By Daniel Darling
When I first started in ministry, another leader told me to never develop any deep friendships. He said leadership is about keeping people at arms length so you don’t get too emotionally involved and end up hurt.
I was young, but this struck me as bad advice. It also seems unbiblical. Even Jesus had a few disciples with whom He closely associated. Besides, I didn’t know how to not have friends. I’m highly relational and extroverted. Friendships are like oxygen to me.
But there are some friendships that should be stewarded in a way that doesn’t harm ministry—or our personal integrity.
1. Friendships that nurture our worst instincts
The temptation for leaders to is to gather only with those who are “yes” people—who fan our ego and refuse to tell us when we’re wrong.
It’s incumbent upon leaders to invite accountability into his friend circle so he avoids hubris and can see their own blind spots.
This doesn’t mean we need negative people around us all the time (see second point), but it means we need folks who build us up. And truthfully we all know people who, after we are around them, seem to make us less like Jesus.
I’ve seen leaders pal around with folks who always encourage their worst side, who egg them on to abuse power. And it never, ever ends well.
In fact, for a few folks I’ve known, I can track their fall from grace back to the season when they hung around with folks who nurtured their worst instincts.
2. Friendships that accentuate the negative
So just as we don’t need friends who blindly affirm us, we also don’t need life-draining negative friends.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t listen to criticism of our ministry—we should. I’m not saying we should erect fireproof human shields around us so we never hear what is going wrong—we shouldn’t.
But we also need to be around people who can build us up in Christ. For me, there are some people whose presence is so encouraging, edifying, and life-giving. Many of these people are a few miles ahead of me in ministry and who are ending their ministries well.
I can think of one person in particular whose every single interaction fills me with confidence in what God has for me. We need to find two or three folks like this in our lives who build us up.
And we need to find ways to interact in a healthy way with negative, complaining, backbiting saints.
3. Friendships that go beyond biblical community
Both men and women should pursue godly, brother-sister friendships in order to fulfill the New Testament command to love one another and live in community.
But we also need to be wise about the way we conduct our opposite sex relationships. There is a level of personal communication that we should reserve only for our spouses. Affairs don’t begin in the bedroom. They begin when we blow past obvious personal intimate boundaries with someone to whom we are not married.
This is important not merely for self-protection, but it is a way of caring for our brothers and sisters by loving them in a way that honors God rather than in a way that nurtures our flesh.
What does this look like? It’s obviously different in every context and every relationship. We need both personal boundaries and a nurturing of our heart. We need to understand our own weakness and dependence on the Spirit.
As with all three of these friendships, notice I didn’t say you should avoid these types of people. Jesus loves them—and so should we. Because they’re made in God’s image, they are worth our investment. They’re worth our ministry.
But no friendship is worth our holiness, integrity, or damaged ministry. Have friendships; just remember to steward them well.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.