By Joy Allmond
The older we get, the harder it seems to maintain and nourish friendships, let alone make new friends. Work and family demands take center stage—and friendships fall by the wayside, if not tended to.
But for those in ministry, there are additional, unique challenges to friendship.
Around 3 in 10 retired pastors (29%) say they often feel lonely or isolated, according to Lifeway Research. And almost half (48%) agree if they had more help connecting with new friends it would help improve their overall well-being.
We asked several current pastors about their greatest difficulties in making—and keeping friends. Here are the top seven recurring themes:
1. Not being seen as accessible or approachable
“Sometimes you are always seen as the pastor in the room. The people in my small group tend to be quiet; they don’t seem to open around me. I understand, and sometimes it’s probably just my perception.”
“Selecting some in the church as you inner circle friends mean to some you are being exclusive. Only selecting people outside the church as your inner circle friends means to some you are being unapproachable.”
2. Moving past competition/comparison (with leaders at other churches)
“Many pastors only want to talk to other pastors to see how they or their church measures up. I think this is changing some, but sometimes the old ‘How many are you running?’ conversation persists.”
3. Differences in church cultures (in friendships with leaders at other churches)
“I’ve been blessed with many excellent friendships with other pastors, including many across denominational lines. But there were other pastors who couldn’t help but mock or stereotype other traditions. One pastor from another tradition couldn’t help but mention to me—in front of a group of several other pastors—a snide remark about how Southern Baptists didn’t actually read books. Even if that’s done as a joke, it’s discouraging and disunifying.”
“Pastors need friends with whom they can be totally honest, even about church things. That is rare. The church is such an integral part of my friendships within it that it’s hard to avoid it as a topic. And as a leader in the church, I have a responsibility to promote unity. It wouldn’t be helpful to “vent” about my frustrations. But my friends outside the church don’t have context for those frustrations and so those conversations fall flat.”
4. Balance of time
“I want to make sure that I have a good relationship with other pastors in my city and even state. I think it is helpful to me, as well as a witness to our community regarding the unity of the Body of Christ. However, I don’t want to spend more time on that than I should and thereby neglect my calling to reach lost people and to shepherd my own flock.”
“Deep friendship requires honesty and transparency. It’s hard to know who you can be transparent with in the church, because they might use that information against you to undermine your leadership. People often have unhealthy ideas about the pastor’s sanctification—namely, that it should already be finished! And when they see sin and flaws in the pastor (not talking here about moral failures that would disqualify from ministry), they sometimes forget that he needs the gospel, too. That possibility can cause the pastor to draw back from true and deep friendships within his own church. This is a huge issue with pastor’s wives for the same exact reason.”
“A default topic of conversation for friends is what you do for a living. Talking about how work is going. Talking about frustrations and wins at work, etc. But if you are a church staff member and your friend group is primarily members of your congregation, or people in your church’s community, you have to be incredibly guarded in how you talk about work. Not that there are scandals to hide, but even routine work frustrations shared with someone are different when it is also their church you are talking about. So a major part of life, a major conversation point, is not really on the table. This can be isolating.”
“One of our challenges is finding friends who share our level of Christian commitment and can keep our personal confidences. Everyone needs friends with whom we can be completely transparent and who will keep appropriate confidences.”
“As a leader and pastor you are always giving, and sometimes you feel the need to always do this in a friendship. Sometimes you just want to let your guard down and be yourself.”
“It’s tough opening up to someone you think you can trust and pour into, only to have something tear the friendship apart, and your closest, or perhaps even only friend, leaving you high and dry or ‘ghosting’ you when you need friendship the most.”
6. Questioning motives or sincerity of friendship
“Sometimes pastors wonder if a church member is trying to get close to them simply in order to gain power and influence within the church, to get a job at the church, or to be seen as a favorite. This can be a bigger problem in larger churches where there are more resources in play and more of a celebrity culture surrounding the pastor.”
7. The pain of losing members who are close friends
“When a close friend who is a church member leaves the church, it often destroys that friendship. After that happens a few times, a pastor may withdraw from meaningful friendships to avoid experiencing that pain again.”
“When God calls us to move from one place to another, we have to go. So leaving a place also often means leaving friends who have been a big part of your life.”
JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.