I’m not clergy, but I have a lot of friends who identify as ministers. A LOT. I also teach at a seminary, work with ministers as clients, and am married to a minister. As such, I spend a lot of time talking to people intimately about some of the challenges associated with this particular social role. A few weeks ago, I posted an article about the importance for ministers (particularly those in pastoral roles) to have close, intimate friendships.
When I posted this article, I immediately got a response that these authentic relationships are difficult for clergy to build. But why? Here are my hypotheses: Insecurity. Competition. Suspiciousness. Sounds bad, right? Well, it is. It’s bad when clergy, who have so much placed upon them on a daily basis, do not feel that they have people who they can call in times of need. It’s bad when clergy take time off, but don’t have anyone to spend time with so they sit in isolation. It’s bad when clergy have no one to whom they can admit their struggles, their failures, and their temptations. It’s bad for individual clergy, it’s bad for their churches, and it’s bad for the Kingdom.
If you’re interested, here’s the article. It’s a blog post that speaks about the necessity for
“relationships that are FOR us and WITH us, not just BEHIND us or UNDER us.”
So what does this even mean? What does it mean to have true friendships in the world of ministry? Well, first, it means that you need people who are not in the role of parishioner that you can have relationship with. While parishioner (leader and lay) relationships are important, there is an inherent power dynamic. You are the titled authority and they are the de facto follower. This means that while these folks may have your best interest at heart, there are some things that you simply can’t share openly and fully, because it is important that you maintain a role. Now, I am ALL for authentic pastor-parishioner relationship, but there are some caveats there— that’s a blog post for a later date.
So, let’s talk about it. One of the challenges (and sometimes excitements) of being clergy is that you are placed on a pedestal in many spaces. While I’m sure this can feel good at times (who doesn’t like to be celebrated!), there is an unspoken cost. If you are placed on a pedestal, there’s a longer distance when you fall. So, there can be a lot of unspoken, and perhaps unacknowledged, fear about letting people see that you are not the perfect person they might perceive you to be. In an effort to protect against this possibility, walls go up. Walls keep danger out. But they also keep goodness out. They are isolating and separating.
Another issue is that sometimes there can be an inherent competition between clergy. Is my church growing as fast as your is? What’s the word in the community about your congregation? How often are you getting offered outside engagements? The list goes on. Sometimes this competition is overt and spoken. Other times, it’s more subtle. In my opinion, the more covert competition is more dangerous, because it can guide your behavior without even realizing what’s happening.
I do a lot of assessment with ministers, and one of the things that often comes up is a suspicious about others’ motives toward you. This isn’t paranoia. It’s a reality that whenever you are in the spotlight, there’s a danger that there are people in the background rooting for you to slip up, and who would relish this happening. This sad reality leads to the suspiciousness that can often occur for folks in ministry. Behind some interactions might be this sneaking question:
If I tell you this information, what will you do with it? Will you use it against me later? Will my honesty with you come back to bite me?
So in the midst of all this danger, how on earth can you find and foster authentic relationship? My first suggestion is to BE an authentic friend. It’s a process, but when you show yourself to be trustworthy and honest, it is refreshing to people who have not encountered it before, and this gift will eventually be reciprocated.
Second, use denominational and community resources that are at your disposal, but be open to finding connections in some surprising places. It’s good to have some friends in ministry but maybe they are a member of a different ethnic background or denomination. Perhaps the tendency toward competition will be less if they are people who you wouldn’t find in your immediate collegial circle. Other times, you might find that there is someone who you know about or know of, but you find you have something in common with them and might be able to foster a genuine connection.
Third, know that your best friends and allies might be people who don’t identify as clergy at all. There might be a tendency to remain encapsulated in a circle of people who are just like you. But people who are just like you might also have the same blind spots that you do. Open yourself up to the possibility that you might find friendship wrapped up in an unexpected package.
Why is this even important? The bottom line is that people need relationship. We need to know that there are people in our corner, supporting and rooting for us as we work toward our goals. We also need people who are willing to hold us accountable when we make mistakes or stray from our course. We need people with whom we can truly rest and play. We need an outlet for the stresses and challenges of daily life, and the specific tests of ministry. We need people to commiserate and complain with (not too much!). We need people who will sit with us when we mourn, and celebrate with us during times of rejoicing. There is a wealth of research that indicates that social support actually mediates the negative effects of stress, both cognitive and physical. Your life is on the line! Do yourself and your congregation a favor and work to build good, healthy relationships.
Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!