Magazines 2023 May - Jun Pastors who risk real friendships

Pastors who risk real friendships

12 May 2023 By Mark Glanville and Danielle Vriend Fluit

Pastors need true friends, but they can be hard to find. A hopeful reflection written by organizers of an upcoming Vancouver gathering focused around this topic.

For pastoral leaders, genuine friendships where we are free to be ourselves are lifelines to health and resilience. And yet, genuine friendships can be so hard to find for pastoral leaders.

We need true friends, even just a few, who relate to us for who we are, not for what we offer in our role. We need people who can say to us: “I don’t see you as a pastor. I know you have that gifting, but I don’t see you only in that way.” How wonderful, to hear a friend reflect on who we really are, apart from our role: “You are funny!” “You are a good friend!” Or “I love how curious you are!”

David, who works as a pastor, shared a story with me (Danielle) that amazed me and revealed the importance of establishing friendships outside of his role. He described getting together with a bunch of guys and playing nerf guns. Someone in the group kept referring to him as “Pastor David,” and, after letting the first couple of references go, he said to his friend: “Hey, I don’t have to be your pastor, here.” He went on to say, with a grin, what a blast the night had been and how restorative it was for him to enjoy light-hearted play. “I was like a 15-year-old kid, not a pastor, by the end of the night,” he recalled.

I was impressed by David’s response! As the nerf-bullets whizzed by, David was able to ask for what he needed. I was struck by David’s trust – in himself – that he could show up as a friend, not a pastor, with these guys. He also trusted that his friends could be relationally flexible, that there was room for him to move out of his role and be valued just as a friend.

You may know the importance of friendship from a longing within your own heart. And yet the need for genuine friendship shows up in the research, too. A recent study into healthy pastoral ministry found that strong relationships with friends, family and co-workers is the most important factor in pastoral resilience (C. Lee and A. Rosales in Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2019).

Interestingly, self-compassion took second place in contributing to resilience. But relationships won the blue ribbon!

If all humans are hard-wired for connection, it is no surprise that relationships are crucial for health, pastoral leaders included. Attachment theory and neuroscience reveal that our brains are actually changed by being in relationship with others: with caregivers when we are young; with friends and partners as we get older. God’s perfect design wired our brains with mirror neurons that serve to reflect back to those we love who they truly are, and, vice versa: those who love us mirror our true selves back to us.

Pastoral leaders need this too – perhaps more than anyone! And yet so often our relationships are tied to our role. Pastoring can be so immersive that we may even forget how to relate to others without bringing aspects of our role into the relationship. Role expectations and demands can get in the way – and sometimes, relationally, we feel we need to leave parts of us behind.

If attachment theory clarifies a pastor’s need for intimate friendships, the example of Jesus in John’s Gospel gives us courage to step out and risk real friendships. Friendship is a first century concept that is woven into the fourth Gospel. Jesus extends an intimacy to His disciples that “the Greco-Roman philosophers only dreamed of” (in M. Culy, Echoes of Friendship in the Gospel of John, Sheffield Phoenix, 2010).

Jesus draws near to His disciples with the words: “I have called you friends” (John 15:15).

Jesus even invites his disciples to share this intimacy with one another: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Gail O’Day comments that the friendship shared by the Son and the Father, “can be replicated and embodied over and over again by his followers” (“I Have Called You Friends,” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008).

Jesus exemplified friendship by laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

What does this mean for pastors? I (Mark) have certainly “laid down my life” for a church – at least metaphorically. And I’ll bet you have too. And I’ve “laid down my life” (made great sacrifices) to help someone who looks to me as a pastor, many times. But have I “laid down my life” to form a friendship where I can truly rest, be seen and known, a relationship that is fully mutual and reciprocated, a two-way street? Have I prioritized friendships where I can show up as my full self, not squeezing myself to fit a role, like those metal tubes of toothpaste that we grew up with (they end up looking scrawny and dejected)?

The intimacy of John’s Gospel speaks to a pastor’s longing for real friendship. It prompts us to be curious: “What would it feel like, to simply turn up in a new friendship as me – to trust that God has created in me an interesting and fun friend? What natural gifts do I bring to friendships?” To enjoy a genuine friendship, we need to show up with all of our parts, even the ones that we mute or turn down in our roles.

Forming friendship is risky, for sure. And yet, as O’Day writes, “We can risk being friends because Jesus has been a friend to us.”

When pastoral leaders step back from our role and risk simply being ourselves, we have the opportunity to be seen and loved for who we truly are. Yet we need to find safe, reciprocal friendships in which we can bring our full selves. Not only are these relationships life-giving, they are rich resources that help us stay the course of pastoral ministry for the long haul.

You might take time to reflect on these two questions:

  • How do you know when you are fully yourself in a relationship?
  • What tells you that a relationship is a safe place to be you? 

Authors Mark Glanville and Danielle Vriend Fluit are both presenting at The Gathering: Journeying Toward Pastoral Health, Regent College, June 23, 2023. The Gathering is designed for nurturing relationships with other pastoral leaders that hold us for a lifetime of ministry. Through worship, prayer, preaching, dialogue and recreation, we will attend to soul care amidst the beautiful surrounds of Vancouver, B.C. Both lay and vocational leaders are welcome. Come join uslet’s be friends!

Photo of pastor and friend by Eber Devine on Unsplash.

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