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Relationally Based Ministry: Connecting From the Bottom Up

If relationships are so important to our spiritual health, ministerial longevity, and our families, why do some ministers live in relative isolation?

By Warren D. Bullock

At a sectional ministers luncheon, a young pastor said, “I don’t usually come to these events. As far as I am concerned, they are all about politics, and I’m not into the political scene.”

I said, “Well, if you attend solely for personal benefit or for self-advancement, then that’s politics. But if you come to these meetings to build relationships and minister to others, then that’s good Christianity.”

This pastor did not seem to understand the linkage between effective ministry and time-tested relationships with his peers. But few of us, if any, can succeed for the long haul without the strength and support of close friendships. While it is true that ministers meetings rarely foster deep relationships, they can serve to initiate them. Surface encounters can develop into lifelong friendships that enrich and enhance our lives and ministries.

Initiating and developing relationships was so important to Jesus that even before His first miracle and concurrent with His first preaching tour into Galilee, He began calling those whom we know as the Twelve. While multitudes heard His message and saw His miracles, He expounded the deeper truths of the Kingdom and revealed His heart to these trusted disciples. In His hour of travail in Gethsemane, He invited those with whom He had the closest relationship to be near Him. His intercessions recorded in John 17 include His understanding that these friends were “those you [God] have given me” (John 17:9).

If we view positive relationships as God’s gift to us, we will not only value them, we will nurture them.

Within the Twelve, three disciples had greater access to Jesus than He gave to the others. He not only invited Peter, James, and John to go farther into the Garden of Gethsemane with Him, but they were also privileged to see His transfiguration, experiences the other disciples did not have. And from the three, John is the only one the Bible calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). This does not mean Jesus did not love the others, but that He had an especially close relationship with John. This relationship was so close that when Jesus was dying, He entrusted John with the care of His mother, Mary.

If we conclude from this that Jesus was discriminatory in His selection process and relational connections, then we have missed the point. Jesus’ life and ministry teach us that relationships exist on different levels, from the most intimate to the superficial. All have value, but not the same value. The deeper the friendship, the greater the value.

Friends in the Ministry

It is not uncommon that our best friends are those in the ministry. We share the same interests, similar challenges, and mutual hardships. We laugh at inside jokes about church life. We do not need to do anything special to enjoy one another’s company. Just being together is enough. Keeping in touch by phone, text, e-mail, or Facebook is the norm. When we need someone to talk to, we turn to each other.

How barren would life be without such friends. They sustain us when we are discouraged, weep with us during grief, walk with us through the valley, and shout with us on the mountaintop. What would we do during these times if we had not cultivated close friendships?

Friends in the Church

From Bible school days I have heard that pastors should not have friendships with members of their congregation. In fact, I heard one pastor say that pastors need to maintain distance from their people to promote a pastoral mystique. I disagree. First, because you cannot pastor by long distance; and, second, because people are looking for authenticity, not mystique.

In most churches I have pastored, I have had close relationships with two or three men. They were like my Peter, James, and John. Our friendship had developed to the point where I could bare my soul to them, pour out frustrations, and air personal challenges. I never knew them to betray a confidence. Many of these men remain trusted friends to this day. In pastorates where these relationships did not develop, I often felt very much alone.

Pastoral longevity contributes to nurturing such relationships. Over time you establish trust; trust does not happen quickly. With trust comes the desire and willingness to open up about both joys and troubles. Trust is a two-way street and allows for mutual sharing of hearts.

We need to be cautious and wise in our church friendships. But even if a friendship sours, and people betray us as they did Jesus, it is worth the risk. The benefits of being linked closely to 11 friends are worth the pain of losing one.

Friends Outside the Ministry and Church

Friendship evangelism is a dominant theme in many of our churches, and deservedly so. Relationships with neighbors and others far from God can become an open door of opportunity to share Jesus. Recently I heard of a pastor who now has nearly his whole neighborhood attending his church. His interaction with them as neighbors has begun bearing spiritual fruit. In the process, he is modeling to his congregation a pattern of touching people’s lives, not as a pastor, but as a neighbor.

However, we do not base our friendship with those who have not committed their lives to Christ on their positive response to our witness. They are not targets at whom we aim the gospel. They are friends we will love no matter what their response to God may be. Even so, a shadow will always fall between us and them, because “what fellowship can light have with darkness? … What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14,15). When a shared spiritual relationship is absent, our friendship with them can only go so far.

Friends in Tough Times

If we do not have strong, reliable, trusted friends, who will help us through the tough times? Whom do we talk to about our hurts, frustrations, and fears? Every minister goes through struggles and pain. He should not have to go through them alone.

Some pastors have been so jolted by adverse situations, and so shocked by unexpected trouble, they have withdrawn from ministry. The fight-or-flight mentality has landed on the side of flight. Even when they decide to stay and fight, the battle leaves them so emotionally spent and spiritually drained they resign their position in order for them and their families to heal the deep wounds inflicted on them in the struggle. Depending on the circumstances, one or both responses may be the will of God for them.

But in either case, dear friends who can walk with them through the conflict are of inestimable value. Friends establish trust through years of relationship, so pastors can express deep feelings without fear of disclosure. Knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses provides a platform for encouragement and caution. Praying together is a healing balm, an act of faith, and a positive encouragement.

When I went through a season of burnout some years ago, the care and prayers of valued friends helped see me through.

Friends in Good Times

When our ministries are going well, when spiritual momentum is building in the church, when unity of mission and purpose is evident, we might think friends are less important. We are enjoying blessing and success. But success has its own perils.

When we are experiencing success, we need friends who will hold us accountable for prideful boasting, arrogance, and feelings of invincibility. As ministers, we all say we believe in accountability, until someone holds us accountable. Then we accuse one another, even our friends, of overstepping their roles.

I remember reading about former heavyweight champion, Riddick Bowe. Having just won the title, he was facing his first defense of the heavyweight belt. But his training for the fight was not going well. He was partying too much, spending too much money, and taking his daily training sessions lightly. His manager was concerned that, because of Bowe’s lackadaisical attitude, his next contender would dethrone him as champion. He said Bowe’s fundamental problem was that he had no one in his entourage who was willing to tell him, “No.” Bowe went on to lose the fight and the championship.

We all need someone in our entourage who is willing to tell us, “No.” We might not like it, but we need friends who challenge our attitudes, actions, decisions, and directions. Our friends do not hold us accountable because they do not love us, but because they do. They can keep us from doing things that could ultimately bring us down.

Ministerial Isolation

If relationships are so important to our spiritual health, ministerial longevity, and our families, why do some ministers live in relative isolation?

Geography. Some ministers are not isolated by choice, but by geography. Those who pastor in rural areas may not have proximity to their good friends. They can utilize the best of the social networks to keep in touch, but nothing is like sitting down face to face. They will need to work overtime at maintaining relationships that are enervating and encouraging.

Insecurity. Having struggled with timidity, I have sought to understand this form of insecurity. I have concluded, right or wrong, that the core of timidity is pride. I am too concerned about whether people will accept or reject me. Timidity is all about me. Rather than think in terms of how I can love and minister to others, I am thinking about their response to me. So insecurity may lead to isolation.

Independence. The “I don’t need anybody” attitude is, of course, untrue. But if a minister believes this, he will not have many close friends. He will pride himself on what he is able to accomplish without anyone’s help. The attitude seems to be that God is fortunate He has the minister on His side. But this same sense of independence often translates into rebellion against authority, thus alienating those who would be strong relational allies.

Fear. Fear makes us hold people at arm’s length. “If they really get to know me, they will not like me.” If people have hurt us in the past, we are afraid of close relationships because we could get hurt again.

Hidden faults/sins. We all have character deficiencies, but some have personal issues they keep hidden. It could be midnight viewing of pornography or spousal abuse. It could be finances in chaos or debilitating habits. Such secrets keep us from developing the kind of friendships that include disclosure and authenticity.

Time. Our calendars dominate our lives, and it takes time to build and maintain relationships. We are caught in the unintentional grip of tight schedules that eliminate forging intentional friendships. We wait for our friends to take initiative toward us, rather than our making friends part of our schedule.

These are not insurmountable obstacles. We can overcome them. In some cases God must intervene to change our attitudes, adjust our thinking, and give us new perspective. In other cases, we need to initiate action, pursue opportunities, and release our fears. Ministers who do not deal with isolation’s root causes and do not develop strong relationships face the prospect of future isolation and loneliness. But those who have nurtured friendships over the years will enjoy the warmth and security such relationships provide.

WARREN D. BULLOCK, D.Min., serves as prayer pastor at New Life Church in Renton, Washington, and is executive presbyter for the Northwest Region.

 

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