Friendships inside and outside the church: 4 ‘rugged commitments’

Over a lifetime of pastoral ministry, I’ve met thousands of people, both inside and out of the three churches we served for 35-plus years. Early on, I made it an unspoken goal to remember as many first names as possible. Nothing earned me more props than being able to surprise people by addressing them on a personal level.

It still amazes me how much that means. But it shouldn’t. Although we live in the age of Facebook and Instagram, the longing has never been stronger for something better and deeper than the pseudo-community our culture offers.

Unfortunately, being able to remember people’s names wasn’t enough to counter the painful reality that being a pastor is a profession too often marked by isolation and loneliness. Finding and forming intimate friendships can be a frightening and elusive challenge.

It’s not that we don’t long for a “band of brothers;” we do. We know you can’t do life alone. You and I are created in God’s image, which means we were created for friendship.

Likewise, friendship is a vital part of New Testament ministry and leadership.

At the same time, we may have been counseled to keep a certain relational distance from people inside the church, especially those we work with on staff. So, how do we resolve this “friendship dilemma” and avoid shooting ourselves in the heart?

A good place to start is realizing true friendships aren’t something you can make happen. In fact, true friendships are relatively rare, compared to other relationships. That’s largely because they are first discovered and then forged. You discover a common interest, a shared passion, a mutual affinity. You resonate with each other at a deep level, stronger even than family ties. You “stick” together.

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Prov. 18:24)

While you can’t make a true friendship happen, they don’t just happen. Forging true, life-long, life-giving friendships is hard work. Taking a cue from Proverbs, I’ve found at least 4 “rugged commitments” that mark the kind of friend we need and can be to others, both inside and outside of our ministry context. I use “rugged” because what we long for doesn’t come easy.

1. Available without exception. True friends are there regardless of the moment, demand, or situation. They are there when the chips are down. They’ve got your back. They bring relief. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” (Prov. 17:17)

2. Aware and respectful. True friends are emotionally sensitive and connected at the soul level. They listen closely, see beneath the surface, pay attention. “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” (Prov. 25:20)

3. Keep healthy boundaries. True friends aren’t possessive, demanding, or smothering. They avoid the trap of expecting others to “meet my needs.” “Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house — too much of you, and they will hate you.” (Prov. 25:17)

4. Provide trusted counsel. True friends care enough to point out not just your strengths, but your weaknesses as well. They confront you not to tear you down, but to prove their love for you. They encourage and challenge. “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.” (Prov. 27:9) “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” (Prov. 27:5-6)

One of the most profound things Jesus ever said was about friendship in John 15:9-17. In these verses, He gave us a glimpse into what a God-like friendship looks like. Closeness replaces distance. No price too great to pay.

As Tim Keller puts it, Jesus is “someone who always lets you in and never lets you down.”

Friendship doesn’t get any better than that.

Published April 9, 2018