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3 uncommon habits pastors need to build friendships

“Why are you doing this?” his wife asked as discouragement swelled up in his eyes. God called him, that’s why. And currently that’s the only answer he has.

“I told myself if I’m as tired when I get back from vacation as I was when I left, I’m done. So, I’m back, and I’m done.”

“Before COVID, we were seeing signs of decline, but now I’m losing key leaders. Is it me? Maybe I’m not the right pastor to lead this church.”

It often only takes a few minutes with pastors to discover that discouragement is a way of life. As pastors, we would like to think our faith is stronger, but sometimes it’s not. There are seasons, even long ones, we aren’t quite sure how to trust God with our daily concerns. And sometimes those daily concerns include caring for our own souls.

In a recent study, Lifeway Research reported top concerns among pastors included developing leaders and volunteers and connecting with unchurched neighbors. Pastors also reported frustration with the perennial sense of apathy among members of the congregation.

These top tier concerns are, frankly, an expected part of pastoral responsibilities. We train to address these needs. We attend conferences and join networks to equip us to meet these challenges.

Not too far down the list, however, is another group of concerns that are rarely found on a syllabus—pastors’ personal needs. Staying faithful in personal devotions through Bible reading and prayer, for example, is almost as high on the list of concerns as developing leaders. And nearly 70% of pastors indicated that building friendships of any kind is a struggle.

Even a cursory review of the research shows that many pastors are struggling both in ministry and in their personal lives, and they are struggling alone. Interestingly, whenever we attempt to fulfill our calling alone, the challenges are only exaggerated, and an unhealthy leadership culture becomes a way of life.

Here’s how King Solomon described it: “One who isolates himself pursues selfish desires; he rebels against all sound wisdom” (Proverbs 18:1, CSB).

So, while going alone may seem more efficient, isolation actually produces more of the personal and congregational challenges we are working to remedy.

But for many pastors, we aren’t sure what our options are. We’ve heard about the dangers of building friendships with people in our congregations. Besides, we need leaders now. Friendships will have to wait. And if there’s any wisdom in connecting with other local pastors, who has time for that? How will those friendships produce results for my church?

The demands of ministry, so it seems, disincentivize personal friendships and put pastors on an island of isolation that appears impossible to escape. Thankfully, however, it’s not impossible. And in fact, developing healthy habits of friendship creates significant movement toward the consistent care our congregations and our souls need most.

So, let’s consider these three habits of friendship:

1. Treat people as future friends rather than as prospective volunteers.

Friendship in ministry has its own set of challenges, but it’s possible that pastors often have trouble developing friendships because we begin our relationships with other people thinking of them as future volunteers rather than as future friends. Healthy relationships, however, grow from a mutual interest in and genuine care for one another.

We should want unbelievers to trust Jesus and follow Him with us, and we should expect believers to live on mission with Jesus. But if our relationship depends on the other person doing what we hope they will do, it becomes a transactional arrangement—an exchange of goods and services—rather than a transformational one. As a result, the depth of our relationships depends on their service to our church and ours to them rather than on value of two people created in the image of God.

It’s not uncommon to hear counsel that our closest friends should be people who are not in our church. Certainly, there are different kinds of friendships that we cultivate throughout a lifetime, but shepherding people is intrinsically personal. It comes with a kaleidoscope of joys and sorrows, but as we see people as neighbors and fellow pilgrims, we will invite them closer. We love them like we find them, and we walk with them just as Jesus walks with us.

2. View local pastors as partners rather than as competitors.

Pastors love their churches, but most people in the community do not love it the way we do. Even the largest churches only reach a fraction of a community’s population. Therefore, for every neighbor to have multiple opportunities to hear and respond to the gospel, we need more local churches, not less. And those churches and their pastors are not our competitors, they are our essential partners in kingdom ministry.

So as pastors view other pastors as partners, we can freely encourage one another, pray for one another, and support one another’s ministries. More than 8 in 10 pastors say they feel supported by other local pastors, according to Lifeway Research. Only 44% strongly agree, however, which means most pastors recognize there is room for improvement.

One practical way to begin is by sharing a meal with a fellow pastor once a month. As we get to know one another, seek counsel from one another, hold information in confidence, and build trust, our love for one another grows. And through this friendship, we discover we are not alone after all. We find new courage for the challenges ahead. And the Lord expands our vision for his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

This kind of relationship with fellow pastors has nurtured my own soul. Four of us meet every month for breakfast. I’m a Southern Baptist, two are nondenominational, and one is a Methodist. We laugh a lot, cry a little, and carry one another’s burdens.

National church planting networks and denominational affiliations are invaluable, but there’s something powerful and personally refreshing for local pastors in fellowship serving the same community and building common relationships across various spheres of influence. It’s a gospel witness to believers and unbelievers alike.

3. Pursue ministry as a calling rather than an identity.

This may not seem like a habit of friendship, but pastors often chase after our calling as if it’s a mountain to climb. We set good, well-intended goals, and we are rewarded when those goals are achieved. So we set more goals, achieve as many as possible, and receive affirmation for a job well done.

In the process, we often forget that our primary calling is to the person of Jesus Himself. Rather than “Christ in you” being the source of our identity, we tie our self-worth to what we accomplish for Him.

Like the emperor who had no clothes, everyone notices except us. We lead from our insecurities, and the people around us feel like a project to fix or a constituent to win. Confusing our ministry with our identity can produce incredible results, but isolation is its crushing side effect. When pastors abide in Christ and trust Him to build His church, we fulfill our calling in way that not only tethers our own souls to the immovable hope of the gospel but multiplies abounding grace to others.

This article originally appeared at lifewayresearch.com. For more insights on church and culture and practical ministry helps from Lifeway Research, sign up for their Daily Insights newsletter.

    About the Author

  • Daryl Crouch