Dear Pastor: Spiritual Friendship
Ministry can be a lonely place, and in that loneliness, you can only find things that dry you out spiritually and lead you to burnout.
I once worked for a rural church. My previous churches had all been in cities of different sizes. This church sold itself to me as being a suburb of a nearby city. In actuality, the nearby city was a solid 45-minute drive away.
After we moved, I began to feel isolated. The church was in a village. Actually, it was outside the village limits, literally in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town was a 25-minute drive away. It felt like I had to take half a day if I wanted to drive to a coffee shop in that town to do some reading and work. I drove south through farmland, through the one traffic light in the village, then south for another 18 minutes through more farmland until I came to the town. I only did this about once a week; it just didn’t seem worth the drive to me.
My experience was a far cry from the cities I had lived in, where it was nothing to leave for a few minutes drive to a coffee shop or a restaurant to meet with someone or just to work. In one city, I could drive 8 minutes to the hospital in the morning to visit with a church member, find them asleep or in a test, but then visit the hospital again later in the afternoon to catch up with them. In the village church, the nearest hospital was 35 minutes away, and the two main ones were 45 and 50 minutes away. It was a half-day commitment to leave the church office and visit a church member in the hospital.
The isolation got to me and the repetitive work of being alone in the church office, cranking out lessons week after week after week, and rarely seeing anyone led me to burning out. I eventually found myself in a huge rut, going through the motions, and not even wanting to be around people. (I’ll tell more about this story in a future letter, because it’s important for you to be able to notice things about yourself, and to know whether you are falling into burnout.)
As part of my recovery from burnout, I asked a minister who pastored a church in the city that was 45 minutes away if we could meet every two weeks for coffee and to visit. I asked him to hold me accountable to some things that would help me track whether I was finding joy in ministry again or falling back towards the rut of burnout.
The benefit of this relationship became clear and obvious to me over time as this minister and I became very close friends. Our meetings became times of refreshment where we would catch each other up on our lives, commiserate about church issues, and pray together. We grew into a true spiritual friendship.
I’m writing to you about spiritual friendship because it’s vital for you to have at least one true spiritual friend. A spiritual friend is different from a ministerial association, or the ministers you golf with, or even the ones you have lunch with once a month. A spiritual friend is one to whom you can confess your sins and be yourself around. It is a challenge to let your guard down even in other scenarios where you are around other ministers. It’s why having a spiritual friend in ministry is so important--because the spiritual friend will help keep you grounded as both of you act naturally around each other, be yourselves, and share life together.
Loneliness in ministry is not only found in physical isolation, like I wrote about above. Loneliness in ministry comes in many forms: from feeling like you have to play a part in the machine, to not being able to express your true feelings in meetings, to keeping frustration bottled up because you have no one to open up to. When these feelings are left unattended, you begin shifting towards the dangerous space of burnout.
I encourage you to look for a spiritual friend. You may have to summon some courage and become vulnerable to ask someone for this kind of relationship. But, when you find it, this friendship will nurture your soul and enable you to grow in grace. I daresay that you must find a spiritual friend in order for you to maintain spiritual health in ministry.
Let me know how I can serve you in this, or in any other matter.
P.S. If you need to talk, or would like a listening ear to help you with a problem or question you have in ministry, please reach out. I specialize in helping pastors resolve problems and avoid burnout.