douglas D. Webster (Ph.D., University of St. Michael’s College) is professor of pastoral theology and preaching at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego for fourteen years as well as churches in New York City, Denver, and Toronto. His other books include, Follow the Lamb: A Pastoral Approach to The Revelation and Preaching Hebrews: The End of Religion and Faithfulness to the End. Find him at

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