Ministry Reflection

Lasting Friendships in Ministry

It feels weird to have been at this work long enough to actually have some perspective. But the calendar doesn’t lie! This year marks 43 years in ministry, and in December I will step down from a 28-year ministry with Hopwood Christian Church in Elizabethton, TN. On to more adventures!

One of the resources that has consistently proved to be life-giving is the blessing of vital friendships. Someone told me early on in ministry that pastors need Pauls, Timothys, and Barnabases. We need Pauls: mentors who love us and guide us when we slow down enough to ask. We need Barnabases: “sons of encouragement,” friends who walk with us, share the weight of ministry with us, listen to us, pray with us, empathize with us, have fun with us, and cheer us on. We also need Timothys: folks we mentor, guide, pray for, and encourage.

When I started out in church ministry, preachers were frequently advised not to get too invested in friendships, particularly friendships from within one’s own congregation. I knew that was bad advice, which I roundly ignored.  Pastoring a church can be a lonely calling. I had both the capacity and the need for friendships of varying depth and scope.

David was an acquaintance in college. Many years ago, in Africa, we became teammates and friends, and have stayed close ever since, even though we work in different settings. We walk, pray, talk, hike, laugh, and sometimes shed a tear together. We counsel and commiserate with one another and always have each other’s back.

Eric and Mel are close friends for my spouse Marcia and me. More often than not you will find us together on a Friday evening, talking over our week, preparing a meal together, doing life. They are lay leaders in our congregation and we have become family.

If I have experienced the goodness of friendship somewhere in the past, that means that I probably have the capacity to be a friend in a new setting. Potential friendships are all around us.

Invest in friendships wherever you find them. I know people who never seem to find the right conditions for nurturing friendships. Hey, who is going to push your wheelchair when you get old? I know folks who keep their guard up because they have been hurt by a friend, or perhaps they have moved away from a friend group. I always figured that there are potential friends wherever I happen to be. If I have experienced the goodness of friendship somewhere in the past, that means that I probably have the capacity to be a friend in a new setting. Potential friendships are all around us. My spouse, Marcia, is my “ride or die” friend. I have friends outside and inside the church. Friendships that cross lines of denomination, ethnic and political boundaries, age, and gender ground and nurture our lives. In my older age even my own kids have become my friends.

We find friendships in surprising places and at surprising times. Robert was a guy on the bottom of the social ladder who used to stop by the church on a regular basis to seek help. I went through all the phases of “when helping hurts” with Robert—pity, anger, frustration, impatience, confusion, hopelessness. One day Robert asked me to come see him in the hospital. While we visited, a nurse came in and asked who I was. I told her my name and she asked how I was related to the patient. “I’m his…he’s my…” then I said simply, “He’s my friend.” Robert never let me forget that simple statement. “Remember that time you told that lady you was my friend?” he would say with a smile.

Friendships require the investment of time and connection. Some of my best friendships started out as mentoring ministry relationships and grew into something bigger and better. Ten or fifteen years ago, I mentored a seminary ministry student, and kept in touch with him when he helped plant a church in a faraway city. This summer, all these years later, we each drove several hours to meet in the middle and spend the afternoon together. He is in a different ministry context and I soon will be, so we took turns catching up, talking about our lives, and praying for one another. Remember when Jesus said: “I don’t call you my disciples anymore; I call you friends?” I get that now.

For me there is no deeper connection point than a common love for Christ and the Kingdom.

What do you look for in a friend? I always look for connection, that spark that jumps the gap between strangers and charges us with a desire to go deeper. But some people just aren’t that “into” being friends. Maybe they are full-up in the friend department; maybe it’s not a good time for them. Go easy on others; maybe God has somebody else who will be exactly the friend they need. Maybe God has a friendship in mind for you that you could never have planned or expected. For me there is no deeper connection point than a common love for Christ and the Kingdom. I have friends with whom I talk baseball or politics, but there is something about friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ that touch a deep place in my soul.

What do you look for in a friend? I value confidentiality. It is important that my friends are discreet with what I share, and that goes both ways. You don’t have to tell everything you know. Someone once said that a friend is someone with whom you may think aloud. I’m pretty careful with whom I think aloud.

What do I look for in a friend? Consistency. I have enough inconsistency in life and ministry that I don’t need to have to figure out where I stand every time I connect with a friend.  I love being able to trust that a friendship will endure the miles and years and road wear to the point that when we do connect, we can pick right up where we left off.

So, here’s to friendship, and to some of my oldest and best friends:

David: We have been in the trenches together, traveled a million miles together, ministered together, raised kids together, talked ministry and motorcycles and health and hopes together.  Here’s to more kingdom work ahead!

Jim: Brother and fellow pastor, I have watched your life to know where to step.

Local friends, church friends, seminary friends, friends around the world: You enrich my life and add pizazz to the community of Christ. I want to be as good a friend as you have been to me.

To my family: Marcia, my spouse our children, Andy, John, Tyler, Jill. You are the best part of my life.

Tim Ross is an Adjunct Professor in Missions at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan. View Emmanuel’s Academic Programs page here.