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My understanding of community has morphed through the years. Time, failure in relationships, brutal betrayal, sacrificial love and unimaginable kindness by strangers have all helped develop my experience of being in and practicing community–of sharing friendship.

True Friendship Must Be Reciprocal

If you have read some of my books, you have been a witness to my progressive revelation of what community is and what it is not. In 2006, I was shaped and impacted by the words of psychologist David Benner when he says that friendship has several non-negotiable ingredients—one of which is this: True friendship and community must be reciprocal. There must be give and take in healthy relationships. No one person can be the one who gives all the time. No one person can do all the initiating. It must be reciprocal. It must be shared. It must be give and take and back and forth. Benner penned these words in my very first book, The Transformation of a Man’s Heart. That clarification helped me greatly to distinguish what had become a fuzzy boundary in my life in relationships where I was paid to be people’s friends in ministry as a pastor. When I grasped the needed quality of having reciprocal relationships, I learned to distinguish between people who were really my “work” and people who were really my “friends.” It helped me and still helps me know who I am to the few people I can find in my life that actually do want to be reciprocal rather than one of us feeling like we are doing all the giving and thus someone else is doing all the taking.

A Soul Thrives In Community

In 2008, I wrote in a chapter in Soul Custody titled, “Soul Companions: Choosing your Friends” that companionship is one of God’s great desires for us. Since God is Trinity—and we are created in the image of God—we learn that the soul was created to actually be in and thrive by community. It really is not good to be by ourselves in this life. There’s a lot in that chapter about loneliness and moving out of loneliness into the actual experience of tasting true friendship. As I read that chapter today, I can clearly see my own pilgrimage in attempting to move beyond my own inner loneliness to a sense of connectedness and community.

Guarding Your Heart In Friendships

In 2012, I wrote an important book titled, The Jesus Life. There’s an anchor chapter in this book about “The Way of Companionship.” I wrote this chapter reflecting on one of the greatest hurts and wounds in the erosion of what I thought was a friend. Through a deep betrayal, a friendship ended and has never been resurrected to this day. I still wonder how something that deep and tearing could ever be repaired and would I even WANT it to be? It was in this year that I discovered a small and seemingly insignificant verse in the Gospel of John where we are told that Jesus “would not entrust himself to them for he knew all people” (John 2:24). Jesus was speaking about his companions at a table he was having dinner with. He somehow knew in his interior soul that some of the people around him—perhaps already in his circle were just were not safe. That one, small verse gave me fodder for the fire in my heart to grasp friendship even more deeply. Here I learned that Jesus did not give his heart away like we were taught in Sunday School. He guarded his own heart and was not fully vulnerable. Perhaps, in my quest to be like Jesus, I would need to reign in my heart and be more careful about who I called, “friend” and with whom I told my secrets to in life.

Community Is Something You Do

In 2014, we moved out of the city where we had lived  for a dozen years and uprooted our lives to live near our retreat. We wanted our life to be integrated. I wanted to “do my life” in one place and not be so divided. We left our church. We left our small group. We left our home and have tried to put down roots where our work, life , church and friends can have a sense of synergy, connectedness and harmony. It’s not been easy to be truthful.

But in the last few months some new light has come into my quest to understand community even more. The prolific 21st century sage, prophet, farmer and spiritual guru, Wendell Berry, wrote a few sentences that stopped my in my tracks in trying to grasp community. He writes, “Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time. “

His words were like a light bulb for me. Something that felt dark became a little more filled with light.  Community is something you do and you practice.   So, with renewed wind in my sails, Berry’s words have helped me want, desire to practice community. We went to church on Sunday and sat in chairs surrounded by some “friends” and neighbors where we live. We passed the peace to each other when the preacher asked us to; we stood up together and sang the Doxology and sat down to pray the Lord’s prayer together in unison. With one voice; one motion, and in one building we found ourselves warmly connected. It was stirring for me in a deep way. I was practicing Berry’s plea for what authentic community actually is and actually does. Slowly we will build trust. We invited one couple to join us for lunch. We began a new journey of practicing casual friendship. We are both new to our new town; new to our shared neighborhood and in a new stage of life together. There’s a lot in common to build upon. There is some ground now to “practice” all that I have learned thus far in my life about friendship and community.

Tolerance and Mercy Keep Friendships Alive

No voice has impacted me more deeply than the prophetic words of poet and author David Whyte. He writes,, “Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” Read that again.   Don’t read anything more than his sentence: “Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” He is telling us that friendship is not about being right. Community is not rooted in the affinity where everyone believes the same thing.  It is not about have the same political views and sharing the same doctrine. He is telling us that the soul of friendships will shrivel and die unless we practice tolerance and mercy with one another. We will not always agree. 90% of all business partnerships fail.  We simply need more tolerance and a whole lot more of mercy.  He further states, “A diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.” Ouch! How does he write in such a way that his words become a scalpel to my crusted heart. If you find yourselves in a diminishing circle of friends, perhaps your own understanding of friendship will need to morph.

About 20 years ago, I wrote an article for a newspaper titled, “Who are the six strong people who will carry your casket to the grave?”  I didn’t know the answer to that question then and I still am not sure today. Do you know the answer to that unsettling question?  For some of us that kind of uneasy question may jar us into thinking more about this very important issue in our lives–the question about who are my friends and how do I really find true community?  We live so much of our lives asleep and on the hamster wheel that few of us think below the water line of life as we need to–as God wants and invites us to ponder.

Many of the great spiritual truths in our lives are best understood when we accept the notion that goes like this: “I do not know everything. As I live more I will become more wise. I want to be a student of progressive revelation. I want to grow in my understanding of all things that matter: marriage, love, what is really essential in life and my yearning for heaven. As I have morphed and grown in my understanding of community, I can now be ready to lay down some things that have not worked; have not served me or my friends of the past well and now practice a better way of being a friend and having a friend.  Like the Apostle Paul told us, sometimes we need to put aside childish notions and take hold of a more mature understanding of things.  I find myself doing precisely as he instructed us to do regarding friends and community.  Do you?



Stephen W. Smith and his wife Gwen are the Co-Founders of a Christian ministry called, Potter’s Inn.  

Steve and Gwen have been married since 1980 and spent 32 years ministering together to the hearts of people around the world. Steve has pastored churches in Kentucky, North Carolina and the Netherlands. 

Currently, Steve and Gwen lead retreats throughout the world for leaders in the marketplace as well as ministry. A focus for Steve and Gwen is their work with individuals and couples in “Soul Care Intensives”–a private retreat with leaders.

Steve and Gwen have four adult sons and two daughters through their son’s marriages. Soon to be three!


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