In the ancient church, a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba, may I have a word?' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. Kelly Johnson's reply is here.

Dear Dr. Kelly Johnson,

Your book “Fear of Beggars” changed the way I think about most of my life and ministry. Your critique of the way the church teaches “stewardship,” and the impact of stewardship for the poor and homeless, was eye-opening. Your suggestion of a movement toward friendship with the poor continues to unfold in helpful ways in my own experience and ministry. Your book, along with the influence of the New Monastic and Catholic Worker movements, even sparked among some of my friends the creation of a new voluntary “order”: the Order of St. James. We’re trying to live out some of the principles you describe in your book through a covenant of simplicity, hospitality and evangelism.

Given that your book deals with issues of poverty, begging and economic systems, the topic of this letter might seem a bit strange: being a pastor of a church that has several staff. Why write a letter about staff relationships to someone who has written a book about stewardship and friendship with the poor? The connection is fairly clear in my mind, and I hope to make it clear for you too.

I am a United Methodist pastor who has been appointed as the second pastor of an eight-year-old church plant. The founding pastor was a grandmother (literally) who planted the church at age 59 and retired at 67. It has been a thriving community of faith throughout its short eight-year life.

Several staff members are included in that thriving life together. I have inherited a full-time children’s ministry coordinator, a three-quarters time office manager, a part-time worship leader, and a part-time office assistant. I have gotten up each morning for the past four months glad to be going to work with them. They are a talented group of people and they have done significant ministry together in our church and community.

But there are several things about being a pastor in a community of staff that I am finding tricky to navigate. One such thing is that the staff is fond of calling me “the boss.” This is sometimes said as a joke, but other times not. Most of the interaction between the staff and me runs with this hierarchical understanding of “boss” and “staff” just below the surface. I am expected to be the decider. I am in a sense expected to be the “steward” of knowledge about what is right and wrong to do in any given circumstance.

Your critique of stewardship would seem also to get at this undercurrent in my church of seeing me as the leader and steward of decision-making. In the place of “stewardship” your book offers the correction of friendship.

Here’s the rub. Can the pastor of a church be friends with the staff?

Some conventional wisdom says that a pastor cannot be friends with the church staff (or really with any church member, for that matter). I remember while growing up, telling my dad that I wanted him to be my friend. He always replied, “I can’t be your friend, I’m your dad.” Later in life this line has changed and my dad has spoken of our growing friendship.

So if a pastor can be friends with the community of staff with whom he or she ministers, what does this kind of friendship look like? How does it play out on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis? How does friendship reorient something like a yearly evaluation. Or are yearly evaluations just a part of “stewardship” that needs to go? If they go, what is put in their place?

I look forward to your answer and expect it will help me imagine new ways of being the church together with our staff.


Tom Arthur

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.