The Discipline of Friendship

There’s an aspect of ministry that I never heard about until I entered its ranks. It lurks among us, picks us off one by one, and leaves us feeling vulnerable, lost, and alone. It affects almost every minister I know, and yet it was never mentioned in seminary and hardly ever among the groups of ministers with whom I associate. I believe that more ministers succumb to this problem than almost any other. That feeling is loneliness.

For many ministers, making friends is difficult. Too many are seen simply as employees of their congregation; they are part of the leadership, but they also stand uniquely apart, never able to truly integrate into the congregation. Friendship requires trust, openness, and time, which can be difficult for ministers to achieve. Many feel like the minister is on a pedestal and “holier” than others, so who could be friends with someone who is “perfect”? (Insert your own rueful chuckle here.) For many ministers, it is difficult to open up to others and create true friendships. Maybe that is due to our pride: I mean, ministers are supposed to have it all together, aren’t we? Maybe it is due to our fear: How would people take it if they understood that I can be messy, too? Would I lose my job, my career, and others’ respect? Maybe it stems from questions of trust: Can this person be trusted to listen to me and not share it with other people? Maybe it is simply out of a sense of tiredness and burnout: I deal with people and their issues all day; all I want is to be left alone. So, many ministers I know live in isolation from those around them. They smile, shake hands, care for their congregation, are involved in the lives of others, and are called at all times of the day and night … but many of them don’t feel they have others they can call on when they are the ones in need.

In essence, many ministers need friends. People with whom they can be real, open, vulnerable, honest, and forthright. You see, we preach sermons about friends like Moses and Joshua, David and Jonathan, Paul and Timothy, Ruth and Naomi, and a host of others. We can spout off verses like, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” [1] and, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.… I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” [2] We can preach about the need for friendship, but many of us have a hard time practicing what we preach.

To be fair, this isn’t unique among ministers. Although the average Facebook user has 130 people in their friendship network, the average American has only two people they would consider close friends. [3] One recent survey of British men found that 12.5% had no one in whom they could confide; [4] I am certain that statistic isn’t far off for American men either.

Marla Paul was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and one day she wrote an op-ed piece about loneliness. [5] In it, she confesses her loneliness at the age of 42. She recalls asking her husband, “How did it happen I could be forty-two years old and not have enough friends?” She felt as if everyone’s friendship quota was full. Paul compares herself to the Ugly Duckling, always searching for a place where she belongs, and hoping (one day) to find it. Two weeks later, she wrote another article. In it, she states that she hoped originally that no one would even read her first article. She was amazed, however, by the letters, phone calls, and stops on the street by random people thanking her for her honesty and confessing a similar feeling. Loneliness is something we all have in common.

While we might not recognize it, loneliness is a spiritual issue. We were created for community.

Genesis 2:18 tells us that God watched Adam in the Garden and proclaimed, “It is not good for the man to be alone.… I will make a helper suitable for him.” And God did not call us to an individualized faith simply between me and God; rather, God called us into ekklesia, a word that simply means “an assembly of people,” a group, a cohort, a community. Friendship is the discipline that ministers to our loneliness.

Most books about spiritual practices and disciplines seem to overlook this component of spiritual health. They discuss ideas of community, accountability, and service, but few touch on spiritual friendship. But this is of vital importance to our spiritual lives; Adele Calhoun states that spiritual friendship with another is “holy ground [where} Spirit connects with spirit.” It is the place where we practice the “one-anothers,” give and receive love, and are truly known. [6] It is a reflection of the love and community that is inherent in the Trinity and shared with us as we are invited into that divine community.

So, how do we practice the discipline of friendship? I think it begins with looking at ourselves. What am I like? What is my character? How do I respond to others? How much and how often do I share with other people the things happening in my life? We try to understand ourselves a little more clearly in order to recognize why our friendships may be lacking.

Second, take inventory of current friendships. Who is in my social circle? Who might I consider to be a friend? How can I deepen the friendships I currently have? Whom can I trust and confide in, sharing deeper parts of my life and my journey?

Third, go out and be a friend. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But the only way to gain friends is to begin to befriend other people. Ask somebody to meet you for lunch. Get past sports and weather, and begin to talk about some things that matter. Be a little vulnerable with someone you know you can trust; you don’t have to dive down to the depths of your soul, but share something you have been pondering or wrestling with. Simply be a friend and see how those friendships begin to emerge and strengthen over time.

For those of us in ministry, this can be a difficult process. At least it is for me; I struggle at times with sharing my life with other people. So many other ministers I know feel the same. If this resonates with you, find those outside of your congregation with whom you can share life. Grab some minister friends with whom you can share lunch and do more than just gripe about your congregations. Find a hobby, sports team, or social group you can join. Friendship is a simple thing, but it can have a profound effect on the status of our souls. May God give us wisdom and guidance as we seek to be friends and befriend.

[1] Proverbs 18:24
[2] John 15:13, 15
[3] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000312240607100301
[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/mens-health/11996473/2.5-million-men-have-no-close-friends.html
[5] http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-05-21/features/9505210588_1_new-friends-midlife-neighborhood
[6] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2005), 152-153.

 

Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.
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Author:  Publish Date: March 22, 2017

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CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

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