People talk. People gossip. People love to share what they hear.
That’s true about what they hear from a pastor, too.
If the pastor talks about his personal life, shares a concern or—heaven forbid—shares a sin or weakness, people talk.
I’ve personally been burned several times by trusting the wrong people with information. It’s wonderful to think that a pastor can be totally transparent with everyone; but honestly, especially in some churches, complete transparency will cause you to lose your ministry.
Every pastor knows this well. So most pastors don’t talk.
And—the sadder fact—because of this dynamic, many pastors have very few true friends.
Frankly, it’s made many in the ministry among the most lonely people I have ever known. I was in the business community for many years, and I didn’t know business leaders as “closed” to people getting to know them as some pastors seem to be. I wish it weren’t true, but it is.
Of course, Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. That’s true. But we would never tell our congregation they don’t need human friends. Most of our churches are built around a reality that everyone needs community.
Hopefully our spouse is our best friend. That should be our goal. But the truth is, pastors need more.
We need other—same sex—friends who can walk with us through life. I need men in my life who understand the unique struggles and temptations of being a man. Pastors need community, too, just as we would encourage our church to live life together with others.
I’m happy to report that I have some of those friends in my life. I can share the hard stuff with them, and they still love me. I can be myself with them. I’m thankful for friends who build into me as much as I build into them.
Every pastor needs them.
And so does the pastor’s spouse. They need friends just as much but have the equal concerns and struggles to find them. Over the years, my wife has realized the hard way that some people were only her friend because of her position as my wife. They wanted information and access more than they wanted friendship.
Some who are not in ministry will read this article and think I’m over-reacting. They’ll say everyone deals with this at some level. They may be right. (Not about the over-reacting, but about the fact that everyone deals with it.) But having been on both sides—in ministry and out of ministry—this issue is more real to me now than previously.
So, the hope of this article is to encourage those who don’t have any true friends and give them a few suggestions for finding some.
Be willing to go outside the church. There may not be someone you can truly trust, who is willing to keep confidences and willing to always be in your corner, inside your church. Much of this may depend on the size or even the structure of your church. I have a few of these friends in our church, and did in our last church, but both were fairly large. I found this harder when I was in a smaller church with a handful of strong families. Some of my truest and best friends, however—then and now—are outside my church. This is also healthy because it means if we are called to leave the church, we still have a close group of friends. My best friends have been friends through several church transitions.
Consider bonding with another pastor. I guarantee you, not too far from you is a pastor just as lonely or in need of a friend as you are. One of the great benefits of the online world—though it can equally be used for harm—is that you can make connections with other pastors. I have found that if I follow the Tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, or check out the church website of another pastor, I can find out a lot about our similarities. I’m not talking about stalking; I’m talking about being intentional to build a relationship. Then I take a chance and reach out to another pastor. I actually have a few vital relationships that have begun this way. In fact, it has been valuable enough to Cheryl and me that we’ve been willing to invest in traveling to visit with friends who live in other cities who I first met through social media. Chances are good for most pastors, however, that they won’t have to travel that far. Prior to moving where I am now, I had friends an hour away from me. That was a good half-day investment every couple months to stay in touch. I’m beginning to develop this where I am now.
Build the relationship slowly. I’ve seen too many times where a person wants an intimate, accountable, life-giving relationship that begins instantly. I’m sure that happens occasionally, but I don’t think it’s the normal way. Take some time to invest in the friendship. My guess is you’re looking for a longer-term relationship, so be willing to build it over the long-term. I usually have multiple meetings with several different guys before I find one with whom I connect enough to move into a deeper friendship. Again, it’s worth the investment of time.
Find common ground. Do you enjoy fishing, dining, travel, golf or NASCAR? Who are some people, whether pastors or laypeople, who have similar interests to yours? Take an afternoon to play a round of golf with them. Ask them to lunch. Hang out with them. I met one of my closest friends this way. We simply started having lunch together. We’ve since traveled together as couples, but it started with a lunch invitation with a guy I saw who seemed to enjoy the subject of leadership as much as I did.
Look for someone healthy. This is critical. You won’t find someone perfect, but you need someone who is not looking for you to always be the minister. Those people do exist. There are people with healthy home lives and healthy personal lives who are striving to grow personally, professionally and spiritually just like you are striving. Most of the time as pastors, our attention is focused more on the one who need our attention because of a crisis or immediate need in their life. And that’s OK; that’s what we do. But who are some people around you who don’t need much from you right now? You’ll need this healthy relationship to nourish you when you don’t feel as healthy.
Be intentional. You don’t often find a friend unless you go looking for one. First you have to recognize the value in true friends, make it a matter of prayer and a goal for your life, but then you must begin to look for one. I’ve found I’m more likely to hit a target I am specifically aiming to hit. There is such a value in true friendship—even for pastors—that it is worth the investment.
Take a risk. You’ll eventually have to make yourself vulnerable and risk being hurt—perhaps again—to find true friends. I realize that is scary, especially if you’ve been hurt before, but finding true friendships is worth the risk. Be careful building these friendships, but don’t allow fear to keep you from having them. Pastor, you know what I’m advocating is true. So take another risk.
Pastor, be honest. Do you have someone in your life you could call when you’re at your lowest point in ministry? Do you have someone investing in you on a regular basis? Are you lonely? If you were drowning or facing burnout, have you allowed other people—besides your spouse—into your closest, most protected world so they can recognize where you are currently and speak into the dark places of your life?
More importantly, is it worth the risk and investment to have true friends?
For those who have these types of relationships, what tips do you have for other pastors?
Let me close with a personal note to the lonely pastor. I understand your pain. I’ve been there. I’m praying for you as I write this article. Don’t struggle alone too long without reaching out to someone.