C.H. Spurgeon once noted, “Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust?” If you’ve pastored for any amount of time, you know pastoral ministry necessarily involves adversity in many forms. Pastors face spiritual adversity as Satan opposes the growth of the kingdom of God. We face hardship due to the inertia of sin in sickness, pain, and death. We face adversity as others sin, and it impacts us. We face trouble because we struggle with sin. It’s not hard to see the truth in Spurgeon’s comment – if you pastor, some days you will sink to the dust.
God has blessed us with many resources to endure adversity in ministry. One unique and under-appreciated source of encouragement is pastoral friendships. By God’s grace, friendships with other pastors promote ministry longevity. Such friendships are not easy to cultivate, but worth the investment. If you pastor, let me encourage you to develop ministry friendships. In this article, I’ll demonstrate six ways they foster longevity in ministry and offer a few practical first steps to build relationships between pastors.
Before getting into the details, we must address the sometimes-daunting issue of perceived competition. Ministry friendships are impossible to develop if we view other churches and pastors as competition. The growth of God’s kingdom trumps a self-centered focus on one pastor’s church. The entire premise of pastoral relationships between churches depends on this principle. John the Baptizer models this for us in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The Apostle Paul also models this in his terminology for other ministers. He refers to Ephaphroditus as “my brother, coworker, and fellow soldier” (Philippians 2:25) and to Titus as “my partner and coworker for you” (2 Corinthians 8:23). Likewise, he calls Timothy “our brother and God’s coworker” (1 Thessalonians 3:4). Surprisingly, when we embrace other faithful ministers as co-laborers, our churches do not suffer. On the contrary, they benefit from greater confidence in God’s work in our corner of the world. It is a risk, but one based on faith in God’s provision for his church. So how do ministry friendships promote longevity?
1. Pastoral friendships promote longevity by encouraging pastors
Encouragement is the umbrella concept that captures the other ways these friendships help us stay engaged in the work of the ministry. Spurgeon was right to note that pastors will need encouragement. In the same address on pastoral discouragement mentioned earlier, he notes, “The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience.” All the more reason pastors intentionally need to put themselves in places to be encouraged. Developing relationships with other pastors creates opportunities for encouragement. That may come in one-on-one counsel, group discussions, or general ministry affirmation. Either way, none of us are bulletproof.
2. Ministry friendships spur us on by providing a friend who uniquely understands ministry challenges
Pastoring is a unique vocation that brings with it unique challenges. A pastoral friend possesses a shared understanding of the common burden of ministry. As we face adversity in ministry and share our burden with other pastors, they often nod in agreement because they have faced similar circumstances. This is a pastoral application of 2 Corinthians 1:4, “He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” As we receive comfort from Christ in our affliction in ministry, we pass on the same comfort to other pastors.
3. Ministry friendships are a unique source of wisdom and refuge for pastors
I cannot count the times I have received helpful counsel from other pastors. Sometimes ministers burn out because they face challenges and need more resources to help them stay the course during ministry storms. While formal counseling may be of help, it’s often the little burdens piled high that weigh us down. The friendly ear of a trusted confidant who can offer feedback and direction alleviates the pastoral burden.
4. Naturally, friendships like these result in prayer for one another
Prayer support is another way pastoral friendships foster longevity in ministry. When pastors are praying for other pastors, not only are we taking their needs to our Heavenly Father, but we’re also bolstering their faith. By necessity, most pastoral friendships are long-distance, but prayer knows no boundaries. It is no mistake that we see God provide when we ask others to pray for our specific needs.
5. Ministry friendships also promote longevity by providing a measure of practical and doctrinal accountability
Denominations provide doctrinal accountability for many pastors, but not all do. In addition, many pastors serve at non-denominational churches. Fostering strong pastoral relationships produces a layer of accountability that functions practically and doctrinally. For example, pastors can talk about a book or viral online sermon trending in churches. Or they can confess sin and ask for accountability from each other. They could pool minds to discuss biblical/theological issues. In the pastors’ group I meet with, we recently read and discussed The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman (or the shorter version, Strange New World). We discussed how the issues addressed in the book show up in our congregations. Most helpful, we shared ways to deal with cultural issues from a shepherding perspective. This kind of accountability is not a cold commitment to a doctrinal statement but one built on the bond of unity we have in Christ.
Speaking of doctrinal unity, let me encourage you to develop pastoral friendships outside your immediate theological tribe. Ministry relationships work well when based on fundamental agreement on the gospel and the broader goals of pastoral ministry. We glean much from those whose ecclesiology or theology may differ slightly from ours. If we restrict these friendships to only those pastors who agree with us, we will create an echo chamber and likely have trouble building lasting relationships.
6. Finally, pastoral friendships provide access to greater resources for ministry
This is especially helpful for smaller churches and church plants. By getting to know other pastors, especially those in our general area of ministry, we will become aware of their ministry needs. Pastors can lead churches to share resources. We’ve seen this in our local group of pastoral friends in several ways. We’ve had churches donate equipment when others needed it. One church plant in our area received property through a ministry friendship. Several of our churches have sent out missionaries that other local churches have chosen to support. This practical cooperation in the gospel removes obstacles in ministry, and it is one way God blesses his kingdom with growth.
Hopefully, by this time, you’re convinced that ministry friendships foster longevity in ministry. But how can we develop such relationships? Where do we start? Without prioritization, these friendships cannot flourish. We are all swamped, but we must regularly prioritize meetings with other pastors. Consider making use of denomination meetings or larger conferences as a launching point. If you’re not in a denomination or that’s not possible, make a list of local pastors and send an email. The group that has blessed me tremendously for years started with one email. From those group meetings, invest in a few key friendships one-on-one. Ministry friendships are blessings hidden in plain sight. Let’s invest in each other for God’s glory and the greater good of his church.