According to some researchers, about seventy percent of pastors say they have no close friends. A 2009 Lilly Endowment study of three Christian denominations found that most pastors lack strong friendships with other pastors.
Are you surprised by this? I’m not. I’ve lost count of the number of ministers who have told me they are lonely. They have many acquaintances and colleagues—but friends? Not so much. Most of our social interactions are about what we call “ministry.” When we are with people we are in charge and on the clock. They are looking to us for leadership, direction, or support, not friendship. When we meet with someone it’s usually because we are helping solve a problem, telling someone what to do, collaborating on an event, or explaining Christian truth, not enjoying one another.
Besides, pastors are like all human beings: we fear intimacy. We will find excuses not to pursue community. And studying the Bible, coming up with a constant stream of creative sermons and talks, and maintaining a quality devotional life require many hours of isolation. While most adults can put a cap on the number of people in their social circle, pastors must be friendly all the time to everybody.
Furthermore, choosing people with whom to build a friendship is always a risky venture, but especially for pastors. Church members can be jealous when they perceive they are not in their pastor’s inner circle. This was an issue at a church I once served as associate pastor. Several congregants confided in me that they felt second-class because they weren’t in the senior pastor’s cadre of favorite people. Pastors occupy dual roles with those they call friends. They are both “over” them as their spiritual leader and “beside” them as their friend—a difficult tension to maintain. “No matter how hard a leader wishes to be a regular person, it is just not possible,” writes Dan Allender.
I admit that pursuing friendship with people in the church is fraught with risk and uncertainty. But I will argue that it’s worth the gamble. We who lead the church need the church. Paul David Tripp writes, “[I]f Christ is the head of his body, then everything else is just body, including the pastor, and therefore the pastor needs what the body has been designed to deliver.” And let me add that those of us who are married need a friend who is not our spouse. A key element in my recovery from ministry burnout was having a handful of male friends with whom to walk through the fire. They were members of my church. My wife and I were in a small group consisting of six other people. That small group was our lifeline.
In my current pastorate I have two friends in the church with whom I meet regularly for confession, affirmation, and encouragement. I get together at least monthly with a pastor in a nearby community; he and I have been friends since our seminary days when we lived in neighboring apartments. I also have a good friend who lives 100 miles away. We text or email each other almost every day for encouragement and accountability. My wife and I belong to a small group where I can take off the pastor mask and experience true community. I play racquetball with a couple of church friends several times a week.
I say all that just to encourage you: It’s possible to be a pastor and have friends. But it requires intentionality, time, and money. The cost of not having friends is far greater.
I worry about pastors who choose not to pursue friendship. Allender says, “A leader with no close friends is a leader who is prone to swing between hiding and manipulating.” Without a friend one must find unhealthy ways of coping with the pain of living. Sinful habits and toxic attitudes grow in the soil of isolation.
How about you. What’s been your experience of friendship in ministry?
. Wilson, Michael T. and Brad Hoffman, Preventing Ministry Failure. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007, p. 31, quoted in J. R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014, p. 47.
. Allender, Dan B. Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2006, p. 109.
. Tripp, Paul David. Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p. 88.
. Allender, 114.