What makes a pastor persevere in ministry?
The Lilly Endowment invested $84 million over 10 years to study and support the practices that allow Christian pastors in America to sustain excellence over the years. They funded 63 projects across 25 different denominations and traditions. Each organization made a similar discovery: relationships with peers are the key factor to pastoral longevity.
I’ve worked with and provided pastoral care for pastors in various forms for the last seven years. For the last five I’ve helped nearly one hundred pastors develop the characteristics they need to stay happy and healthy in ministry. My results aren’t as scientific as the Lilly study, but I concur: Pastors need real, intimate, vulnerable friendships, if they are going to last in ministry.
Yet pastoral isolation is common. Sometimes it’s self-isolation, either out of a fear of being known or a fear of being hurt again by those he considers friends. More often, though, it’s a public isolation, caring for and befriending many, with very few friends to care for him. A pastor can seem like he’s known by many — he reveals a bit of himself each week to hundreds or thousands — while he’s really known by few. Revelations of himself during sermons are often like revelations over social media: Controlled vulnerability that keeps people at a distance either through over- or under-sharing.
It’s tough to blame them. Pastoral work can be dehumanizing. People know and appreciate you for the work you do — the sermons you preach, the care you give, the prayers you pray, the visionary leadership you provide — more than who you really are. Since you perform publicly every week, appreciation can be a fickle thing. Good counselors guard against dual relationships, knowing it’s nearly impossible and often unethical to have a personal friendship with a professional client. Pastors experience some of that reality as well.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that loneliness and isolation impact our spiritual health as well: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:1). We weren’t meant to live in isolation; we — pastors included — need daily, meaningful affirmation from others if we are to be successful in fighting sin.
In Psalm 25:16, David asks God to be near him, for he is “lonely and afflicted.” David models the right response to feeling lonely: a longing for intimate relationships. That longing is not a sign of selfishness or weakness. It’s simply an acknowledgement that you are human. God never intended for any of us to live in isolation. God doesn’t live in isolation; there is perfect communion within the Trinity. Created in his image, we are made for relationships, with him and with others. That’s true of all of us, including pastors.
Made for Relationship
We — pastors included — were made for relationships, with God and with others.
Like anyone else, a pastor’s relationship with God must be primary. If a pastor doesn’t have a relationship with God that is continually growing in intimacy, he will demand more from his relationships with others than they are capable of giving him. Therefore, a pastor must constantly work to deepen the intimacy in his relationship with God.
The Bible, prayer, and the sacraments are the means God gave his people to grow closer to him (Acts 2:42). They are not only tools a pastor uses to do the work of ministry; they are also the God-given means to deepen the intimacy in his relationship with God.
But God didn’t create us to live only in relationship with him. He created us to also live in community with others. That larger community is found in the local church, which the pastor leads. And this leadership can often seem isolating; it’s really tough to be both a friend and a leader. This leaves the pastor with a relational need — a relational need that is too great for a wife to carry by herself.
A pastor needs his wife as his friend, but not his only friend. She often feels isolated and alone, carrying ministry secrets and her husband’s secret doubts and struggles, ones that are not disqualifying sins, but also are not things that should be shared indiscriminately.
A pastor also needs more than ministry partners or co-workers. They are helpful. They can provide companionship. But you can have a lot of co-workers and still be lonely. Friends don’t just partner on projects; they partner in life.
Friendship Takes Intentionality
I’ve found the people best suited to be a pastor’s friend are fellow pastors, most often those in a different church. It’s easy for pastors to look at other pastors and borrow the phrase C.S. Lewis says is at the start of every friendship: “You too?” Pastors are usually willing to take the next step of vulnerability with another pastor and continue, quoting Lewis, “I thought I was the only one.”
For a friendship to grow from there, it requires intentional effort.
To put in that effort, you must view friendship not as a luxury, but a necessity. When David writes, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1), he is both celebrating the gift of friendship and encouraging us to think back to Eden when everything — including friendship — was good, just as God designed it to be. The Psalm ends with “life forevermore,” encouraging us to think forward to eternity when everything will forever be as it should be (Psalm 133:3). Friendship isn’t a luxury; it’s a blessing God gives us now because he loves us. God is, as Lewis wrote, the one working behind the scenes to make our friendships happen and help them last.
Not only are friendships good for our health and longevity in ministry; they also are essential to our perseverance (Hebrews 3:12–13). It is wise to have friends (Proverbs 17:17; 27:9–10, 17). It is right to need friends. Paul, in the midst of an incredibly hard time, found real comfort when Titus arrived (2 Corinthians 7:6–7). At the end of his life, Paul lamented his loneliness and asked Timothy to come visit him before he died (2 Timothy 4:9–16). The greatest man who ever lived, Jesus Christ, experienced the gift of friendship with John. John was more than just a partner in ministry; he was the friend Jesus loved (John 13:23).
The intentional effort required for friendship can be described as making room in your life for others. It means you will make room in your schedule, budget, ministry goals, and family life for friendship. Friendship can’t be squeezed into an already tight schedule; it requires intentionality and it requires sacrifice.
Pastor, friendship will cost you time, money, and the opportunity for more ministry achievement. And it will require vulnerability, which means you probably will get hurt. Vulnerability can come as you admit your need for friendship: take a risk to give and receive the gift of friendship. It will be worth it. Blessing — for yourself, your family, and your people — is bound up in your friendships.