As I’ve said before, I’ve never been in full-time ministry. But I’ve hung around ministers and ministers’ kids all my life. And I’ve observed that many ministers struggle to make friends.
Think about your home congregation. Who are your preacher’s best friends? Who will preach his funeral? If he couldn’t do it, who’d preach his daughter’s wedding?
Now, there are, of course, levels of friendship. The preacher may some friends who invite him to football games or to go fishing, but whose home does he visit on Friday nights? Who does he call to help fix the garage door — when he’s the guy who broke it? Who knows how much trouble he’s having raising his 12-year old daughter? Who at church is his BFF?
On my daily broadcast, Viewpoint, I interviewed H.B. London, head of pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family, on the topic Pastors at Risk. London disclosed that at least 70 percent of pastors in the United States claim they have no friends.
In “How to Be Your Pastor’s Friend,” Robert P. Fry, Jr. writes,
Why is it that many of our pastors — ”the people we respect and admire most” — lead lonely lives?
And why do many lay leaders feel frustrated in their attempts to build a friendship with their pastor?
On the one hand, there is a tendency in every congregation to canonize the pastor in a way that Catholics wisely reserve for those long dead. We don’t often argue politics, complain about the schools, ask him (or her) to help fix our fence, or tell him our favorite jokes out of a misguided notion that these things (and our interest in them) are somehow beneath him.
On the other hand, in many congregations the pastor is also the designated target of criticism. If the sermon is too long or the hymns are too new, if the denomination is too liberal or there is not enough parking, the pastor takes the heat.
You see, I think one of the biggest causes of burn out among ministers is the lack of tight friendships — sometimes combined with a Messiah-complex, that is, the idea that he has to do all alone.
People need friends. It’s one of those fundamental need things. The preacher’s wife should be his very best friend, but she’s likely not the hunting/fishing/football watching kind of friend. Some men have such wives, but most do not. Men need someone to golf or repair the house with — someone they don’t sleep with.
And, I should add, I suspect one reason so many preacher struggle with sexual sin is the lack of strong connections with a male friend. Women are more relational than men and often much easier to befriend. But male-female friendships often morph into affairs.
For some reason, preachers as a class struggle in this area. And here are my theories —
1. Preachers move. Job turnover is high, and leaving good friends behind is painful. Sometimes it’s just easier to focus on the church and family and leave friends out.
2. Preachers are often the most highly educated person in the church. The preacher with multiple graduate degrees in a blue collar congregation may have trouble finding someone who enjoys what he enjoys.
3. Many preachers are introverts by nature. They may do very well in front of a crowd or a classroom and yet struggle in one-to-one relationships.
4. Preachers have to minister to the congregation, have to recruit, rebuke, and assign duties. Having friends can create political issues when it’s your buddy who needs to be rebuked. And it’s just plain hard to counsel your best friend on divorce — because it hurts so much.
5. Then there’s that Messiah complex again. If the preacher lets down his guard, says a naughty word on a fishing trip, loses his temper, leers at a pretty girl — there are repercussions. He just can’t let down his guard with members of the congregation.
6. People often don’t feel comfortable befriending the minister. After all, he’s awfully busy. And he’s bad to use stories about his friends in his sermons. Besides, such a great guy probably already has more people calling him than he can handle. And maybe the person just doesn’t feel comfortable in the presence of such, you know, holiness. I mean, imagine going fishing with someone who always speaks with three points each beginning with the same letter!
So I have this crazy idea. Someone in every church should make a point of befriending the preacher. It’s not enough to invite him over for dinner. He’ll feel he has to be “on” and might even have to counsel someone. Invite him over for cards. Or to play golf. Or to watch a game — but don’t just meet him there. Pick him up. Talk about kids.
And don’t ask anything from him other than his presence. Don’t ask him how to improve your marriage or to define the meaning of “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” or his views on Obama. Just talk about the kids, the weather, how he met his wife … that sort of thing. Flee any subject that requires him to put his collar on (you know, the collar all our preachers wear all the while denying they wear a collar).
Oh, and I’d make a point of making him the butt of a joke or two. I might laugh as his golf clothes, or his hair, or his ears. Women find this sort of male bonding ritual just terribly puzzling, even offensive, but it’s how guys say, “You aren’t perfect and I love you anyway. And I think you love me so much that I can make fun of you in front of our friends and expect our friendship to survive it.” That’s how guys do it. Make fun of your preacher! Not cruel fun. You know the difference.
And keep secrets. Without exception. If your preacher friend confides in you about his struggles with the elders, don’t tell anyone else — even your wife. Be a safe place. Even if you don’t know the answer. Unless you have his express permission: “I don’t know Br. Jones very well, but my wife does. May I ask for her input? She’s good at keeping a secret.” Not all men can keep a secret. Be one of the few who can.
Don’t be afraid to initiate the relationship. Guys can be painfully shy about this stuff. Just call and invite him to do something. Better than golf is yardwork. Acquaintances golf. Friends break up dirt for the garden. If he says no, try again. You may not hit it off, and so don’t let this become a ministry. Just give it a shot.
Don’t be afraid to be yourself. The last thing you should do is pretend to be Mr. Super-Christian. You’re not. He knows it. And that’s not what he needs.
Now, I’d add that your preacher also needs friends outside the congregation. He needs someone he can talk to about the elders, the congregation, his wife — someone truly safe and not even in town. As a result, many ministers have joined networks of minister support groups — meeting periodically for mutual encouragement and support.
Be sure your ministers are part of such groups — and don’t complain when they leave town for a few days to participate in such a retreat. They need it. And don’t ask what was said. That’s not how it works.
If you’re an elder, you should ask your minister about these things — in a private meeting. It’s not likely that you, as an elder, can fill this role, because you are also his boss. You can be very close, but you can never be his best friend. After all, one day you may have to fire him. You will certainly have to set his pay and benefits.
PS — If the preacher does have friends at church, some very good things happen. No longer will he seem like a different kind of person calling the church to impossible standards. He won’t seem so, you know, alien. Rather, he’ll be a member of the congregation urging his friends to deeper devotion and faithfulness.
And he’ll see the congregation from an entirely different perspective. If all you know about your church is learned in program meetings and conversations in the lobby and counseling sessions, well, you have a pretty messed up perspective. Become a member of the church, then you can see the church from the members’ perspective. It’s different.