Magazine article The Christian Century

Can We Be Friends? When I Talk with My Church Friends, the Major Focus of My Life-My Ministry-Is Mostly off Limits

Magazine article The Christian Century

Can We Be Friends? When I Talk with My Church Friends, the Major Focus of My Life-My Ministry-Is Mostly off Limits

Article excerpt

Now concerning the love of brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another ...

1 Thessalonians 4:9

REMEMBER the quiet summer night when things changed between my neighbor John and me. We were sitting on his front steps, having a beer, watching our children run up and down the sidewalk, which was our usual routine as we waited for our spouses to come home. We were sitting there talking about nothing, when he ventured into new territory.

"I'm thinking I want my kids to go to church," he mumbled. " I wondered if you knew anything about that Methodist church up the street from us."

The words came out of my mouth before I had thought them through. "What on earth are you talking about? Here you are in Congregationalist New England living across the street from a Congregationalist minister. Suddenly you wake up one morning, finally feeling religious, and you want to go visit the Methodists? Why wouldn't you come to our church?"

"I don't know," he said, staring out at the kids. "I guess I do want to try your church." I wondered if he had just made a nice save. "But I didn't know how you'd feel about that."

But by then I was in work mode, not feeling mode. I saw a potential member for my church and zoomed in like a telemarketer on speed. Before John knew what had happened, he had agreed to come to church the next Sunday and was saved from his near brush with Methodism.

John and his kids stayed in our church. He became a leader in our community-organizing program and later a deacon. He has told me that his life is richer now. We've discussed tithing, salvation, communion rituals and polities, and now, as his minister, I know something about his nine-to-five work as well as his inner life.

But as for drinking a beer together on the front steps--that passed away. As pastor and parishioner we now had a relationship centered in a community. And we became items on one another's to-do lists.

I wouldn't trade the new relationship, but I do miss having someone to sit on the steps with. Looking back, I think I understand why John wanted to visit a church other than mine. Perhaps he saw what I did not see: that after we became pastor and parishioner, we would no longer just sit on the steps and talk about nothing.

Being in the ministry, where so much of my work is devoted to the building of relationships, I worry about losing the ability to just sit next to someone and talk about nothing. Evangelism has become a part of my personality. Even when I try not to draw people to my church, they must see an invisible sign on my back, like the ones we stuck on unsuspecting victims in grade school saying, "Kick me here."

Ask me a question about religion, tell me about the nun who rapped your knuckles or the pastor who ran off with the music director, or the fact that you're a very spiritual person but you just don't believe in organized religion, and I'll start telling you about my church. I can't help myself. So as I establish friendships outside the church, my friends join the church.

It is not happenstance that my family has had a membership at the Jewish Community Center. Proselytizing there would be rather bad form. I found that I could go to the gym there, eat at the snack bar, watch my kids run around and talk about nothing. Few people there knew that I was a minister, and I liked it that way. But I wonder if, in hiding out at the Jewish Community Center, I was ducking the hard questions.

I remember the debate in divinity school as to whether or not a minister could have real friendships within the congregation. Back then it seemed as though it would be simple. But the end of 2 Thessalonians 5:12 reads like a mass of contradictions that comes closer to the reality of Christian leadership. "But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. …

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