Loneliness Limits Ministry
Why Pastors Need Good Friends
In my early years as a pastor, I kept my head down and my hand to the plow. I was driven and conscientious. Although I had some dear friends, and wasn’t aloof or anti-social, my focus on ministry tended to sideline other worthy pursuits such as attending conferences, developing partnerships, and building friendships.
In the years since, and sometimes in spite of myself, God has allowed me to experience a better way. I still have much to learn and lots of room for improvement as a friend, but by the grace of God I’ve tasted the soul-refreshing, sin-suppressing, ministry-enlivening nature of genuine friendship. I’ve realized that a failure to prioritize and cultivate friendships deprives me of significant joys and fresh ideas, contributes to loneliness and envy, and increases my vulnerability to sin. I’m a better pastor when I’m surrounded by friends.
There was a time when I thought of the apostle Paul as a rugged, solitary trailblazer, laser-focused on his work of evangelism and church planting. Not until I had read the Bible for many years did I give much thought to how many friends and partners he actually had.
“Our Christ-centered friendships are one of the best ways of embodying and expressing the very gospel we proclaim.”
A New Testament scholar pointed out that Paul identifies more than 65 people as ministry companions or members of local congregations in his letters. This was a different Paul from the one I had previously imagined. This Paul was surrounded by people whose names he knew; he was living within a web of relationships with people he loved. More than that, he was actively ministering within and from these friendships. The tail ends of Paul’s letters eventually became some of my favorite sections, full of tantalizing glimpses of men and women with whom Paul enjoyed gospel partnership.
Why Pastors Don’t Have Friends
In light of the benefits of investing in friendship, why do many pastors find it so difficult? There are a lot of reasons, many of them not specific to pastors. Like other people, we’re very busy, focused intently on work and family and home-improvement projects and our local community. We’re independent and don’t feel an urgent need to cultivate deep relationships. We’re tired at the end of the day and want to cocoon at home. Some of us are natural introverts, preferring our own company to that of others. Some of us are insecure, not knowing quite how to go about the formation of friendships.
Some of our reasons may be more specific to our unique pastoral identity. Pastors often set their own schedules and do much of their work in solitude, contributing to the possibility of becoming a loner. Perhaps we’re skittish of developing close friendships at church, concerned that others may perceive it as favoritism or that our vulnerability with some in the congregation will come back to hurt us later. Our need to be available and always “on” as our congregation’s shepherd may squelch reciprocal friendships in which we ourselves are known, loved, and encouraged. Moreover, friendship with other pastors outside our congregation may be difficult for us if we’re in competition with them, separated by doctrinal differences, or envious of their ministry success.
Why Pastors Should Have Friends
While there are numerous barriers to investing in friendships, finding ways past them is hugely important. Pastors should have friends because pastors are people, and people should have friends. God made us for relationship with one another. We grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually through deep personal connections. We experience joys with others that we can’t on our own.
Pastors should have friends because pastors are Christians, and Christians should have friends. We’re born again into community. Every Christian needs spiritual siblings providing encouragement and helping to guard against sin (Hebrews 3:12–13; 10:24–25). Even though it’s wise for pastors to be careful in choosing confidants within their church, we’re part of Christ’s body no less than others. I’m thankful for the friendships I enjoy in my small group, and for the below-the-surface, eyeball-to-eyeball accountability and encouragement I experience with the other elders of my church. I’m friends with some people in my church who are twenty years younger than I am, some who are thirty years older, and many in between.
Pastors should have friends because pastors are leaders, and leaders should have friends. Leading is lonely, because people act differently around the boss. The pressure on leaders to appear strong and confident creates separation from others. Moreover, leading can stoke pride. Pastors are up-front, visible, setting the agenda — and this sometimes goes to our heads. In the past several years, as well-known Christian leaders have flamed out of ministry in spectacular fashion, a recurring theme has been the lack of genuine friendships that could have provided support and permitted close examination of their lives.
Embodying What We Preach
The greetings sections of Paul’s letters provide powerful reasons for pastors (and all Christians) to invest deeply in friendships. In 1 Corinthians 16:17–18, Paul says that Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus “refreshed my spirit.” When I’m around ministry colleagues with whom genuine friendship has flowered, I’m energized. I find myself wanting to pursue Jesus more closely and to give more in ministry. This is the ministry equivalent of having a running buddy.
Friends rejuvenate and renew us. My friend Jonathan refreshes my spirit through his steady reliance upon God’s promises. Jeff refreshes my spirit through his hopeful love for people. Mike encourages me through his unfeigned humility, and John, through his natural choice of substantive rather than shallow conversation. I’ve come to see that pastors often are most productive when they minister within and from life-giving relationships. I lead a ministry with my friends David, Ben, Tim, and Ben, and I give far more to the ministry because I love serving with these brothers. They refresh my spirit, which means that, rather than friendship reducing or constricting my ministry, it activates, enlarges, and unleashes it.
Thomas Schreiner suggests that the repeated phrases “in Christ” and “in the Lord” throughout Romans 16 demonstrate that Paul’s relationships were “rooted in the new life of Christ.” This makes the greetings of Romans 16 far more than pleasantries — rather, they are concrete expressions of the very gospel about which Paul writes so powerfully earlier in the letter.
Here’s the takeaway for pastors: our Christ-centered friendships are one of the best ways of embodying and expressing the very gospel we proclaim. A pastor I know gathers regularly with a group of his friends who graduated together from seminary almost twenty years ago. One of them is struggling, and this group is his spiritual lifeline. Another has thrived in ministry, becoming a well-known author, and it’s precious for him to be loved by friends who have cared about him long before the fame. The relationship these pastors enjoy embodies the humility, authenticity, and persistence of gospel love.
How Pastors Can Have Friends
When we look to Jesus and Paul — busy and important people if ever there were any — we see them embedded within close friendship circles. And the same is true of fruitful Christian leaders throughout church history. Just read John Newton’s letters or recall C.S. Lewis’s Inklings. Rather than being too busy for friendship, it seems that nearly the reverse is often the case for the most fruitful leaders: investing in genuine friendships contributes to joy, productivity, and longevity in ministry.
How can busy pastors have friends? We can begin, after recognizing the importance of friendship, and coming to genuinely desire friends, by asking God to give us some. He is the giver of all good things (James 1:17), and that surely includes friendship. So, we should pray.
“One of the best ways to grow a friendship is to get into the ministry trenches together.”
Of course, there are also some steps we can and should take. Again, Paul helps us in the greetings sections of his letters by reminding us that cultivating genuine friendship requires time, effort, and sacrificial commitment. Paul notes that Prisca and Aquila, his fellow workers in Christ Jesus, risked their necks for him (Romans 16:3–4). Friendships aren’t just matters of convenience. They’re opportunities for — and the products of — risky, sacrificial love.
Paul reminds Christians in Rome that Mary “worked hard for you” (Romans 16:6). One of the best ways to grow a friendship is to get into the ministry trenches together, serving others, and sacrificing together. Paul refers to some of his friends as “my fellow prisoners” (Romans 16:7) and to others as his “fellow workers” (Romans 16:9, 21). The point is, they were serving and sacrificing together, shoulder to shoulder.
Where We Are Most Ourselves
I love how unabashed Paul is in proclaiming his love. He mentions his “beloved Epaenetus” (Romans 16:5), “my beloved Stachys” (Romans 16:9), and “the beloved Persis” (Romans 16:12). He calls Ampliatus “my beloved in the Lord” (Romans 16:8). Tychicus is “a beloved brother” (Colossians 4:7), Onesimus is “our faithful and beloved brother” (Colossians 4:9), and Luke is “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14).
I confess it took me a while to get used to my friends telling me they loved me, but I came to realize how biblical it is and how deeply affirming. So now I say it to them too. I think pastors would be much spiritually healthier and happier if we all knew some others well enough to tell them we love them without it seeming weird.
I once heard Andrew Peterson say that he believes we are most ourselves when we know we’re loved. And at that point, his good friend Russell Moore (who was interviewing him) said, “That’s why I’m always at your house!” Those of us who have tasted the deep joy and freedom that thrives within the mutual acceptance of godly friendship know exactly what they’re talking about. Oh, that more pastors would experience the love and welcome of God through the gift of committed friendship. Let’s invest in friends, learn from them, and delight in them. Our lives will be sweeter, our hearts richer, and our ministries deeper and more enduring.