This past Tuesday there was a hole in my schedule that will only get more conspicuous each time it passes. I missed my biweekly lunch with my good friend Jon at a church across town–stories left unshared, prayers left unprayed. I am happy for him; we have been praying and seeking God’s will together for months, and the answer is the pastor position he moved across the state to take earlier this month.
It’s been a while since I’ve really had to say good-bye to a good friend. With Facebook and text messages and all that, we’ll be in touch some, but it won’t be the same as sitting across from a trusted friend every two weeks, sharing, laughing, and praying together for our families and churches.
Both of us have said that we want to find someone else to fill the other’s shoes, but it’s a daunting task. There are a lot of hurdles to clear in order to get to the point that the relationship really bears fruit, and that’s why most of us pastors never get there. But the journey is worth it.
Here are five obstacles to meaningful ministry friendships that can turn into bad excuses…
1 – Some guys won’t be your friend
Probably the hardest thing about finding a fellow minister with whom to build a friendship is all the “friendships” that never make it. After one or two failed attempts, it might seem impossible. But that’s just the nature of things. Maybe one guy always keeps the “everything’s going great” veneer on and won’t ever let you past his outer mask. Maybe there’s a spirit of competition in the relationship where you can’t meet without comparing ministries and measuring your success against one another.
The key here is to just keep praying and keep seeking. Be willing to be the true friend, letting go of trying to look like you’re doing just as well as the pastor across the table. It took a couple of years for me, but God provided the friend I was looking for.
2 – It’s awkward to initiate the relationship
The first time I met Jon for lunch, the whole thing was awkward. A mutual friend had suggested I meet him, since we had both been from Fort Worth and were ministering in the same area. I contacted him via Facebook and we met up. Obvious differences aside, it was a lot like a first date (I even forgot his name as I prayed for him at the end of the meal!). After a few sporadic meet-ups, I asked him if he’d be willing to meet on a regular schedule.
These were extremely awkward conversations for me, with my introverted nature and all the insecurities I carry. But I put myself out there because I believed God wanted me to have that kind of friendship. If I can do it, I have to think anyone can.
3 – It has to be scheduled
Someone with a pastor’s schedule is not going to do anything regularly without making it a priority on his calendar. You can’t say that you’re going to get together “now and then” or “whenever you can,” because convenient times don’t come up. You also can’t cancel every time the week seems a little crowded or else it will be crowded out altogether.
We decided to meet every other Tuesday. Some Tuesdays we had to push it back, but we met the next available Tuesday (or for breakfast or on Monday, etc.). I generally had to drive more than a half-hour to our meet-up spot. It was a major time commitment, but there’s been little else as valuable on my calendar as those times.
4 – Real friendship takes time to develop
Even when two men are trying to be open with one another, it takes time to develop trust. As much as that, it takes time to really know and appreciate one another, for humor to be natural, to really know and care about each other’s families, and so forth. It’s not natural to truly share the joys and sorrows of another person. It takes time, and in the beginning, the friendship might even feel a little artificial.
Jon and I went through a lot together, but I’d say the first year or two of our meetings were still somewhat difficult. We enjoyed meeting up, but looking back, we were really just breaking ground for the real sowing and reaping that would follow. The last couple of years we grew much closer as we walked together through my mom’s death and his transition to a new place of ministry. We were able to really speak both words from the heart and words from the Lord to one another
5 – You eventually say good-bye
Anywhere we find ourselves, we are really only passing through, and that truth is even more pronounced with ministers, particularly in small towns and small churches, where the turnover rate is even quicker. It might seem prudent to not get too attached to anyone, since you or he might be moving on sooner than later. It certainly keeps you from the grief of saying good-bye.
But the risk of caring about anything or anyone is that you will one day be parted–it’s really not so much a risk as a certainty. God, however, has commanded us to love deeply and fully, to guard our hearts from callousness, not from love. It might hurt and feel a bit unmanly to tear up over your chips and salsa at a final lunch meeting, but in the end, we have tasted the fellowship that is a key element of the riches of God’s kingdom.
It’s been a long time since God gave me a really good friend like Jon, and I think I’ve really only had one or two others in my life, outside of my brothers. But I trust God will give me what I need.
I won’t let these hurdles keep me from pursuing another friendship. What hurdles have you faced? How have you overcome them? What benefits have you seen from building friendships with others in the ministry? Let’s discuss them in the comments below.