I recently received an inquiry from a Talbot student who wants to organize a small group for youth pastors from different churches who are starving for peer fellowship.

Due to the institutional orientation of so many of our churches, and the corresponding professionalization of the ministry, it seems that more and more pastors are finding it difficult or impossible to develop meaningful “brother” relationships with persons in their own congregations. Ecclesiologically uninformed deacon and elder boards that treat the church as a business (and paid staff as employees) only make things worse.

Is it biblical, the student inquired, for a pastor to develop his closest relationships with fellow-ministers outside of his own church family?

Well, it just so happens that I have a book coming out early next year that addresses this issue (and others like it): Embracing Shared Leadership: Power & Authority in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today (Kregel, February 2013).

I strongly believe that a pastor should be in community with persons in his or her own church, especially with fellow-staffers, for so many reasons, biblical and pragmatic. This is the heart of the message of Embracing Shared Leadership.

And yet I must confess that I remain conflicted between (a) my ideals and (b) the sad reality of “church,” as so many of our seminary students and graduates are experiencing it today. How could I discourage this well-intentioned student from trying to provide some kind of relational support for fellow-pastors who are starved for meaningful fellowship?

So, yes, if close relationships within the church prove impossible for a season, I suppose that any alternative is preferable to no community at all.

And yet there are good reasons to continue to pursue the biblical ideal.

I think a pastor ought to be in community in his local congregation for the following reasons:

1. New Testament Patterns of Leadership — The NT churches seem to have been led by pastors (plural) and not a pastor (singular), with all the implications for peer community involved in such an approach to leadership.

2. The Example of Paul — Paul enjoyed close relationships with both his co-workers and with persons in his congregations, in spite of the fact that he possessed the kind of God-given authority that no senior pastor has today. 

3. The Credibility Factor — Paul notes that the whole law is fulfilled in the command "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Gal 5:14). I think it is fair to conclude from this statement that “neighbor love” should be one of central themes of a pastoral teaching ministry.  Yet if we are not modeling the give-and-take of genuine community before the eyes of our people, in relationships with others in our own churches, then where in the world do we get the pastoral credibility prophetically and effectively to challenge our people do the same?

Each of these three points are developed in some detail in the forthcoming book, so I won’t elaborate here.

Some of our problems arise, I suspect, from a distinction we often make between "fellowship" and "service," between “community” and “outreach.” 

Consider this definition of community: Biblical community is about transparently bearing our souls to one another, in order to give and receive the kind of unconditional love, support, and moral accountability that can only be found in Christ.

Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this definition is incomplete. It is an only partially biblical take on community. Yet it pretty much sums up "community" as understood and championed by numbers of leaders in our churches and, at times, in certain non-theological disciplines in our seminaries, as well.

Biblical community, however, is about much more than this. It is about experiencing all the relational intimacy described in the above definition in the midst of the sacrificial ministry of the Gospel.

Jesus left us to pursue a Great Commission, not a great community. Great community comes from working together to fulfill the Great Commission. Fellowship and service, community and outreach, thus form a holistic package in New Testament Christianity. There is to be no dichotomy between "being" and "doing."  

Note how Paul refers to Epaphroditus as both a "brother" and a "co-worker" (Phil 2:25). A pastor who tries to be a "co-worker" without being “a brother” turns the ministry into a job and the church into an institution, at once exposing himself to all the dangers associated with a lone-ranger approach to the pastorate. Our “co-workers” in the ministry need to become our “brothers” in the faith, with all the relational solidarity implied in that sibling metaphor.

To return now to the student’s question, finding close friends outside the church may allow a pastor to be both a “brother” and a “co-worker,” but he will function in these capacities with two different groups of people. As outlined above, I see this as a compromise that creates an artificial environment which falls short of the NT view of pastoral ministry.

And then there is the issue of youth pastors seeking community with others who are too much like themselves, age-wise and interest-wise. Peer community like this contrasts sharply with the delightfully variegated NT image of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free persons, men and women (young and old) sharing life together in the early church.

I have met with the same group of pastors at my church for over more than a decade. Only three of the nine of us are paid staff. The other guys come from all walks of life (aerospace, pharmaceutical, graphic arts, advertising and promotion, etc.). There is a 30-year age span among us, and we represent at least four different ethnic groups (Cuban American, Mexican American, African American, Anglo American). We meet for the "brother" stuff every Tuesday morning and the "co-worker" stuff one Saturday a month. Those differences—in age, background, interests, vocation—make for a wonderfully rich leadership community.

I concluded my reply to the inquiry that generated this post as follows:

 “You have a wonderfully big heart to be concerned about this issue, and I would not want to shut the door on what you are considering. But, as outlined, above, I see the idea you are proposing as (at best) a brief stop on the road to a much healthier—and more biblical—ecclesiological destination, as far as community is concerned.”

This is a tough issue that I hope will elicit some comments. If you happen to have some seasoned thoughts about this, please weigh in! You’ll make us all the wiser.