Friendships in ministry
It’s been four years now since we got in our car and drove away from the city we loved and the church we had pastored for over 28 years. We moved to a new province, a new job and pretty much an entirely new life. The opportunities ahead were exciting. The future was bright. Everything on my “to-do” list had been checked off. The house was sold, the boxes were packed, the moving van was booked – I was ready to go. Or at least I thought I was ready.
We were somewhere between Manitoba and Saskatchewan when I realized I might be wrong. Here’s the thing, while I had taken care of everything else on my checklist, I hadn’t anticipated the ache of leaving behind every significant friendship I’d ever had. There’s no checklist for that. The grief of it all hit me with a force I hadn’t seen coming.
I was leaving, in my rear-view mirror, almost three decades of friends. The friends I laughed with, cried with, prayed with. My movie friends, shopping friends, my Bible study friends, my breakfast friends, my walking friends, my earliest childhood friends, my mentors, my family. Those who knew why I did what I did, why I thought like I thought, why I prayed like I prayed. Those who knew my history, my giftings, my failures, my deepest pain, my greatest joy. I left them all. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. “Oh,” you can say, “well you have Facebook, and you call and stay connected.” And yes, you are right but it’s foolish to pretend it’s the same. It’s not.
We had been in our new home six weeks and I had walked into a salon in our little town to get my nails done. It wasn’t until I was almost seated that I realized everyone in the shop was there with a friend. They were laughing, drinking their coffees and flipping through magazines. When the esthetician came to get me, she looked around and asked, “You here all alone? You have no friends?” I answered, eyes brimming, “Yes, I’m here all alone. No, I have no friends” I sat in the chair, big tears running down my face, desperately trying to reach one of my faraway friends on my phone.
Friendships in general can be complicated but more so for pastors, I think. The advice you receive regarding friendships will vary depending on your age. When my mom started out in ministry, the understanding was: “Absolutely no friends in your church – too dangerous. And anyway, you only need Jesus.” A few decades later it became, “Okay, you can have one friend but no one can know she’s your friend.” Times have changed, the pendulum has swung, and here’s the truth that most of us as pastors know deep in our souls: we cannot do this alone! We need friends who know us intimately and love us deeply.
And while most would agree with that – at least academically – Henri Nouwen says what is often true is that, “Most Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, meaningful relationships.” Gordon MacDonald adds, “As pastors we often find ourselves spending the bulk of our time with people who need fixing or rescuing.” If we want to finish well in ministry and in life, we’ve got to change this.
So no matter where you are on your ministry journey, whether you’re in the middle of a move, anticipating a move, praying for a move, or simply reflecting on the depth of your friendships, let me share what I’ve learned about this in the last five years.
- You can’t make new old friends. You just can’t. The thought of starting all over building friendships from the ground up was absolutely exhausting to me. I wanted the ease of not having to guard every word, not having to wonder if they understood what I meant, not having to always “be on.”
- You can’t make new old friends but you can make new friends! I had to decide to keep my heart open to new relationships and new kinds of people. For the first year or so I wanted to replicate the friendships that I had left behind, so I was looking for certain types of friends. And to my chagrin, I wasn’t finding them. One afternoon an acquaintance dropped a parcel by my house, and as she drove away, I felt the Lord whisper to me, “She’d be a good friend to you, if you’d let her.” Keep your heart and your eyes open, you never know who God has waiting in the wings.
- It’s likely going to be harder making friends than you thought it would be. Sorry, I had to add this one. It’s taken us years – yes, years – and we’re just starting now to feel connected. There were nights we would walk in our little town, and I’d look at my husband and say, “What is wrong with us? We’re hip, we’re cool, we’re fun. How come no one is calling us?” It was a lonely, bewildering time. So I just decided, “That’s fine, we’ll go it alone!” And that worked for about three months until we read an exhaustive 80-year-old study done by Harvard University. Here’s what they concluded:“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes . . . Loneliness kills.”
Good relationships are the crux of a good life.
Robert Waldinger, the psychiatrist who directed the study, went on to say, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80 . . . good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains.” Well that was enough to scare us out of our lazy boy chairs!
- Say yes to every social invitation. It doesn’t matter who calls or what they want to do! Even if you don’t like whitewater rafting or pickle ball or line dancing, say yes! You just never know!
- If there are no invitations, then extend them yourself. You don’t want your brain seizing up, do you? No, you don’t! So pick up the phone and call someone – anyone!
- Keep trying. Do what you would tell your teenager to do when it comes to friends: keep trying.
I could list 30 reasons why we as pastors and leaders need to actively look for enduring friendships. I also could, from personal experience, share the reasons why we choose not to look for those kinds of relationships. Are there risks to opening our hearts to intimate friendships? There are. But the benefits? My friends, oh how the benefits far outweigh the risks!
Proverbs 27:9-11 reminds us, “Sweet friendships refresh the soul and awaken our hearts with joy, for good friends are like the anointing oil that yields the fragrant incense of God’s presence.”
My husband and I are committed, as pastors and leaders – despite the time it takes, the money it costs, the effort it requires – to surround ourselves with meaningful friendships for the journey that lies ahead. I challenge you to do the same.
Merrie Eizenga is one of the program directors at the Alberta Kerith Retreats location with her husband, Marshall. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.