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Clergy Health Series: Holy Friendships


A dark secret among clergy is loneliness. Of 13 factors that influence clergy health, Wespath named the problem of few friends or people to share personal issues. Seven out of 10 pastors say they have no close friends, according to an Alban Institute study from around 2002. A 2017 Church of England study of more than 1,000 senior clergy highlighted loneliness and isolation as their greatest social concerns – with 76% saying this was a major or significant problem.
Friendships are essential to a healthy and well-lived life. Humans are created for connection and are necessary to thriving. Clergy are no exception. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
What constitutes a friendship that is holy? According to L. Gregory Jones, Dean, Duke Divinity School, “Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.”[1]
“Soul friendship can develop informally among people whose spiritual experience and journey resonate; or they recognize the Spirit working in each other in ways that nurture their walk with Christ,” said Rev. Jim Simpson, Heartland District Superintendent. “I have a few friends with whom I have been able to share the fullness of my life including my spiritual journey.”
The concept of the “soul friend” comes from an anglicization of the Irish word anam ċara. In the Celtic tradition “soul friends” are considered an essential part of spiritual development. Brigid of Kildare once counseled a young cleric that “anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head.”
“While we often times find ourselves talking about ministry, we also use our time to experience life and a hobby we both really enjoy together,” shared Rev. Jeff Baker, Director of NextGen Ministries. “During our adventures, I have found myself be pushed in places that I would likely not go on my own. A few years ago, I sat at the edge of a 3,000-foot drop. With a fear of heights, it was a huge challenge. Overcoming that fear happened through trust.”
Shared adventures are a bonding agent for friends. Clergy-to-clergy friendships are unique because of the deep understanding of shared ministry. Clergy need friends in whom they can vent about the challenges and frustrations of ministry with those who know and understand the burdens of ministry. Friendships among clergy can be a much-needed source of encouragement and, when necessary, rebuke.
Rev. Mike Wondel, lead pastor at First (Sikeston), shares that 18 years ago, he sat down with his friend, Rev. Matt Miofsky, lead pastor of The Gathering, after a ministry event. During the event, they had noticed that some of the pastors a generation older seemed dangerously close to cynicism and burnout.
“As young pastors, we were disheartened,” Wondel recalled. “We vowed to one another that if we ever heard [warning signs] from one another, we would challenge each other and help each other remember why we do what we do and even ask the question if it is time to leave [vocational ministry].”
L. Gregory Jones, Dean of Duke Divinity School describes holy friends as those who “challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.” They play a vital role in the people we become.
“I met a holy friend in college 20 years my senior. Our life experiences were so different at the time, but we developed a friendship and, yet, our biblical interpretations in other areas are not the same,” said Rev. Karen Hayden, lead pastor of King’s Way (Springfield). “I knew I had to process my unease after GC2019 with him. I knew we had some alternating views on the issue of human sexuality and clergy rights. He wasn’t an “Other,” but one who knew me and our shared relationship in Christ. I remember our conversation following like a release valve on a pressure cooker.”
Challenging perspectives, growing us beyond our comfort zones are signs of a healthy and holy friendship. Soul friends help one another become the pastor and the person we were meant to be. They bring out the best in one another.
Jeff Baker and Tim Schulte enjoy an off-road adventure
in Colorado.
“Jeff [Baker] has also become one of my greatest encouragers,” said Rev. Tim Schulte, lead pastor of The River (Eureka). “He can see things in me that I have not yet seen. He challenges me in my faith, in my family life, and in my ministry – to pursue the dreams that God is calling me to pursue.”
Many of us can identify people who have been, and continue to be, holy friends in our lives. Are we continuing to put the time into these relationships so our friends might consider the same of us? And, it begs the deeper question about the broader communities in which we live: Are we developing our churches and communities in ways in which more people can discover the importance of holy friendships in their own lives, and offer such friendship to others?