August 15, 2014
By J.R. Briggs
Several weeks ago I preached at a friend’s church in Northern Indiana. After the service a wife of a former pastor approached me and shared a bit of the story of her family’s tumultuous ministry journey. In the story she mentioned a family friend who was a pastor in America’s heartland. “He’s losing entire clumps of hair,” she told me. I asked if health issues were the contributing factor. “No, it’s because of stress. Too much stress. And he feels all alone.” On my flight home that afternoon I read a Christianity Today article on the rash of pastor suicides. There’s no doubt about it: ministry can be brutal, and pastors are in a tough calling.
A lot of relational shrapnel is deeply embedded in pastors’ hearts. This often has an effect not just on them but also on their families. Because of this, pastors need something significant: real friendships. The problem is that few pastors have real friends. According to Michael Wilson and Brad Hoffman in their book Preventing Ministry Failure (IVP, 2007), 70 percent of pastors surveyed say they do not have a single close friend. I was confronted with this reality when a pastor who serves at a church less than a mile from our church lamented to me in his office one afternoon, “I need friends who don’t need me.” In hearing the stories of dozens of pastors, and studying the research, a strong argument could be made that the one word to best describe their lives is loneliness. As Eugene Peterson wrote, “pastors need pastors, too.”
I am more and more convinced that isolation is one of the enemy’s greatest tools among pastors. When pastors are isolated, we begin to embrace and believe dangerous lies about ministry and ourselves.
These isolation-inducing lies lead us to one of two gutters: insecurity or pride. It breeds comparison, paranoia, a lack of joy, secrecy, addictions and unending anxiety. And it warps our ministry perspective like the bent mirrors that make us laugh at the carnival. And it makes mask wearing incredibly tempting. Pastors preach on community and caring for one another, but (continuing with the carnival metaphor) too many pastors have expressed to me that they feel like carnival ride operators who pull the cranks and push the buttons so others can have a memorable experience, but never get to experience it themselves.
The open secret among pastors is this: we need friends. Some of us are fortunate to find safe people within our churches—those who see us first as a person and second as a pastor. Nothing we share scares them or changes the way they think about us. Most of us are not so fortunate.
So, what are pastors to do when they desire friends but can’t find them? In Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure, I make a few suggestions. Consider joining a small group that you don’t lead, where your primary role is to be a person and not the pastor. Connect with non-Christians who have the same hobby—don’t view it as “work time” but as a chance to connect in relationships around a common interest.
Or you might create a gut-honest group of two or three pastors (maybe from the region or maybe states away) with whom you can regularly check in—and courageously share how you’re really doing—in complete confidentiality. Sure, you have to be vulnerable, but it’s only when we’re vulnerable that we grow.
Deep down, we all long to be known, really known. To be known so well it scares the snot out of us—because of what people could use as blackmail if they wanted to but won’t—is a gift. But to be known in such a way frees us up to know that we’re never alone and we don’t have to do this ministry thing by ourselves. It takes courage and initiative to reach out to other pastors and acknowledge a need for friends. But when it works, it’s incredibly beneficial, life giving and freeing.
J.R. Briggs has served in ministry for over a decade in mega-churches, house churches and church plants. He founded Kairos Partnerships out of a growing desire to walk alongside and encourage pastors and leaders in order to better equip them for God-honoring ministry.