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Recently my husband and I had coffee with another pastor and his wife. We discussed our testimonies, our families, and our churches. Eventually, one of them asked, “So, who are your friends?”
My husband began to list some of our dearest friends. The woman with whom I had a weekly prayer date for 10 years. The woman who warmed our hearts with encouragement and our bodies with early-morning scrambled eggs and coffee. The woman who walked into my life as a teenager and remained as a kindred spirit.
I don’t know if it surprised the other couple, but it surprised me a little. All of those friends were members of our church.
‘They Can’t Be Your Friends’
In 12 years as a pastor’s wife, the one ministry manifesto I’ve heard repeated more than any other is You can’t have close friends in your church. This prohibition is handed down to seminary wives and passed around ministry families like gospel truth. Church people might be objects of ministry. They may be burdens or blessings. They may be acquaintances, neighbors, fellow laborers even. But they can never be friends.
This is a lie.
The church of Christ is never “us” against “them.” It’s never ministry families on one side and church people on the other. It’s never pastors’ wives above or beyond the women in the church. It’s all of us together in Christ.
They Should Be Your Friends
So not only can we be close friends with church members, we ought to be. Here are three reasons:
1. You are, in fact, close to the people in your church.
Whether or not you acknowledge it, the people of your church are closer to you than almost anyone else. They are members of the same body (1 Cor. 12), branches on the same tree (John 15), stones in the same building (Eph. 2). They are fellow heirs of the kingdom, fellow workers in the gospel, and fellow citizens of heaven. Together you are joined to Jesus—both now and forever.
And the people in your church are the people with whom you engage in life’s most intimate activity. These are the people with whom you worship. We are most truly ourselves when offering worship before God, and week after week it’s the people in our church who lay themselves bare in prayer and song, in receiving the Word read and preached, in meeting together with the Lord.
Friends outside the church are a blessing. But it’s the people who worship with me—who notice when my shoulders are slumped and my voice is weak, who share my tears and hear my “Amens,” who are equally accountable to practice the Word we all heard preached—who are my dearest friends.
“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18). And he says to the pastor’s wife: I have chosen these particular people for my glory and your good. Here, right in these pews, are your friends.
2. Constraints are an incentive, not a hindrance, to true friendship.
I’ve written before, quoting Anne of Green Gables, about how the pastor’s wife can act as an “extra conscience” for the people in the church. But church members are also an extra conscience for the pastor’s wife. And this is a gift.
Too often I fear the reason we think we can’t be friends with those in our church is that we misunderstand the nature of true friendship. If our friendships are based on the freedom to gossip about others, to complain about our spouses and kids, to vent about our tight finances, or to find fault with Christ’s church, then we shouldn’t find those kinds of friendships in our congregation. Of course, we shouldn’t be seeking those kinds of friendships anywhere.
Friendship with church members will—or at least should—be walled off from gossip and malice and foolishness. And if we are prevented from sin, we are freed to righteousness. With church members we can rejoice in the Lord, seek his face, and cry out to him. We can talk about his Word, savor the goodness of his creation, and thank him together for our blessings.
Our blessed contraints free us to delight together in the mutual Friend who first befriended us. What better friendship could we have?
3. Our friendships in the church encourage other friendships in the church.
Every pastor’s family I know would say they desire the people in their church to form close friendships—mutually encouraging and exhorting one another, caring for one another’s needs, seeking to love one another in their daily lives.
And yet pastors and their wives too often hold back from the very relationships they want others to have. When we do this, we miss the opportunity to set an example for—and provide much-needed encouragement to—the body we love.
They Are Here
Friendship makes us vulnerable. Pastors’ wives know this, and I believe it’s often the fear that underlies our failure to form friendships in the church. If you become close friends with church members, you might be misunderstood. You might be abandoned. You might be mistreated, accused, slandered, or manipulated. You might be hurt. Friendship requires that we—like our Savior before us—venture everything, knowing that we may be despised and rejected in the process.
But our willingness will be a blessing to our church. Every person—pastor’s wife or 6-year-old or single mom or elderly widow—must face the fear of rejection and form friendships anyway. And if the pastor’s wife will go ahead and point the way, if she will reach out rather than hold back and will lay herself open and lay herself down, others may find courage to do the same.
A few months ago we moved to a new church. I’m not yet sure who my close friends will be, but I know they are here, chosen by my God, sitting in these pews, ready to grow up into Christ together with me.