Shortly after we started PCC, when were about three years old, a man arrived who had a strong, outgoing personality, and eagerly championed the vision of the church. He was willing to serve, had some church experience, and understood the importance of vision. He even tithed!
What wasn’t to like? I quickly began to lean on him and count him as a friend. I needed one too – someone I could share the ups and down of church planting with. A real brother in arms.
But as the church grew and other leaders took responsibility, decisions were made and teams were formed that did not always include his involvement. Instead of welcoming the new vitality to our church, he became threatened and turned hostile, particularly toward me.
I vividly remember the day that things exploded. We had recently moved into our building and several new ministries had been launched, including a ministry he led. Everyone had the understanding that with limited space, all the ministries at PCC had to share the same rooms in the building, therefore scheduling was vital. Yet, instead of cooperating with others he became angry anytime someone used “his” space. We were also having to make decisions about budget allocations and where those funds would best be directed, none of which he liked. We had to write financial policies and building use polices to guide our decisions and to ensure everyone was on the same page of understanding. He seethed in resentment, and it showed. These displays of anger were his way of marking his territory as the church moved into a new era. Before long people were tiptoeing around on egg shells afraid of setting him off. In a blazing moment of naiveté, I said, “It has nothing to do with us; he’s stressed out at work. Let's give it time, it'll work itself out.” It didn't. His attitude was going south and I didn't have the savvy to see it coming.
A few months later, we made one of our first major purchases after moving into the building – a used copier. When this man saw the copier and realized that we had made this purchase, he was not happy. About that same time we changed our church logo, from a stock copy-and-paste one that we had used for years, to a newer customized one. This too set him off. To add fuel to the fire, we were still adding new people to our leadership team. When that happened, it was game over. He went on the warpath.
Where I was once the person he was eager to support, I now could do nothing to please him. He began talking to anyone who would listen, spreading all kinds of innuendo. I also tried to talk with him and reconcile, but he would not be appeased. He would not even take my calls. He was mad and wanted others to know he was upset.
The turmoil went on for a few more months. Finally, when he realized that he wasn’t succeeding in getting many others to join his revolt, he left. But not before spreading the most vicious lies about me imaginable.
About that time, I talked to another pastor. He told me about his church and how, in their efforts to expand their leadership teams, a certain man went on a campaign of revolt and sent letters to everyone in the church accusing him all sorts of vicious things. When I heard that, I thought to myself, is there a school out there somewhere where they train people to do this kind of thing?
Nothing hurts more than someone you thought was a friend becoming a foe and attacking your personality. Little did I know when I entered the ministry that I could look forward to many such relational defections.
So can pastors have friends? I mean, safe ones?
Yes, but they are few and far between. The role that pastors have with church people often makes the relationship weird. People have certain expectations of pastors which puts immediate pressure on the relationship from the get go. And most of the time these expectations cannot be fulfilled, which leads to disappointment, defection, or ever worse, disloyalty. It’s hard for pastors to have normal interaction with some people without great risk because we’re so…high voltage.
Pastors are really vulnerable here. Many lead lonely, isolated lives. We want community and fellowship, but it’s difficult to get. Why? Because the nature of our role makes things toxic. Someone wants us to let down our hair around them and open up – but somewhere inside them is an expectation, like a time bomb waiting to go off. All it takes is one disappointment, one failure, one letdown, and all bets are off. Sadly, it’s often the very ones who press in close – like the guy I mentioned at the beginning – a brother in arms – who prove most likely to betray and hurt the deepest.
So what is a pastor to do? You have to get savvy about people. Have friends, but be careful. And that begins by knowing what makes someone safe.
A safe person is someone who is just that – safe. They can be trusted. They are accepting and supportive. They are a refuge. And you feel safe around them. Then there are unsafe people. Unsafe people have agendas, expectations, take advantage, are users, betray, misunderstand, and even attack.
Jesus certainly employed this kind of discernment in His relationships. John 2:23-25 says “…. many people believed in His Name. But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all men….”
Jesus was open to the risk of being close to people, because we know that He had close friends who He lived in community with – both men and women. But in the passage above, we learn that He never approached relationships with recklessness. He approached people lovingly but with a discerning spirit.
Henry Cloud and John Townsend have put together a useful list of what marks unsafe people:
1. An unsafe person thinks they “have it all together” instead of being willing to admit their weaknesses
2. They tend to attack, criticize, and fault-find instead of build up and encourage.
3. They’re often legalistic and rigid. They are more concerned with making corrections than making connections.
4. They are abandoners, with a track record of starting relationships but never finishing them.
5. They’re self-righteous instead of humble.
6. They’re unstable, instead of being consistent, going from thing to thing, place to place, person to person.
7. They are more concerned about “I” than “we.”
8. They resist freedom for others instead of encouraging it.
9. They condemn more than they forgive.
10. They gossip instead of keeping confidences.
When you see some of these marks in person’s life, be careful. They are not safe. Obviously, no one is perfect. And don’t forget – we are supposed to be safe people ourselves right back at these folks.
All of us have flaws in our character. No one is completely safe. But that doesn’t mean you don’t take a deep look at someone’s relational makeup and track record and make some assessments about that person before you plunge headlong into a close relationship with them.