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Safe People

Safe People

Shortly after we started Mecklenburg, a man arrived who had a strong, outgoing personality and eagerly championed the vision of the church as he’d been involved with a similar community of faith in another city. He was willing to serve, had previous experience, and understood the 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 downs 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 without his involvement. Instead of welcoming the vitality, he became threatened and turned hostile, particularly toward me.

I vividly recall the day things exploded. We had just moved into our very first office, a small suite with two rooms and a work area. This man had gone in and arranged the furniture as he thought it ought to be. I assumed he was just being nice, but as it turned out, that was his way of marking his territory as the church moved into a new era. Other leaders came to me and said, “What do we do? We appreciate his efforts, and we don’t want to hurt his feelings, but we want to arrange our furniture our own way."

In a blazing moment of naiveté, I said, “I’m sure he won’t mind. Go ahead!” Two days later, we made one of the first major purchases as a church — a copier. And we rearranged the office back to the way it was when we first moved in.

When this man saw that we had reorganized the office and made a major purchase without his knowledge, he was not happy. His attitude took a major turn, and I didn’t have the ministerial street savvy to see it coming. To add fuel to the fire, over the next few weeks we put together a management team that did not include him (we had begun to see some red flags in his personality). When that happened, it was “game over.” He went on the warpath.

Where I was once the one 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 tried to talk with him and reconcile, but he would not be appeased. He was mad and wanted others to know he was upset.

The turmoil went on for two or three months. Finally, when he realized he wasn't succeeding in getting other people to revolt, he left. But not before writing a scathing letter to everyone on the management team, accusing me of being loose with the church's money (the copier), and of being autocratic (establishing the management team without him on it).

I tried to talk with him in person, but he refused to meet with me. So I wrote him a letter trying to explain my decisions. All that did was generate another round of angry letters sent to other people. So I just let it go, and let him go, and tried to move on. But you don't just move on from those things. I had trusted this man, confided in him, believed him to be safe. 

He wasn’t. 

Nothing hurts more than someone you thought was a friend becoming a foe, and attacking you personally. Little did I know that in ministry I could look forward to many more relational defections.

So, can pastors have friends? Safe ones?

Some say no, at least not within the church. Some say yes and that building intimate friendships from within the community you are charged to lead is decisive.

I’m not in either camp. I think you can have friends within the church you lead, but they are to be few and far between. I don’t mean “small f” friends, people who are more than acquaintances but less than lifelong intimates. But a “capital F” friend, someone you really do life with, open up to, become vulnerable to, share your fears and insecurities, secrets and struggles with … you are probably going to have to go somewhere else. And probably should, because most of the people in your church are not going to be safe for you.

It’s not the church’s fault. You simply have a role with them that makes the relationship weird. I often joke that being a pastor is like being a third sex. People aren’t normal around us. They have ridiculous expectations; they build up and then tear down; they are fans one minute and foes the next. We’re just so ... high voltage. It’s hard for people to interact with us without great risk. 

Pastors really are vulnerable here. We lead lonely, isolated lives. We want community, but it’s difficult to participate in it. Don’t get me wrong – the vast majority of the people in our church genuinely love and appreciate us, and would never consider themselves unsafe. And, as normal people to normal people, they aren’t. But we aren’t normal. The nature of our role makes things toxic. Someone wants us to let our hair down around them – even encourages it, saying that they want to be that kind of friend to us, knowing that pastors probably don’t have too many friends like that – but somewhere inside of 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 ones who most invite you to let down your guard who prove most likely to betray you.

So what do you do as a pastor?

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 let us love and be loved. Then there are unsafe people. Unsafe people abandon, take advantage, betray, misunderstand, and even attack. 

Jesus certainly employed this kind of discernment. Look at how the Bible talks about this aspect of His life:

During the time that he was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him. But Jesus didn't entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn't need any help in seeing right through them (John 2:23-24, Msg).

Jesus was not closed to the risk of intimacy, because we know that He was in intimate community with several men and women. But here we learn that he never approached relationships with reckless abandon. He approached people lovingly but with a discerning spirit.

So how do you do that?

It begins with determining whether they have the maturity to separate your role from who you are as a person. Believe me – this takes a very special person. They need to be truly, truly safe. That means safe with your sin, because that’s the key. You are a sinner, and those closest to you will know it – and when, where, and how. Can they show you the grace you need, the grace every human needs – even those of a third sex?

Henry Cloud and John Townsend, a pair of Christian clinical psychologists, put together a list of what marks unsafe people that I have found to be very useful. Notice how many of these marks have to do with gracelessness:

*An unsafe person thinks they "have it all together" instead of being willing to readily admit their weaknesses.

*They tend to attack, criticize and fault-find, instead of build up and encourage. They’re often legalistic, rigid, and lacking in grace. They are more concerned with making corrections than making connections.

*They’re abandoners, with a track record of starting relationships but never finishing them. They look for perfect people, and when someone shows imperfection, they move on.

*They're defensive instead of open to feedback.

*They’re self-righteous instead of humble.

*They’re unstable over time instead of consistent. They’re flashy, intensive, addictive types, going from thing to thing, place to place, person to person.

*They are more concerned about “I” instead of “we.”

*They resist freedom instead of encouraging it.

*They condemn us instead of forgive us.

*They gossip instead of keeping secrets.

When you see some of these marks in someone’s life, be careful. Obviously, no one is perfect. Don’t forget – you’re supposed to be safe 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 make some assessments about that person before you plunge headlong into a relationship. 

Jesus sure did.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.