Modern Exhortations to Pastoral Friendship
Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from the book “Pastoral Friendship: The Forgotten Piece in a Persevering Ministry” by Michael A. G. Haykin, Brian Croft, and James B. Carroll.
Indeed, J.C. Ryle was correct in noting, “Friendship halves our troubles and doubles our joy.”1
Despite increasing connectedness, many in our culture face a growing isolation of the soul and pastors are prime candidates for this paradoxical lifestyle. But we can’t care well for the souls in our congregation if we’re weary and wandering ourselves. Even though we interact with dozens of people in our churches and social media circles, we often foster few, if any, spiritual friendships.
We hope by now you’re convinced that this instrument of grace is vital for personal growth and pastoral longevity and are ready to commit to developing God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered friendships for the sake of your soul and those under your care.
The aim of this final chapter is to encourage each pastor to consider how he might pursue his own pastoral friendships in the days ahead. We will seek to accomplish this in two ways. First, we will suggest ten exhortations on how pastors might begin to develop meaningful, trusted, and loyal friendships in their own lives. Second, we will share real, personal examples from our own lives on how ministry friendships have been a tremendous blessing, a means for spiritual growth, and have proven to be that forgotten piece to help any pastor persevere in his ministry.
1. Die to Self.
All three synoptic Gospels record the following famous words from Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Selfishness impedes progress in friendship as in all other areas of spiritual growth. While we don’t die for others in the way Jesus did, each of us must be prepared to “lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Brian: My good friend, Jim, shares a birthday with my youngest daughter. On her fifth birthday this busy pastor who lives across town showed up at my house on his birthday to bring her six specialty cupcakes from Gigi’s cupcakes. My daughter got to determine which cupcake she wanted and who of our family of six got one of the other cupcakes. As you can imagine, my friend made a lifelong friend with my daughter that day, known for many years to come as, “Her birthday buddy!” My friend repeated this very selfless act for several years to come. This busy pastor, with his own birthday to celebrate and his own flock to care for, showed up at my front door out of love for me and my daughter for the next five plus years.
Many times, dying to self in pastoral friendship is not about some loud, dramatic sacrifice, but best illustrated by a small, thoughtful, unexpected, and intentional act of kindness. Every pastor knows one of the best ways to love a pastor is to love his family. In loving my daughter in this unique way, I felt his love for me. On my daughter’s thirteenth birthday the tide turned. She showed up at Jim’s church on a Wednesday night with a box full of Gigi’s cupcakes, a sweet gesture of how much Jim’s birthday visits had meant to her—and to me.
2. Invest Wisely in Relationships.
Passivity rarely produces anything of value, but equal investments also rarely yield identical returns. Prepare for the work of befriending and pray for discernment concerning where to apply it. Not every potential friend will reciprocate and often the truest ones will come in surprising places.
Michael: Friendships take time and energy. Over the years, I have carved out time to invest in friendships, most of which have developed from a teacher-student relationship. What this has meant is purposefully contacting these friends and spending time in person with them or speaking to them over the phone or now by Zoom.
I am deeply invested as an academic and it would have been easy for me to have spent this time in academic pursuits. But I knew that I needed friendships for the good of my soul. I had seen the dangers of ignoring such a need in the life of my own father, who, too, was a lifelong academic. In his case his field of study was electrical engineering. He was so focused on his vocation that he had no real time for friends. I was determined not to be like that.
3. Value the Power of Presence.
Most people assume friendship is about a relationship with someone that is based on interactions, conversations, advice, wrestling through struggles, and talking through solutions. This is certainly assumed in pastoral friendships as we seek relationships with other pastors to help us wade through the tricky waters of pastoral ministry. But sometimes what we need is a friend who is willing to simply sit with us in silence, be present, and listen. There is a value in the power of presence when a human being sits with another human being to be a warm, accepting, and loving presence who listens.
Brian: One of the most important friendships in my life is with a fellow pastor—we meet for a coffee every Wednesday morning. The sole focus of this time together is to care for one another’s soul. We rarely talk about ministry problems. We don’t hash out solutions to church challenges. We don’t discuss our sermon series we are preaching.
We talk about each other. We check in on our emotional state, mental capacity, and spiritual engagement. Nothing is off limits. We can bring whatever we need to bring to each other and there is no judgment. We come together to assess the activity of our own souls before God. We best accomplish this through a single commitment to one another—presence. We are committed to come together and simply sit with one another. Sometimes one of us shares more than the other.
But our commitment is to sit and listen and be present to the need of the other.
Sometimes our most meaningful friendships are not those relationships where we come together to dialogue, but those relationships that invite sitting together in silence and simply enjoying the presence of the other. That’s what this friend is to me. And it is special. With the number of voices in a pastor’s life, I assume all pastors would be better equipped to persevere in ministry if they had friendships that had less words and more warm presence as its foundation.
4. Seek Friendships Inside and Outside the Church and Lead Your Wife to Do the Same.
While the value of friends in the same ministry trench cannot be overstated, the addition of friends outside our particular ministry field is also important. Time and distance make these relationships more difficult to develop and maintain, but they sustain a pastor and his wife in unique and critical ways.
Brian: Some of my most meaningful pastoral friendships to this day were found outside my church context, but one of the most crucial friendships came outside my church with someone who wasn’t even a pastor. As I continued to pastor a local church and lead a growing ministry to other pastors,2 I found myself always surrounded with those who wanted me to be their pastor. I had church members looking to me as their pastor. And I had other pastors looking to me as a kind of pastor to them. I reached a point of exhaustion when I realized I needed a meaningful relationship with someone who didn’t want me to pastor them.
My wife had felt the same need and had developed a meaningful friendship with another woman in our city, not a pastor’s wife, who went to church across town. Her husband was a Chick-fil-A owner/operator and was a faithful church member. Having been at some group gatherings with him as a result of our wives’ friendship, I reached out to see if he might want to spend some time together.
Over time, we developed a very meaningful friendship. He didn’t want to talk about ministry. He didn’t want to talk much about church stuff or theology. He wanted to eat hot wings, watch some football, talk a little politics, and share about our families. We talked about hobbies, other interests, and our own walks with the Lord as men. God used this friendship to show me two things about myself. First, how refreshing this friendship was to all my other relationships. Second, how much I needed a friendship like this to provide an environment of rest from all the other ministry and relationships tied to it that had consumed my life. His friendship is still one of the most important in my life.
5. Calibrate Expectations.
Unstated and unrealistic ones can destroy a relationship, but we needn’t eliminate expectations altogether. Instead, determine the relational sphere in which a friend operates and calibrate them accordingly.
James: Like everyone else, I have many different types of friends. Some operate mostly in one sphere of life while others share in the wider experience of overlap with family, church, and recreation. With some, the intimacy and vulnerability run deep but with others, things remain much closer to the surface. These distinctions don’t determine the quality of the friend, but they must affect the way we evaluate it. Nearly all will know the emotional struggle that accompanies the sting of disappointment when a friend is absent or unresponsive in time of need.
We mustn’t seek to escape the pain of unmet expectations by avoiding them in isolation; rather, we must learn to set them appropriately. Some people adjust them intuitively as they move in and out of relationships, but for those who struggle with feeling let-down more regularly, this area is likely a key to healthier friendships. In these circumstances, we give too little thought to relational terms but apply them unilaterally to every friend. However, learning to establish them for each person by giving careful consideration to the level of overlap and the person’s margin based on stage of life and other commitments, and the amount of investment we are making in the relationship will provide a path toward longer-term friendships.
6. Seek Deep Connection to Foster Trust in One Another.
Unintentional, relational misfires sabotages friendships. Most often, insensitivity contributes to these problems because one or both people fail to appreciate the other person’s point of view. Well before the potential for conflict arises, connect with one another to grow in understanding and compassion with each other to subvert problems before and after they occur. That deep connection cultivates a trust that enables us to say hard things to someone else.
Michael: When I was in my twenties, my closest friend, apart from my wife, was a young man named Peter. We had a midweek Bible study that met on Tuesday evenings and over a number of years we saw great fruitfulness from it. Both of us had strong links at the time to the charismatic movement. One week, Peter told me that the following Tuesday he would be teaching on the gift of speaking in tongues and that it was the doorway to the reception of all of the other gifts. Although I did not believe this, I agreed to Peter teaching this as I was afraid to disrupt our friendship.
But, after he had taught this, I felt led to tell him I disagreed with him. His response was quick and acerbic. He disagreed with me in no uncertain terms. I unwisely told him that he was acting like the leader of a cult. At that, he told me that he was done with the Bible study and I could lead it henceforth alone. He not only ceased to be involved in the Bible study but he also stopped attending church and categorically brought our friendship to an abrupt end. I have never been able to fully understand his reaction, but I was determined not to allow this failure of one friendship to sour me on others. I knew that friendship was essential for the good of my soul.
7. Be Gracious in Offense.
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). Good friends are quick to give the benefit of the doubt, overlook minor and accidental offenses, confront humbly and lovingly, and forgive quickly and fully. Not every spark should become a forest fire and the grace of prevention is often the key suppressant.
James: Unfortunately, long-term relationships nearly always involve personal offense. My friendships today are shaped by an incident I caused many years ago with a friend that included a number of poor responses. Bothered by my friend’s persistent tardiness, I made the mistake of using a passive-aggressive move to rectify the situation. To make matters worse, I didn’t pursue peace through reconciliation when my friend caught on to my strategy and addressed the situation. Instead, I tried to minimize the moment and quickly end the uncomfortable conversation so we could move on.
By God’s grace we put the minor conflict behind us to remain close friends. However, as I look back, I can see opportunity for more grace in the beginning by overlooking what bothered me, in the middle by addressing it in a kind and helpful way, and in the end by pursuing peace through confession. In a sinful world, we cannot avoid personal offense. Therefore, we must learn to give and receive forgiveness easily to continue in peace.
8. Pray for Each Other.
Prayerlessness is rampant in many, if not most, churches today. While this statement deserves a book-length defense and response, the results of this deficiency are seen in failed and fractured relationships all around us. One of the simplest and most fruitful contributions we can make to friendship is to pray regularly for our friends as God will use it to stir love and loyalty in our hearts for them.
Brian: When I consider those pastoral friendships that mean the most to me, it isn’t gauged by how much time I spend with them or how much they have sacrificed for me. It is more based on their intentional efforts to pray for me when I least expect it. I remember a season of being overwhelmed with ministry that created a deep sense of loneliness. I found myself asking, “Did anyone actually care about me, or only want something from me?” In a very low moment while driving down the road, I received an unexpected phone call from a friend. I answered and he said, “Hey, I don’t need anything from you, I was just thinking about you and wanted to know how you were doing, that I love you, and how I could pray for you?”
I began to weep while driving down the road and I had no idea why. I realized later I was deeply longing for someone to not need anything from me, but simply wanted to care for me. I learned something important about myself that day, but I also learned what I needed in pastoral friendship—being loved for who I am, not what I can do for you.
I have learned this is a deep longing for many pastors whose calling is to pour out so much for others. This longing in part can be filled with meaningful, reciprocal pastoral friendships. This experience also created a longing in my heart to want to be the same friend to others this friend had been to me that day. As a result, much of my ministry rhythm became sending random text messages to pastor friends and calling others on the phone when they least expected it to say, “I love you. I was thinking of you. And I wanted to know how I could pray for you.”
9. Know Your Capacity and Invest Wisely.
Seasons and spheres underwrite our ability to befriend, but none eliminate it. Each stage of life presents challenges to navigate and creates relational circles. Acknowledge and appreciate the nature of your present situation and give yourself to friendship with skill and deftness.
James: Three of the men I would consider my “best” friends are disconnected from my day-to-day life because of distance. At various times in the past, we shared a great deal of time working or serving together in a local church and investing significant relational time together. But as life took us in different directions, the opportunity for intimacy diminished. In addition, the growth of our families and the increase of work responsibilities and demands reduced our margin and prevented us from cultivating those relationships despite the distance. Finally, we developed closer relationships with men who were more intertwined with our present lives.
With limited resources to invest, we need wisdom to adjust our investment to focus on friendships that will most faithfully bless those nearest to us and bear fruit in our lives. While keeping a tie with old friends is important, we must evaluate and adjust the time and energy we devote to different friendships to protect the priorities at every stage of life.
10. Don’t Give Up.
For the sake of your soul, your family, and your congregation, persevere in friendship. If you look back, the past may well be a discouraging trail of disappointment with friendships you fractured, some that never formed, and others that ended in betrayal. God is working to shape and sanctify you, and he is able to provide friendships regardless of your age or past experience.
James: I have a few friendships that stretch back more than two decades, and I hope I was always a “good friend.” Yet, God worked in me during my thirties to help me significantly in this area by growing in me an awareness and understanding of the nature and blessing of friendship. In fact, as I grow older, I can see evidence of his grace in giving me deeper and richer relationships by helping me to more wisely invest in them. As I reflect on God’s blessings through friendship in the past ten years, I can list more than a dozen men of varied ages who I wouldn’t hesitate to call on as a friend on any given day. To be clear, this blessing is owing to the grace of God and his faithfulness to me. Let your confidence in God’s power and the testimony of our collective experience spur you on. Don’t despair, brother, regardless of what lies behind; press on.
Even if we had the finest ingredients in our respective home kitchens, no one is awarding us a Michelin star anytime soon. The reason is simple: it’s one thing to have the necessary components, but it’s another to put them to proper use. Our prayer is that God will use this book to encourage and equip you for the investment in friendship and through that work bring the blessing of it home in your life.
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 1. J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2013), p. 317.
 Practical Shepherding is my ministry to other pastors which I continue to lead as my primary ministry focus. For more information, go to www.practicalshepherding.com.
Excerpt from Pastoral Friendship: The Forgotten Piece in a Persevering Ministry by Michael A. G. Haykin, Brian Croft, and James B. Carroll (© 2023). Published by Christian Focus. Used by permission.