Victoria Atkinson White: Jesus calls us to friendship

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio / Hearts by B. East

Many Christian leaders hold up servant leadership as the model for their ministries. But Jesus bids us to be friends with our colleagues and partners, wading into the honesty, vulnerability and messiness of mutual relationship.

Jesus’ farewell discourse includes a word of love: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 NRSV). It is a steep request. Loving each other is hard even when we like those around us, which clearly Jesus and the disciples did. They traveled and ate together. They stayed in each other’s homes. Loving one another when there is commonality and intimacy comes naturally, but not always easily.

Friendship, according to John 15, is about fidelity and generous vulnerability. Friends are willing to lay down their lives for each other. Friends also share with each other what they know, including (or perhaps especially) what they know from God. “I have called you friends,” Jesus says, “because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15).

This is good news for those who lean in to the familiarity of Christ’s humanity. Christ wants to be friends with us. Christ wants to share with us everything he knows from God. Christ is not interested in power plays or hierarchies. He wants intimacy, sharing and vulnerability, because these are attributes of human flourishing, which is what Christ desires for each of us. In pushing aside the servant-master language of relationship -- “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing” (John 15:15) -- Christ draws us in to a closer relationship, friendship, so that we might discover what life with the Father means.

The bookshelves of many Christian leaders show how widespread “servant leadership” is as a model for relationships in the church and other kinds of Christian community. And while Christ’s words in John 15 describe personal friendship, they also point to a new way of thinking about institutional friendship.

Consider churches that want to serve the neighborhoods around them. Many churches create programs that match their gifts and resources, often without asking their neighbors about their wants, needs and interest in relationship. The model of institutional friendship can flip this script and reveal an honest, vulnerable and mutually benefiting relationship that cannot be attained within the uneven power structure of a servant-master relationship.

I understand that it’s easier to stick with what we know and what seems more straightforward. The model of servant leadership comes with clear, distinct boundaries and roles. It can also be conveniently perfunctory and transactional. An organization might think, “If we offer this service to our neighbors/clients/constituents, it will show them we are interested in them.” We feel good about our efforts and take pride when the outcome affirms our need for service. But if our offerings fall on deaf ears, at least we tried, right?

Friendship, on the other hand, is messier.

Friendship takes enormous time, intentionality and constant nurturing. It requires intimacy, improvisation and, very often, inconvenience, especially as we are called to embody the character of Christ. Friendship beckons us to participate in mutual human flourishing and, when needed, suffering. The complexities of these dynamics became crystal-clear to me in my friendship with Corinna.

Corinna’s mother was actively dying in the den of her home. I had stopped by on the way home from work, with my daughter strapped in the back seat and cranky from overstimulation at day care. When I saw Corinna walking down her driveway to get the mail, I was (guiltily) excited that I might be able to simply drive up, pause and see whether she needed anything. I held my foot on the brake as she talked about her mom, trying not to commit to putting the car in park.

She talked about her mom’s breathing, how her brother was now in town, and how the church had been great about bringing meals and sending cards. I took what I thought was my cue and said, “Well, let me know if I can do anything.” I put my hands on the steering wheel, preparing to drive away.

“How about you come inside and eat dinner with me?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t want to create work for you!” I said, trying to politely decline. “I meant, let me know what I can do for you!”

Her face changed, and she was clearly irritated.

“You know what?” she asked. “Everyone calls and writes and says, ‘Let me know how I can help!’ If you really want to help me, you know what you can do? You can get out of your car and come inside and let me cook you dinner. You can talk to me while I cook, and then you can talk to me while we eat. You can sit with Mom while I clean up so I know someone is in there with her. You can help me feel human. You can bring that cute little girl inside so there is something other than death in my house. Please come inside and help me feel normal. Come inside and be my friend.”

Even though Corinna was my friend, I wanted to serve her. I wanted to bring her a meal or groceries. I thought by fulfilling a transaction, I could make us both feel better. But service was the last thing Corinna wanted or needed, and she was clear -- or maybe desperate -- enough to articulate it. She wanted someone to stay by her side in the face of death and keep her connected to life. She was asking for an embodied, empathetic presence. She needed a friend.

Corinna’s face remains etched in my mind, so many years later. She was exhausted, wounded, grieving and desperately longing for friendship. I am grateful we were friends so she could communicate her needs and know I would hear her.

That evening, we enjoyed good food, lots of laughter and stories, and prayer and singing at her mother’s bedside. We were all there when her mom took her last breaths. The air was thick with meaning and memory. It was holy ground -- a space fit, not for servants and masters, but for friends honest enough to ask for what they need.

This is what friends do. They ask and invite and give and receive. Friends improvise in the challenging spaces of life, as we all did that evening; none of us had been in that place before, so we navigated it together. And friends embody Christ to one another, as Corinna did for me.

I wonder what this model of friendship might look like in an institutional context. What if a struggling organization was honest and vulnerable with a sister organization? What if, instead of creating yet another program to serve its neighbors, an organization partnered with those already at work and contributed resources of time, energy, talent and finances? What if an institution was honest about its fragility and need for creative partnerships and collaborative synergies instead of painting the rosiest picture possible to attract new donors who want to invest in success and outcomes?

Corinna’s honesty and vulnerability called me to a level of commitment and action I never would have offered on my own. She challenged me to be who I say I am as her friend. She dared me to see her as a child of God in need of love and care.

Is this not the mission of Christian institutions? “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We see glimpses of institutional friendship when organizations interact with each other as friends experiencing life together and partners in a common purpose rather than servers and the served. Such mutuality looks more like a community navigating the joys and sorrows of life and less like hierarchies and transactions. It’s complex rather than convenient and unpredictable rather than perfunctory -- as friendship always is.

This is the relationship into which Christ calls us in both our personal and our professional spheres. It is what life with the Father looks like. Welcome to the mess.