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Building Relationships In A Small Church

As a pastoral student at Ontario Bible College, I remember my prof telling us that a pastor should never have any friendships in the church. Basically the pastor was there to treat everyone the same and the only way to do that was not to become close to anyone. I remember sitting there and thinking that I couldn’t pastor that way. I couldn’t be part of a church in which I was at arms length with every other person in the church. The only way in which I could serve was to build a caring relationship with as many people as possible.


The dangers

Before anyone sends me an email telling me why my prof was correct, let me say that I understand the dangers. When part of our job is pointing out areas of weaknesses in people’s lives that can be difficult to do. Being honest with someone could endanger the relationship that you have with that person. The temptation is to protect the relationship and never confront anyone with anything . There is a very real tendency within churches in Canada to be more concerned with people’s happiness than with their spiritual growth. In many churches members are never confronted with the impact of their actions. Building meaningful relationships could make this worse.

When pastors become close to anyone in their churches, they lay themselves open to accusations of favouritism. It could be an accusation that the pastor spends more time with one person than he does with someone else. It could be that the pastor always supports the initiatives of her friend and doesn’t offer the same support to another person. The list of possible accusations is endless. The only way to avoid them is not to get close to everyone. If the pastor has no close friends in the church, no one can accuse her of being biased.

Finally strong relationships with people can result in pastors and their spouses being hurt. One of the realities of pastoral life is that sooner or later there will be people who leave the church and the pastor and probably his family will be hurt by their leaving. I realize that that is not a very bright picture to paint but it is one of the realities of church life. What makes it so difficult for the pastor when a person leaves is that it is not just a church member who is leaving. It is someone in whom the pastor has invested her life and in the process has built what she thought was a strong relationship. To put it simply what makes it hard is that it is often a friend that leaves. This is especially hard when the person leaving has hurtful things to say about the church.


Pastoral relationships in the small church

In his book Making The Small Church Effective Carl Dudley suggests that one of the key differences in the role of the pastor in a small church as compared with the pastor in a large church is the pastor’s ability to build relationships (p. 72). In a large church the pastor is often a specialist. The senior pastor will probably spend large amounts of time preparing the sermon for Sunday. The youth pastor will focus on the teenagers. The worship pastor will handle all things concerned with music. Each person has his/her area of expertise which means that the person has a very narrow focus in his or her job.

In a small church the pastor usually has his finger in everything.  He has to preach and administer and cast vision and support the youth group and a host of other things. The church can’t afford specialists.

Most small churches don’t care if their pastor is a specialist. At the top of the list of characteristics in all small churches is relationships between people. If relationships between the members is important, it only makes sense that the relationships between the members and the pastor will be important as well. Dudley suggests that small churches aren’t really looking for skills. What the small church wants is a good lover. They want someone who will love them and tell them that he does.

I was married in 1970 which means that this year Gloria and I will celebrate our fiftieth anniversary. It doesn’t seem like we have been married that long but calendars don’t lie. There are many things in our life together in which I have tried Gloria’s patience but one thing that I think I have done fairly well is that I have tried to make sure that in some way every day I let my wife know that I love her. There are many ways in which this can be done. I try verbally to say it every day but there are those days when I get busy and I don’t actually say the words. Over the years I have given her hundreds of bouquets of flowers. The other day I bought her four cards that all said that I loved her and I hid them around the house so that she would find them throughout her day.

I’m not sharing this to make out that I’m a great husband but just to say that I know that she likes to hear that she is loved and I try to tell her. People in small churches like to know that they are loved as well and as pastors we should always be looking for ways to convey that message to them.

As I look back to my college days, I think that the advice I shared at the beginning of this blog entry was possibly the worst advice that I received from any of my professors. There are dangers in developing relationships with people in our churches but a person cannot pastor a small church without taking the risk and building relationships with his people.

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