Ministerial Friendships and Longevity

I’ve been in ministry long enough now (well over a decade) to see friends enter the ministry and then leave it. Some of those exits have been for honorable reasons and some for dishonorable. I serve on two credentialing committees and have coached a few church planters over the years. I wish I could protect my friends and the future pastors I have the privilege of training from ministry burnout--and I’m not alone in this desire. There are countless ministries--some more targeted than others--that focus on ministerial health. I’m writing within a specific tradition (i.e. as a Reformed, Presbyterian church planter), with my own, and our own, blind spots. As I’ve thought through and worked in this space, I’ve come to believe that there at least two givens and one blind spot when it comes to guarding against ministry burnout. Consider the following:

The Given of Theological Study

The first given characterizing the pastors that I know is that they study hard. It’s gauche in our circles, but, all things equal, many in the Reformed tradition probably study a little too hard. It’s common for pastors to struggle with the desire to read a book about evangelism rather than to share the Gospel, or to read a book about prayer rather than to pray. These are some weaknesses. But there are also profound strengths. We are men who know and love the word of God. We love and have been used by God to protect orthodoxy in our generation. It is a given for most of us that we are not going to fall into theological liberalism. It is given for most of us that we are not going to leave the ministry because we’ve lost our theological moorings. It is a given for most of us that part of the reason we continue in ministry is due to an insatiable intellectual interest in the things of God and a desire to teach them to others.

The Given of Hard Work

The second given is that pastors in our circles usually work hard--fingers-to-the-bone hard. I’m sure that there are lazy pastors out there but the pastors I know don’t fall into that category. It doesn’t matter the size of the church, there is always work to be done. If you pastor a 3000 person church, at the end of your week you still have more to do. If you pastor a 50 person church, at the end of your week you still have more to do. And so the men that find their way into ministry are men who are ready to work. And they often work too hard. These men may burn out from exhaustion, but they won’t quit because they’re bored.

The Blind Spot of Isolation

So, for pastors that think hard and work hard, what more do they need to look out for? Can these two “givens” get them through a lifetime of pastoral ministry? The easy answer is no. Isolation can be an unexpected and crippling characteristic of a minister who is both orthodox and faithful. That is why ministers need to check their relational blind spot to ensure sustained ministry health. It is a blind spot because so many pastors think that healthy friendships are nice to have but not requisite to themselves or longevity in ministry. Or pastors have been hurt by well-meaning or not so well-meaning congregants that were at one time called friends. Pastors must cultivate reciprocal relationships with other men, preferably pastors, with whom they can celebrate, weep, seek counsel and pray. This overlooked need shouldn’t surprise us considering what a brief survey of the Bible shows us about relationships and friendships. Here are seven biblical truths that center on or are affected by the idea of relationship:

1. Trinity - Our God is triune and tri-personal. The three members of the Godhead have always existed in relationship with one another within the Godhead. Friendship and relationship are eternal characteristics of our God.

2. Imago Dei - When God created man he created him in his own image. In Genesis 1:26, we find God using the plural personal pronoun for Himself asserting not only His own tri-personal character but that He created men and women to also share that character in relationship with Himself and others.

3. Fall - When sin entered the world through Adam’s rebellion discord came along with it. Relationships were the canary in the coal mine foretelling the millennia of relational carnage that would follow the fruit pilfering in the garden.

4. Jesus’ Humanity - When the second person of the Trinity entered into the world He entered into relationship. He was a part of a family and cultivated friendships.

5. Jesus’ Ministry - One of the first things that Jesus did when he began ministry was call disciples. Jesus would not only pour into these men but he would also rely on their friendship with Himself (Matt 26:36–38).

6. Elder Leadership in the NT - As the New Testament church is birthed, we find leadership in plurality as elders are called to serve together in local churches and in broader missions as the gospel extended to the far corners of the world.

7. Prayer - Even Jesus’ own teaching on prayer and Paul’s subsequent example of prayer show the importance of relationship. Jesus opened the Lord’s prayer with a plural pronoun, “our,” while Paul constantly asked his friends to pray for him and his ministry.

This is only a brief survey to show how important friendships are for pastoral ministry. As pastors follow the Savior, and look to be conformed to His image, they should look to pursue friendships in ministry as He did. As the Holy Spirit works in pastors to kill sin and grow in grace they should look for their relationships to come back online as well. But if a pastor tries to go it alone he does so at grave peril to himself, his family, and his church. Don’t let a blind spot be your undoing. Think hard, work hard, and cultivate lasting friendships.

*Disclaimer - The post was written with special application to pastors; however, the need, givens, and blind spot is true for all believers as well.

Further Resources

Paul Tripp Dangerous Calling

Scott Manetsch Calvin’s Company of Pastors

Nick Batzig "7 Characteristics of Spiritually Beneficial Friendship"

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