Lonely at the top

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It’s lonely at the top.

Do you agree with that statement? Has it been true for you in your ministry experience?

Some leaders renounce that statement, saying that we are only as lonely as we  choose to be, and that being a senior level leader does not mean we have to live in misunderstood isolation. They assert that it is entirely possible to find and maintain quality friendships regardless of our position or season of life.

I agree with both perspectives. We absolutely can experience the blessing of deep friendships; however, there are some challenges that are unique to leaders, and that complicate things.

According to surveys conducted by Focus on the Family, approximately 80% of pastors confess that they have few or no close friends. And that’s really a stunning statistic when we consider that the majority of a pastor’s life centers on relating with people. Most pastors spend large amounts of time with wide varieties of people, and yet their common grief is an inability to develop deep, lasting, Jonathan-David type friendships.

I think there are several factors that contribute to this.

1. There are too many people and not enough time. A common stress for clergy members is their inability to adequately connect with all of the people in their congregations. They genuinely love their people, and want to know them in meaningful ways, but they’re spread so thin that they end up maintaining lots of superficial connections while feeling guilty that they can’t go as deep as they would like.

2. Relationships in the church are fragile. Even though the church should be a relational fortress (and for many people it is), it’s not a level playing field for ministry leaders and their congregants. When a pastor develops a friendship with a member of the church, the church plays a significant role in that friendship. If their friend’s experience with the church is great, it strengthens the friendship, but if there is  a hurt or a fall-out in some department in the church the relationship can be jeopardized.

3. It’s hard to know when our position gets in the way. Some people love to connect with leaders, but others get nervous or intimidated by them, and it’s difficult to discern when that’s happening. This is especially true in friendships with our staff members. As much as we may adore our team members and desire to build meaningful friendships with them, there is still an employer-employee dynamic that accompanies the relationship, and even if it doesn’t affect us, it’s hard to know how much it affects them.

Despite these and other challenges (like the weight and confidential nature of a pastor’s job), friendships are not only worth the risk, they are essential for our long-term health and success. Here are a few suggestions to help us find them.

1. Ask God for them. Jesus prayed all night before selecting His twelve disciples, and we need to remember that He wasn’t just selecting followers–He was choosing friends. And if Jesus spent a night in prayer before investing in key relationships, certainly we should seek God’s counsel and direction for ours as well.

2. Take the risk. C.S. Lewis aptly stated that the only place free from the risks of love was hell. Quality friendships are worth the risk of disappointment or potential heartache. They’re also worth the time and energy it takes to cultivate them. We may feel guarded from past hurts, and we might not have any surplus time right now, but years from now, will either thank ourselves for making time, or we will lament our relational bankruptcy.

If you are an introvert, many of your relational needs will likely be met through the course of your ministry; however, it’s still important to intentionally cultivate true, covenant friendships whether they are in or outside of your ministry.

3. Be warm from the platform, and walk slowly through the crowd. Even though we can’t become best friends with everyone in our ministry, we CAN love them, pray for them, and genuinely care for them. And if we are intentional about doing these things, authentic care will radiate from both our platform ministry and our brief interactions with people–and it won’t be forced or fabricated. It will be genuine. And people will appreciate it.

The Christian life was never intended to be lived in isolation.

God has a “Jonathan” for you. Let’s be praying for each other that we could all identify and latch on to him.

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