Sometimes there are questions that simply do not have clear solutions.
As my husband and I neared the end of our first ministry assignment, a woman said to me, “I think if you hadn’t have been in your position of leadership, we could have been good friends.” Even in my late twenties, I didn’t completely comprehend what she was saying. It stung, but we hadn’t been in ministry long enough for me to realize that there was this dance to friendship. That people viewed me differently. That there would be those who would want to cozy up and those who would avoid, as my “could-have-been” friend.
There are books on friendship, books that touch on friendships in ministry, books on loneliness, and large portions of books dedicated to loneliness in ministry. Everyone has a slightly different take depending on personalities, positions, and history, but the one thing they all agree on is this: being in ministry leadership is one of the loneliest places in existence, and friendship within ministry can be difficult to navigate.
So, let’s start with a couple of the easier questions. Why is ministry leadership lonely?
First, there is an invisible burden for those under your care. You not only are constantly evaluating the spiritual health of your particular area of ministry as a whole, but you are also weighed with the spiritual burden for those individuals who make up that ministry. No one else can understand this burden you carry unless they themselves have also traveled that path. It is literally indescribable to the average layperson.
You are the keeper of secrets, the mediator of conflict, a diplomat, a coordinator, and a motivator. You put hours of sweat, tears, prayer, study, and practice into the call God has placed upon your heart. But then, fill-in-the-blank times per week, you also carry out the visible functions of your ministry, whether that is preaching, teaching, singing, administrating, etc.
What is it that people see? Do they see you helping that couple fight to save their marriage? Do they see you guiding family members in mending their broken relationships? Do they see the completed outline of the sermon or lesson that you discard because God is leading you in a different direction? Do they see your heartbreak as a mentee falls back into a previously overcome addiction? Do they see your weariness after coming back from a hospital visit that may have stretched into hours after they are fast asleep?
No. And in an age of performance evaluations, your “performance” is based on your speaking abilities, your pitch and rich tone, and how well you are able to pull in and keep a crowd. All the while, you know that ministry is so much more. Yet how do you explain? There are so many things that must remain unsaid for the sake of integrity. For the sake of wisdom.
It is in this knowing that the dull pain of loneliness resides.
Is the solution to loneliness, friendship? Yes, this would be true for the most part, but we’re adding the variable of ministry here.
Based on what we know of loneliness in ministry, friendship is tricky. Why is this?
Not everyone has your best interests at heart. Some want to sidle close to you in order to be a little nearer to someone in “the know.” Some avoid you in order to sidestep arousing jealousy in others (remember how you felt about the “teacher’s pet”?) Some find those in ministry leadership easy targets on which to project their own toxic behavior.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for making friends within a ministry context. All I have to offer is a few observations in the friend-connecting process. (It is not 100% satisfaction guaranteed.)
- Know yourself. Do you make friends easily or not? Why or why not? What has worked for you in the past?
- Know the relationship dynamics of those within the area in which you minister. Some areas are clannish, where friends outside the extended family aren’t considered necessary. Some areas are more transient, where a single-family unit may not have other family in close proximity. Both bring a unique set of challenges.
- Observe. How do the individuals within your sphere of ministry interact with one another? Do they build up or tear down? How do they treat other people? Anyone who gossips to you about someone else will also gossip to someone else about you. This person is not safe. They are not to be trusted.
Once you’ve considered these practices, what now? You’re aware of your own personality, you’re aware of your culture, and you’ve gotten a feel for the overall friend-making atmosphere. Where do you find someone that has “BFF” material?
- In ministry leadership. No one understands what you face like another leader. I generally don’t recommend buddying-up to lay leaders, only because it has the potential to put them in a difficult “conflict of interest” situation. In a past ministry position, I did not follow this rule. I had a very close “inner circle” friend whom I knew I could trust to hold my heart in her hand. We went through a challenging season due to her being elected to take a higher position in leadership at the same time my husband was also appointed to a higher position. I did everything within my power to protect her in order to avoid the “conflict of interest” label, and we had to make some serious adjustments in our relationship. Our friendship survived, and today I believe it’s probably stronger than it has ever been. My closest friends are the ones who have also shared the road of ministry.
- In “mutual interest” groups. MOPS, story time at the library, and school are just a few. Take a class in a subject you’re interested in and connect with like-minded people. Find a hobby and bond with those who share it. I’ve made life-long bonds with people I met at the dog park.
- At work. A lot of times, you’re spending more time with these people than with anyone else. Get to really know one of your co-workers. Go out to lunch. Listen to their story.
There are probably more places that I’m not thinking of. (I purposely left out online groups and social media, because my focus is connecting with someone personally, face-to-face. I have Facebook friends I’ve never met in person, and I treasure those connections. Sometimes, though, there’s nothing that can replace physical presence.)
There are a few things I’ve learned about friendship along the way.
- It’s not easy. Friendships need to be nurtured. They need to be cultivated. If you can imagine yourself being the gardener over a lawn of roses, then you get the picture, because when the buds appear and the petals open bright and wide, you know it’s all been worth it.
- It can be seasonal. Some friendships weren’t meant to be long-term. Individuals grow apart, the connections fade, and you find yourself going in a different direction. Sometimes, the seasons shift with subtlety, sometimes the seasons end abruptly, without warning. Whether expected or not, self-evaluate, make apologies if necessary, and give yourself the gift of grace.
- You will go through “friendless” or lonely stages. This is normal. When I was a mom of completely dependent offspring, regardless of the myriad of kid-friendly programming, it was a lonely stage. I had recently come out of the “college” phase, where my friends and I were available anytime, any day. All of a sudden, our days were filled with diapers, laundry, tears, and Thomas the Tank Engine. If we had free time, we filled it with catching up on our own sleep. We were exhausted. Seventeen years later, I am personally moving through this lonely season again, but I developed deep, rich, friendships in my most recent phase of life that have sustained me regardless of distance.
- Speaking of distance…miles do not mean a friendship has to cease. I have friends from the nearest at 310 miles to the other side of the world to the women who have earned their way into my “inner circle.” It’s not easy. Communication is often hit-and-miss; however, these women don’t jump to conclusions, assign motives, or misinterpret silence; rather, they extend grace.
This is it: the nitty-gritty. No clear solutions. Loneliness and friendship have been challenging humanity since the beginning of time.
Scripture is chock-full of verses on loneliness: Genesis 2:18, Deuteronomy 31:6, Psalm 23:4, Psalm 27:10, Psalm 38:9, Psalm 62:8, Isaiah 41:10, Philippians 4:6-7… and more.
It’s also full of stories of friendship: David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Elijah and Elisha, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Jesus and his 12 disciples (and then his “inner circle” of three)… and more.
I hope this is helpful. What I do know is that Jesus is a friend who will stick closer than your own sibling, and he promises never to abandon you.
So – are you in a time of loneliness or fellowship? Do you have deep friendships or are you afloat, in isolation? Where is God leading you today?