It's Okay to Go There
The Place of Friendship in Ministry
Reprinted from the Winter 2003 issue of Divinity, the alumni magazine
of Duke Divinity School
By Bob Wells
For many pastors, loneliness is just an inevitable part of the job, as
much a part of ministry as Wednesday night Bible study and visiting the
sick. "Set apart" by their ordination, they've been schooled
to believe they can't have friendships with their parishioners. Overwhelmed
with the many tasks of ministry, they don't have time for friendships
with other clergy.
But a group of pastors, scholars and laity in Duke Divinity School's ongoing
Theological Colloquium on Excellence in Ministry is convinced it doesn't
have to be that way. Not only is it okay for pastors to have friendships
with their parishioners and with other clergy, it is absolutely essential.
Indeed, colloquium members believe that friendships lie at the heart of
excellent ministry. These are not casual connections among acquaintances,
but abiding and sustaining relationships among clergy and laity - and
between clergy - rooted in the very nature of church and the Christian
story: they are "holy friendships."
"I learned a long time ago that there is that sense of being set
apart, but I've also learned that you can still have friends, both in
the church and with other pastors," says the Rev. Kyle Childress,
a colloquium member and pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches,
Texas. "We're not saying friendships solve everything. But we are
saying it's something we've overlooked that can help make excellent ministers
and excellent churches."
For those who are not pastors, it's difficult to understand how controversial,
even radical, that notion is, says the Rev. Kevin Armstrong, who co-chairs
the colloquium with Dean L. Gregory Jones. Sponsored by Pulpit & Pew,
a research project on pastoral leadership based at the Divinity School,
the colloquium has been meeting twice a year to talk, think and write
about excellent ministry.
"Many clergy have been taught in seminary or somewhere else that
it's not possible to be friends with their parishioners," says Armstrong.
"At the same time, many find it difficult to form friendships with
other clergy, whether from a sense of competition or the sheer busyness
Yet, two years ago, when the colloquium members first started pondering
the nature of excellent ministry, the subject of friendship kept coming
up in the conversation.
"When we listed the gifts and treasures that had sustained us personally
or that had sustained pastors we admired, friendship was at the top of
virtually everyone's list," says Armstrong. "People talked about
particular friendships and the particular friends who grew alongside them
as they tried to discern their call and who sustained them through seminary
and in their congregations."
Friendships had helped colloquium members transcend the loneliness and
isolation that plague so many clergy today.
Numerous studies have tried to quantify clergy loneliness. An oft-cited
1991 study found that 70 percent of clergy say they have no close friends.
More recently, Pulpit & Pew's 2001 national clergy survey asked pastors
how often in the past year they had felt "lonely and isolated in
their work." About 17 percent said "very often" or "fairly
often" and another 51 percent said "once in a while." Only
32 percent said they had never felt lonely or isolated. In yet another
study, conducted in 1984, researchers found that pastors and their spouses
experienced significantly more loneliness and diminished marital adjustment
compared to non-pastoral husbands and wives.
For those clergy who are lonely, the experience can take a tremendous
toll, leading to burnout and, in the worst cases, an early exit from the
ministry. In the Pulpit & Pew survey, loneliness and isolation was
the single greatest predictor of overall job dissatisfaction. Generally,
those who had the highest levels of loneliness were the most likely to
be dissatisfied in their ministry, while those who reported little or
no loneliness had the highest levels of job satisfaction.
Another Pulpit & Pew study also found a strong link between loneliness
and clergy dropout. In that study, researchers interviewed ex-Catholic
priests who had left the priesthood within five years of ordination. They
found that isolation and a lack of close friendships were one of the most
important reasons the former priests cited for quitting the ministry,
second only to celibacy.
Becky McMillan, associate director of Pulpit & Pew, believes the colloquium
members are on to something, but she worries that the word - even with
the qualifier "holy" - may not be rich enough to capture and
convey what the colloquium is trying to express. She and other Pulpit
& Pew researchers tested the colloquium's hypothesis about friendship
with several focus groups of pastors. To their surprise, many clergy were
In almost every case, the focus groups strongly rejected the idea that
friendships play an important role in ministry, says McMillan. In one
group, composed of mainline pastors who had been in ministry for many
years, not a single pastor claimed to need more friends.
Those responses, however, may have inadvertently revealed how impoverished
our understanding of friendship has become. What they really needed, the
pastors told McMillan, were mentors and confidantes, people with whom
they could feel safe confiding their flaws, people who would hold them
accountable and contribute to their spiritual formation.
The very things clergy said they wanted - mentoring, accountability, and
spiritual formation - are inherent in the kinds of friendships the colloquium
The Rev. Lillian Daniel, pastor of The Church of the Redeemer, a United
Church of Christ congregation in New Haven, Conn., and a colloquium member,
says the world's vision of friendship is shaped by consumer forces that
leave it sentimentalized and trivial. To the world, friendships are made
and chosen, based upon having things in common. Such friendships may be
formed around our jobs, or the PTA, or our favorite sports teams. Usually,
they are formed with people who tend to look and act like us.
Holy friendships are not so much chosen as discovered, says Daniel. They
are unexpected alliances that are gifts from God, "grace undeserved,
but also grace recognized."
One of the greatest joys of ministry, Daniel says, is watching such holy
friendships develop in the congregation. In her own church in New Haven,
she has watched a shy elderly widow and a perpetually irritated teen-age
boy, who no longer wanted to sit with his parents, become pew partners.
Yale graduate students sit with secretaries close to retirement. Wealthy
people sit with the unemployed.
Before her eyes, friendships are formed between people who have nothing
in common except their belief in Christ, says Daniel. The best Christian
friendships, she insists, are always unlikely and unpredictable, crossing
lines the world has established, whether of race, age, gender or class.
"To seek friendship in God's community, rather than our own, is a
counter-cultural act," says Daniel.
It all has to do with who Christians are as peculiar people in the world,
"The friendships we are trying to describe are about people we encounter
who grace us with a presence that we neither deserve nor plan for,"
says Armstrong. "That's at the heart of the Eucharistic community.
Out of that table of fellowship we recognize the holy in the other."
Holy friendships may not look different to the outside world. But what
sets them apart is that they have a larger purpose beyond the friendship
itself: they help point us toward God. Holy friendships are about truth
telling, encouragement and accountability.
"There is no question in my mind that my best friends force me to
tell the truth about who I am, and who I want to be, and who God is calling
me to be," says Armstrong. "They know me well enough to offer
me encouragement, but they also know me well enough to keep me from deceiving
Colloquium members readily concede that friendships between clergy and
laity pose special challenges, but they insist those are not insurmountable.
Many clergy have been taught to shy away from such relationships for fear
of showing favoritism and further creating subgroups and jealousies within
Childress says he knows of pastors who've been in ministry for 40 to 50
years who brag about having no friends except a spouse and perhaps a classmate
or two from seminary.
"But to me, that's a pretty sad commentary," says Childress.
"If church is to be the body of Christ and yet we don't have any
friends, then something is wrong."
Daniel says clergy should acknowledge up front that such friendships with
laity will exist and figure out how to negotiate them.
"After all, if scripture is full of descriptions of Jesus' friendships
with his followers, who are we ministers to declare that our roles are
somehow more complicated?" she says.
Friendships between clergy and laity will not be the same as friendships
between clergy, but it doesn't mean one is more privileged or more important
than the other. Both are gifts from God and need to be treated with reverence
and care, says Daniel.
Clergy-laity friendships may indeed be dangerous if lived out according
to the world's model, particularly in an age when intimacy is defined
as sharing every detail of one's life. Obviously, pastors cannot unburden
themselves to a lay leader about another lay leader's annoying behavior,
or reveal confidences about another church member's marital difficulties.
Holy friendships often require a "certain loving censorship,"
"The world defines intimacy as 'baring all,' as saying anything and
everything that pops into your head at anytime," says Daniel. "But
Scripture never lifts that up as a good way to be. You don't just say
something that's hateful or unkind. We all have different barriers and
rules we place around friendships in our lives, but that doesn't mean
we can't be close."
But clergy also need a place where they can vent about the challenges
and frustrations of ministry. They need somebody they can talk with who
knows and understands the burdens of ministry. That's why friendships
between clergy are so important, say colloquium members.
Friendships among clergy can be a much-needed source of encouragement
and, when necessary, rebuke.
Early in her ministry, Daniel served on a UCC committee that dealt with
pastoral misconduct. Reviewing case after case of sexual misconduct, she
noted that the offenders were clergy who tended to be "lone rangers"
in their ministry, lonely and isolated pastors who had no close friends.
When you're isolated, says Daniels, boundaries can become fuzzy: "You
can slip into absolute relativism if you're not talking with someone who
understands your role."
Both Daniel and Childress have forged friendships with small groups of
clergy who meet regularly, offering each other encouragement, support
For the past nine years, Daniel has met once a month for lunch with three
other women pastors she met soon after starting her ministry. Together,
they've been through "two ordinations, three births, two job changes,
one wedding, and a coming out story." Though they differ theologically
and politically, they have created a deep friendship that has been a source
of "holy encouragement and prophetic correction," says Daniel.
Held together by their shared faith and their calling, they force each
other to live truthfully.
Likewise, in Texas, Childress and five other Baptist pastors have been
getting together twice a year for the past 12 years. Initially, their
gatherings were hurried, overnight gripe sessions, but they later grew
into more meaningful four-day retreats where they consciously practice
Over the years, they've helped each other through rough patches in their
ministries, and they always return to their churches refreshed and full
of new ideas. Their congregations actively support the retreats, willingly
planning around their pastors' twice-yearly absences.
"Biblically, health is salvation and/or shalom, which in our group,
as in the church, now has a concreteness that previously was abstract,"
Childress wrote in a Colloquium report. "Salvation and friendship
are connected. We are like the paralyzed man whose four friends lowered
him through the roof before Jesus. Mark records, 'When Jesus saw their
faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven.'"