Friendship is challenging for those in ministry. It’s not that ministers and church leaders don’t need friendships. We do. But for ministers, friendship comes with pitfalls. There’s the challenge of navigating the dual roles of minister and friend. There’s the risk of trusted confidences becoming the subject of gossip or ammunition for attacks. And there are the wounds from previous rounds of church conflict that may leave you feeling friendship shy. And yet ministers are not exempt from our God-created need for relational intimacy.
Two recent studies touching on the topic of friendships for pastors, ministers, and ministry spouses caught my attention this week. The first was a study from LifeWay Research on the lives of the spouses of Protestant pastors. The results were pretty well what I would expect based on my experience as a pastors’s wife: Minister’s spouses enjoy the blessings of ministry, but also struggle with isolation, loneliness, and the stresses arising from church conflict and the fishbowl nature of ministry. According to the study:
- 69 percent of ministry spouses say they have few people they can confide in.
- 49 percent say that if they were honest at church about their prayer needs they would just become the subject of gossip.
- Half say they don’t confide in people at church because they’ve been betrayed in the past.
- While 62 percent said they could count on their spouse a great deal in times of stress, fewer said they could count on other family members (14 percent), friends in the church (10 percent), friends outside the church (12 percent), or other minister’s spouses (9 percent).
This study intersects with recent research conducted by Justin Barrett, a psychology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary who is one of the founders of the cognitive science of religion. Barrett shared the results of his research in a Christianity Today article. Despite the hordes of social media followers we can accumulate, most people have a much smaller relationship capacity. While it varies broadly, the typical number of actual relationships we can sustain tends to average out at about 150 people. That circle of 150 can be grouped into smaller circles of intimacy, with most people having a circle of about 50 people we interact with more frequently and trust more, a circle of about 15 who can be considered very close friends, and an inner circle of about five people whom we truly consider best friends. Barrett studied how serving as a relationship-based minister–where your job is to “make friends for Jesus”–impacts these general trends. While the results appeared to show that ministers had a smaller overall circle of friends but a larger inner circle, Barrett found that a small group of ministers with a larger than normal of close relationships were skewing the results. In fact, almost a third of ministers had no friends at all–only family members–in their inner circle. And the largest subgroup of respondents had only one friend within their inner circle.
What this all means is that many ministers are doing an emotionally and relationally demanding job with a much smaller core support network than the average person, and this lack of support appears to be impacting the effectiveness of ministry. Ministers with fewer than normal of these core relationships saw their ministries as less effective than did ministers with four to six intimate relationships.
I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of networking for pastor’s wives. Ministry wives often lack the kinds of networking opportunities that are made available to pastors and ministers. Relationships with other women who understand the unique pressures of life in the fishbowl are important, and it is worth taking time to nurture these potential friendships. But the findings of this research apply to everyone engaged in relational ministry, whether as a staff person, church leader, ministry spouse or committed volunteer. We can try to ignore the loneliness and talk about being satisfied with Jesus. But God created us to need others. Isolating ourselves from friendships means we miss out on the encouragement, accountability, renewal, and support we are meant to find in relationships with other members of the body of Christ. And it means that those we love miss out on the blessings we can only give by relating to others as our truest self. We need friends, and our friends need us, too.
So what are we to do? I’d like to offer four suggestions for developing genuine friendships in ministry:
- Recognize your need. God created you to need friends. You are not an exception, and denying your need for friendship is not strength. Humbly admit your need and ask God to meet it.
- Make it a matter of prayer. We pray and ask God to meet our needs for finances, wisdom, healing, and creativity. Why not ask God to meet your needs for friendship?
- Embrace margin. We do have a limited capacity of time and emotional energy to invest in relationships. Our investment in close friendships delivers returns, but we can’t make that investment if we have spent our capital on a too-wide swath of superficiality. Create space and time to invest in deepening genuine friendships. Your ministry will be stronger for it.
- Take risks. Friendship is always risky, and the stakes feel higher when you’ve already been burned by someone you’ve trusted–an all too common experience for ministers and their families. But faith requires risk. If you’ve prayerfully asked God to meet your needs for friendship, taking appropriate risks to deepen relationships is a step of faith. Don’t let fear keep you from friendship.
Ministers–and their families–need friendship. Pursue friendships. You and your ministry will be stronger for it.
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