Why They’re Not Actually Your Friends (A Hard Truth for Pastors and Leaders)

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Over the last year and a bit, I’ve talked to so many leaders who are distraught over how many friends—often people they thought of as close friends—have left their church. And when they left, they also ended the friendship.

Friends they’ve worked with or served with end up no longer being friends—quitting the church, leaving staff, or even walking out for good over a disagreement.

Leaders have struggled with the problem for years. Pastors, even more so.

No surprise, but this phenomenon intensified over the last few years as COVID isolated people and culture became more divided on almost every issue.

First of all, I empathize. It’s happened to me too. It hurts, sometimes at the soul level. And friendships—being the unique relationships they are—once built, are often difficult to replace.

That said, I’ve also had decades to find a different perspective.

Ready for a contrary view?

What if they were never your friends?

I’m not trying to be mean or question your relational IQ.

I get it. You’re saying, “But we had dinner with these people. We went on vacations together. We were at each other’s houses all the time. Our kids played together. We were close.”

I realize that.

But, again, the question—what if they were never actually your friends?

I know, you’re thinking, What???? But hear me out.

True friendships don’t depend on your leadership. They depend on the relationship.

And as long as you’re the leader, you’ve got a few variables in the friendship that make it hard to discern whether this is truly a friendship that will survive your leadership.

You know the stereotype of the business leader who retires and is later shocked to discover his phone never rings and everyone he used to hang out with isn’t interested in him anymore.

A similar thing happens to pastors and church leaders.

I will share why that’s the case but hang on to the end for some hope.

Understanding the unique dynamics of leadership and friendships should make the pain of processing relational transitions easier, not harder.

True friendships don't depend on your leadership. They depend on the relationship. Click To Tweet

Why It’s Weird: The Problem is Your Power

Aside from any normal relational struggles you and I bring to life (welcome to the human race—we all do), leadership brings a strange dynamic to any friendship—power.

Even if your leadership’s approach leans egalitarian, and you see yourself as equal to your team – not above them – the challenge remains: you hold power.

Beyond the power to hire and fire, you also hold the power to determine the mission and direction of the organization. Your words weigh more, and you have the clout that simply accompanies the position you hold, whether you feel like you do or not.

I’ve done everything I can to shake the power imbalance over several decades in leadership and use my power to benefit others. Still, the dynamic remains: As a leader, you hold power.

As a result—and here’s the dynamic—people build relationships with you for reasons other than just pure friendship.

Leaders, people build relationships with you for reasons other than just pure friendship. Click To Tweet

Sometimes they’ve built a relationship with you because they want to be close to their leader or they want some influence over the organization’s future direction. Other times, they’re just drawn to the leader’s charisma.

That’s not cynical; that’s just real. And they may not even realize they’re doing it. You likely won’t know it’s happening.

Except it is.

They’ll use the term ‘friend,’ which will resemble a real friendship in many ways.

But it will always be influenced by the power dynamic.

Flex that power in the wrong direction, say the wrong thing, or make the wrong move (whatever that is), and the friendship strains or dissolves.

The problem when you’re friends with a leader often isn’t relational; it’s positional.

The problem when you're friends with a leader often isn't relational, it's positional. Click To Tweet

Why Pastoring Is Even Weirder: Ministry Is the Perfect Storm

I spent over two decades as a pastor in a local church. If you think leadership is weird, ministry is weirder.

Here’s why.

Ministry is the perfect storm: work, faith, and community collide.

When I was in law, those spheres of my life were more separate and clear. I worked at a law firm by day, had a church I was part of evenings and weekends, and had friends from many parts of life.

When I entered full-time vocational ministry, everything melted into one.

Ministry is strange.

What you believe is also what you do. And the people you serve are also your community.

By the time you’re established as a pastor, everyone in your local circle is either someone you’re serving in ministry or someone you want to reach.

This can create many issues (for example, it can make you feel that workaholism is faithfulness—it’s not), but let’s think about the relational impact.

No one can really see you as just, well, you. You’re always the pastor.

It makes your friendships harder because you can’t talk about absolutely everything.

It would be inappropriate, for example, to talk to a friend in the congregation about a struggle you have with your elder board. Or discuss personnel challenges you’re having with staff with the church member you play golf with every Saturday.

Similarly, if you’re frustrated with your church, you can hardly unload that on an unchurched friend. It’s bizarre to complain about the gossip in your church to an unchurched friend and then invite him out next Sunday.

It leaves a lot of pastors feeling like they have no escape. One of the best practices I had (and still have) is to have a few friends who don’t work for me or live near me that I can talk to about anything. A good therapist is a great idea too.

If you think leadership is weird, ministry is weirder.  Ministry is the perfect storm: work, faith and community collide.  Click To Tweet

Make a Different Decision and See What Happens

By now, you might be thinking that your friendships are different. They really are authentic and life-long.

Maybe. And if so, that’s awesome.

But try this. As much as you’re enjoying the relationship (as they likely are), do something associated with your position they don’t like and see what happens.

For thousands of pastors in the last two years, that kind of move dissolved the relationship.

You said the wrong thing/didn’t say something/said too much/said too little/wore a mask/didn’t wear a mask/got vaccinated/didn’t get vaccinated/opened too early/opened too late, and now they’re gone.

“I thought these people were my friends,” you complain.

Nope. You were their leader. Or they were your colleagues.

It felt like friendship. It functioned like friendship. But it wasn’t really friendship.

A genuine friendship endures when the position doesn’t.

Of course, this is really hard to see when you still hold the position. But I promise you: this dynamic happens all the time.

A relationship might feel like friendship and function like friendship, but it isn't really friendship.  A genuine friendship endures when the position doesn't.  Click To Tweet

How to Tell Who Your Real Friends Are

The hard part is that you won’t really know who your friends are until either something happens (and they walk out) OR until you no longer hold your position.


I know.

The question to ask is: who will be with me when I retire/leave this position?

I asked one friend, in his forties, about this. He left a church over a decade ago where he and his wife had many friends. They literally had dozens of families they tracked with.

A decade later, they track with one couple.

That’s not to say the other relationships didn’t mean anything. They were (mostly) dependent on his position.

Last year, as I was stepping off the staff of the church I founded, I asked a wise mentor (now in his eighties) what I should prepare for.

I’ll never forget what he told me: They forget you quickly, Carey. 

At first, I didn’t want to believe him. But he’s right.

People move on. You were their leader. Now you’re not.

As I was stepping off church staff after 25 years, I asked a wise mentor (now in his eighties) what I should prepare for.  I'll never forget what he told me: They forget you quickly.  He was right. Click To Tweet

Several years ago, I led a church.

I remember driving to one couple’s house. It felt like we had a friendship, but from time to time, I would say to my wife, “Do you think X and Y are our friends because they’re our friends? Or do you think they’re our friends because I’m the pastor?”

I found it impossible to answer that question until recently.

In 2015, I stepped aside as Lead Pastor as part of a succession plan, but we still live in the same community and are part of the same church. Then in late 2020, I stepped back from the teaching team. In other words, I’m done in any official position.

Guess what happened to that friendship?

It’s closer than ever. It turns out they were (and are) real friends.

But sometimes, you don’t know until it’s all over.

Leaders, your friends are who’s left when you have nothing left to give other than yourself.

Leaders, your friends are who's left when you have nothing left to give other than yourself.  Click To Tweet

So, What Do You Do? 

The good news (and the hard news) is to keep making friends. I know that sounds like the opposite of this post, but it’s not.

You can’t lead in a relational desert. You have to have friends.

But – and this is a big caveat – understand the unique relationship you’ll have with people as long as you’re in leadership.

And if a friendship dissolves (and some will), you’ll know why it happened.

Understanding this dynamic,

  • Makes grieving easier.
  • Clears the fog more easily.
  • Helps you discern what’s really happening.

Personally speaking, I’m still leading, so I’m not out of the woods yet. These days I help equip leaders. And when you have a podcast with 20 million downloads and content that gets accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month, it means that people want to be ‘friends’ with you for various reasons.

I’m not naive enough to think that when the audience goes away, or I’m no longer doing what I’m doing, that I’m going to be overwhelmed by people trying to connect with me.

I cherish professional relationships and ‘friendships,’ but I know that lasting friendship is a rare gift.

Dunbar’s Number and Concentric Circles

I now process relationships using the filter I shared in my bestselling book, At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities Working In Your Favor. A lot of leaders have found it helpful.

British psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that humans are historically and genetically programmed to be able to handle 150 personal relationships.

He says that your limits are cognitive—they’re hardwired. Dunbar’s conclusion about the human capacity for relationships springs from how the brain developed.

Drawing from anthropology, biology, and human history dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, Dunbar breaks down the limits of meaningful human relationships into a series of concentric circles.

Starting at the center circle, Dunbar suggested that you and I are hardwired for three to five true friendships—intimate relationships with people you have the habit of connecting with at least once a week.

You don’t even need to use your other hand to count the number of intimate friendships a human can have.

The next circle is the twelve to fifteen people he calls your “sympathy group”—friends you connect with at least once a month who share your values, interests, and often perspectives on life.  The total of twenty relationships between these first two circles is about all the people most humans can manage to truly know, said Dunbar.

But wait…I know way more people than that, you’re thinking. And you’re right.

You do “know” the names, bios, and perhaps the kids’ names of a larger group. But Dunbar maxed that number out at 150.

Not 1.5 million.
Or 1,500.
Or even 300.

Just 150.

Be very careful about who makes it into that innermost circle.  Treat them like your closest friends, and then realize everyone else plays a very important role, but not the role where everyone’s ‘your best friend.’ Because they’re not. They can’t be.

Occasionally, I’ve lost friends in that 3-5 inner circle. Sometimes it’s been my fault; other times not. And it hurts.

But then there’s someone else in that middle circle who soon becomes one of your best friends.

And, by the way, I cover more in the book, but one of the reasons you feel so overwhelmed is that all those people have access to you digitally. In some cases, hundreds or thousands of people do.

In At Your Best, I share how to handle and prioritize relationships with all those people.

The key is that the depth of the relationship should determine the depth and speed of your response to people. 

The depth of the relationship should determine the depth and speed of your response to people.  Click To Tweet

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Even if you’ve tried other methods without success.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.