Imagine a day in your future. You are now seventy or seventy-five, and the pace of life has slowed. You get up early in the morning and sit in your favorite chair with a cup of coffee. The house is still and silent. No one is there but you and God and your thoughts.
On this morning, instead of thinking about the day’s activities, you begin to reflect upon the past. It’s like you’ve popped in a DVD of your life. You see family vacations, times with your spouse, holidays spent with relatives. You have memories of ministry, both rewarding and painful. It hasn’t always been easy, and not everything turned out like you hoped, but it’s been a good life.
Today one thought especially encourages you and brings a smile to your face. You are grateful to God that you took time to develop a handful of deep friendships. You realize that on life’s balance sheet, possessing cars, houses, and toys doesn’t add up to much. But a real friendship is of high value. It’s the stuff life is made of.
The truth is those of us in ministry often don’t do the friendship thing very well. One survey among pastors found that 70 percent do not have a close friend, confidant, or mentor. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Most Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships.” What an indictment.
I grew up around church and Christians, so I’ve always had a lot of acquaintances. My relational circle was wide but not very deep. Looking back, there were at least three factors that made deep friendship illusive.
First, I grew up in a generation of church where we didn’t talk much about the value of community and relationship. We talked a lot about salvation and knowing the Bible and pure living. It never felt like anybody inside the church had a messy life. As a result, there was a subtle pressure to project an image that you had it all together. Because of that subtle pressure you wouldn’t let people get too close, which meant your friendships were usually shallow.
The second factor had to do with my personality and wiring. By nature, I am calculated and cautious when it comes to relationships. I don’t let my guard down easily. Opening up and being completely transparent does not come easy for me.
The third factor that’s made deep friendship hard has been “ministry.” Somewhere along the way in my training, I got it in my head that as a pastor you can’t (and shouldn’t) have close friends in your church. You don’t want to be accused of partiality by hanging out with some members more than others. And, besides, you don’t want to let people peer too closely into your life and family. They might discover you don’t have it all together.
So, for the first fifteen years of ministry I learned how to pastor and live the Christian life by keeping everyone at a safe emotional distance. I lived in denial of any deep relational needs I had. I was quite content to skim relationally and focus on building the church. Then I hit my mid-thirties.
Longings I had suppressed began to come to the surface. There was something missing, and I began to feel it. I began to have thoughts like, God made me a man before he made me a pastor. And, as a man he made me to live in community. I knew I had to go deeper in a few relationships, no matter how it was perceived.
Joseph Myers’ The Search to Belong has been very helpful in my thinking. He talks about 4 categories of relationships: Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate. It’s important to have people in each category, and the number in each category declines from Public to Intimate. As a pastor, I’d become quite skilled at Public and Social relationships. And I was able to manage at the Personal level. But there was no friend that would have fit the Intimate category. There was no one who fully knew me, the naked truth about me.
During this season God brought into my life a pastor friend with whom I connected easily. As trust began to develop, we both decided to pursue the friendship. I learned in this process that you never drift into deep friendship.
One of the most famous friendships in Scripture is that of David and Jonathan. At one point, Jonathan does something that feels awkward and uncomfortable for most men: “Jonathan made a special vow to be David’s friend, and he sealed the pact by giving him his robe, tunic, sword, bow, and belt.” He made a “special vow.” He declared his commitment to pursue the friendship. We just don’t do that today. For most people I know in ministry and certainly for most men, this seems way too touchy-feely.
But I need an intimate friend or two who fully know me, friends who aren’t impressed with me and who aren’t afraid to tell me the truth. I need a handful of people who know the junk about me, who know where I struggle, who know the skeletons in my closet, and who love and accept me anyway.
This kind of friendship doesn’t happen by accident. If you’ve got someone in your life you want to go deeper with, do what Jonathan did. Declare it! Life is too short and there is too much at stake for you to avoid this level of friendship.
Start now. Build a rich life by developing a few deep friendships.