Unforeseen Lessons, Part 1: The Friendship Vacuum

Unforeseen Lessons is a four-part series on certain realities of pastoral life that often come as a surprise to the leader, and what steps they can take to better walk through such things.  

Back in my undergrad days a professor of church leadership said to us, “Never trust the person who picks you up at the airport for your interview.” He was a man of southern heritage teaching in a midwestern university, so his words fell across the room to varied understandings. Some took it literally, some in jest, others in confusion. I heard it through my own southern filter – with ears trained in nuance and ad-hoc idioms – and what I heard was the description of a character in a story that I should keep an eye on, a reminder that intentions aren’t always as they seem.

Friendships with people in the church is not an easy venture for pastors. There are all sorts of underlying issues that make inner church friendships difficult, not least the issue of trust. Every pastor wonders if they’ll find the kind of relational safety that they themselves are working hard to create within the church community at large. What is often the case, however, is that the pastor remains somewhat outside of those circles.

From the outside looking in, many have the impression that we are rich in friendships, that we are well loved, and that we have many on whom we can call and rely. But the reality is less positive: most of us can feel separated and alone, without people who will be with us, who will listen (without judgment) to our struggles and fears, and who will stand beside us as a friend. Research continues to show that we can end up quite lonely and isolated, despite being surrounded by so many people. We may be encircled by a thriving and healthy community and yet still stand alone.

It’s like that line from “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” by the Counting Crows, where the singer mourns: “I never know anyone at the party and I’m always the host.”

A few insights and tips for navigating this issue:

Insight #1 – The output to input ratio is the silent killer, so pay attention

Most of what we do for our people will never be returned to us.

All the counsel we’ve offered
All the prayers we’ve prayed
All the listening we’ve done
All the hospitals we’ve been in
All the games we’ve watched
All the recitals we’ve endured
All the weddings we’ve performed
All the people we’ve buried
All the notes we’ve written
All the criticisms we’ve taken
All the times we’ve been gracious
All the sermons we’ve spoken
All the late nights we’ve given to people

None of these things come back to us in equal measure. They’re not supposed to. They can’t, really. It’s not how churches work, and it’s not why we got into this. But if we don’t know this from the start, we can end up serving our way into a bitter and angry existence.

TIP: Never read any opportunity to care for your people as a doorway into a friendship. Take away that expectation and simply offer yourself as an agent of care in that moment, for that person. Just because people at the reception tell you how much they loved your wedding homily and how they need to come visit your church doesn’t mean they will. They almost never do. Whether you’re at the hospital or the wedding chapel or the graveside, you’re there to serve a particular need, and that need has nothing to do with a potential friendship.

Insight #2 – Most people see their pastors through a performative lens, so choose carefully

Whether we like it or not, as paid leaders of the organization we are viewed mostly through the lens of evaluation. Because we have certain dedicated responsibilities, and because we are called upon to lead, it is hard – if not nearly impossible – for our churches to separate us from our jobs. Most people stay at churches because they like how things are going. This is not just true for pastors, but for all leaders of organizations, as people tend to keep their distance from those “in charge.”

TIP: Find someone in your church who doesn’t give a damn about how well you do your job. They’re out there, trust me. Every church has someone who was designed to be your support, a friend who is removed from your performance. I have them. Sure, they think my sermons are fine and that the church is cool and all, but what they really want to do is hang out, talk about music, share a beer, and play golf. For the last 10 years I have gone to countless concerts with a friend from church and not once did we ever talk about church on those outings. It’s like free therapy when there’s an absence of ministry. Find these people who will provide such a service to you.

TIP #2: Be sure to cultivate friendships that you don’t rely on for the ongoing work of your ministry. This doesn’t mean you won’t have friends who also serve in your respective ministries. You will. It’s not a hard and fast rule. But try to never see any new or developing friendships as recruiting opportunities.

Insight #3 – The pastoral life is all-consuming, so live another life, too

The pastor’s total life can end up being bound to the church. There is little to no separation between realms of friendships, faith, service, and vocation. It’s all in one place, within a single community. And if you are married with kids, they’re included, too. When we quit our jobs, we don’t just leave our vocation, we leave everything (and everyone) our life was tied to. And very rarely do those people keep in touch. (There’s usually a reason we leave.) Again, if you have a family, they will also experience the losses of a move.

TIP: Be sure to build a relational life outside of church. Meet your neighbors. Volunteer at the school. Do you run? Join the local track club. Do something that doesn’t depend on your pastoral and theological training. And here’s the hard part: be okay with having friends that you’ll never invite to church. Everyone we meet doesn’t have to come our to churches. In fact, I don’t recommend it. There are plenty of churches to go around, and secondly, we need friends who don’t also watch us work. And finally, become friends with other pastors from other churches. Talking “shop” with removed pastors is quite easy on the soul, and there’s a greater sense of community that happens to us when we do.

Grace and peace,

ENDNOTE: I have also found this to be especially acute in the lives of those who are hired from within the church to work for the church. What these pastors initially loved about their church – community – is the very thing they end up wrestling with in a big way. If you’re hiring someone from within the church, be more than aware of this reality.

Next Post: Navigating Anxiety & Depression

One response to “Unforeseen Lessons, Part 1: The Friendship Vacuum”

  1. […] Today's post is from a chapter I wrote for a book titled, Ten Count (2016), a collaborative work from pastors across the country sharing their stories of failure and defeat. The title of this chapter is: "When The Levee Breaks", and it is one of my many stories of dealing with anxiety and depression in ministry. You can read the first post in this "Unforeseen Lessons" series here. […]


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