friendship

Ministry for the long haul

img_0065 “I’ve had enough, Lord.”

That cry of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4 is familiar to many people in ministry.

Why was Elijah so distraught? Hadn’t he just witnessed astonishing displays of God’s power at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-46)? Sure. But if you’re a church leader, you’ve felt Elijah’s dejection. You know how often a big Sunday becomes a blue Monday.

Conventional wisdom says at least 1,500 pastors hang it up every month. I doubt the situation is that dire. Still, many ministers of the gospel are blue not just on occasional Mondays but constantly. They feel underpaid and overstretched, discouraged if not depressed. They say they no longer hear the music of God’s love. They’ve had their fill of crises, conflicts, and complaints. Their bodies may be in the pulpit, but their hearts no longer beat with gospel enthusiasm.

There have been times in my thirty years as a pastor when, like Elijah, I’ve wanted to walk away from ministry and try my hand at something else. But by the grace of God, I’m still in. I love preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and shepherding God’s people. And while many things have contributed to my survival, three key decisions have kept me going.

First, I have decided to expect difficulty. To be a pastor is to be called by Jesus into confict. I was naïve about this in the beginning. But I’ve come to agree with the evangelist Alan Redpath: “If you’re a Christian pastor, you’re always in a crisis—either in the middle of one, coming out of one, or going into one.” Pastors are in daily conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil, not to mention very broken people. And we ourselves are broken—fragile jars of clay, says Paul (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Jonathan Edwards expected difficulty. In his farewell sermon in Northampton he said, “It often comes to pass in this evil world, that great differences and controversies arise between ministers and the people under their pastoral care.” Indeed. Many of you reading this post know exactly what Edwards was talking about.

Second, I have decided that I am me and not someone else. That may sound elementary, but it’s critical for ministry leaders to feel comfortable in their own skin, and (dare I say it?) to like themselves. As a mentor told me years ago, we minister out of who we are, not out of who we wish we were.

Shortly before his death in 1732, Thomas Boston wrote a little book titled, The Crook in the Lot: Or, the Sovereignty and Wisdom of God Displayed in the Afflictions of Men. In that book Boston argued that everything—even our weaknesses, struggles, and failures— everything happens at God’s command and by God’s design.

Armed with faith in God’s sovereignty, we can relax and enjoy ministry. We can focus on our strengths and freely admit our faults. We can accept our limitations and say with the psalmist, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6). And we don’t have to compare ourselves—to anyone! That’s good news in a culture that celebrates the big, grand, and slick and denigrates the small, ordinary, and faithful.

Third, I have decided that I need people. I can’t do ministry alone. I need helpers and I need friends.

No matter how loudly we may protest, most of us in ministry have a messianic complex. We believe we are God’s gift to the church. After all, we have the seminary degree, the right theology, the gifts and the experience. With Jesus’ help and people’s cooperation, we’ll grow the church!

The truth is, pastors are some of the loneliest folks around. According to research, 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. Like everyone else, people in ministry fear intimacy. We find excuses not to pursue community. And unless we’re careful, ministry tasks only contribute to our isolation.

I am your classic introvert. Nevertheless, I am intentional about being in the company of men and women who know me, love me, hold me accountable, help me laugh, and keep me sane. My wife and I belong to a small group. I meet every Wednesday with five men who know my sins and failings. I have lunch once a month with a pastor whom I’ve known since our seminary days. I have friends—not just the Facebook kind—with whom I regularly socialize and speak freely. And when it comes to ministry, I don’t try to do everything. My job is to equip and develop others, not keep ministry to myself. Wasn’t self-imposed isolation one of Elijah’s problems? “I am the only one left,” he said (1 Kings 19:10, 14). God broke the news to Elijah that 7,000 faithful Israelites had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).

These three decisions have helped me see that ministry survival, while challenging, is not impossible. God has given us his Son, his Spirit, his Word, his promises, and his people to sustain our faith and fuel our joy. Take advantage of these means of grace and, God willing, you’ll be in ministry for the long haul.

You’ve got a friend?

two-men-talkingAccording to some researchers, about seventy percent of pastors say they have no close friends.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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?

 

[1]. 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.

[2]. Allender, Dan B. Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2006, p. 109.

[3]. Tripp, Paul David. Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012, p. 88.

[4]. Allender, 114.