The Friendship Factor
by Lorna Dobson
I stared at the telephone on the kitchen wall. Whom could I call?
A staff minister had recently resigned in the wake of immorality, and as the news spread through the congregation the truth had been twisted. Some members had called me, the pastor's wife, with wrong information. I wanted to give them the real story, but I did not feel free to tell them what I knew.
My husband, Ed, was out of the country, and I felt ready to explode with the need to unburden myself. I spent a few frantic seconds trying to think of someone I could confide in. Martha, a longtime friend, was the only candidate but she was a church member. I knew I should discuss the resignation only with leaders who were involved, so I didn't phone her.
For the rest of Ed's two-week absence, I spent every possible hour digging and transplanting lilies all over our property (which was something of a miracle in Michigan during October). I shared my intense feelings and confusion only with God, and I was grateful for His companionship. He was the only one I could talk to.
Everybody needs trusted friends, but we who serve with a pastoral staff are called to exercise wisdom when nurturing friendships. How can we develop relationships that will last through moves, church fights and physical changes and not compromise our ministries?
Roadblocks to Relationships
As Ed and I have matured during our 24 years of marriage, I have found it more and more important to guard our own friendship with fierce loyalty. If I don't, not only will our relationship be affected, but our ministry can be damaged. For example, often I cannot talk with a close acquaintance about her crumbling marriage because I could compromise confidentiality and decrease Ed's effectiveness as a minister. Or if a person wants to talk with me after losing her job with the church, I may have to refuse since an innocent remark could become ammunition in a dispute.
Another common roadblock to friendship is being the new person in the church. We have served at Calvary Church since 1987, but members still say to me, "We're so glad you came here." That one sentence keeps our relationship to the church in perspective. This place now feels like home to our family, but to the people whose roots go back two, three or four generations, we have come to "their" church.
Consequently, it is important to maintain friendships outside the church, with people who know you from elsewhere, are not involved in the church business, and will love you no matter what. We can rejoice when a new minister's spouse bonds strongly with one or two members, but the hearts of many ministry wives and husbands have been broken by betrayed friendships.
That is why I think it is rarely appropriate to discuss sensitive situations in the church with a friend who is a member. I may think my friend is an objective observer, only to find out later that longtime bonds (of which I was unaware) are stronger than my new relationship.
Also, except in rare circumstances (such as having a trained counselor in the congregation), I do not think it is wise to discuss marital problems with members. (If problems in your home are serious, contact a caregiving ministry that offers professional assistance for ministers and their families. The Pastoral Ministries department at Focus on the Family can help you locate one by calling 877-233-4455.) Proverbs 12:26 instructs us that "a righteous man is cautious in friendship." I take those words to heart.
Seventy of My Closest Friends?
Long ago I realized I could not be close friends with all the members of the congregation, much less know everyone who attends. In Renewal on the Run (Harold Shaw Publishers, 1992), Jill Briscoe described Jesus' relationships as a series of concentric circles. In the center was one special friend; a little farther out were a few close friends and then the 12 disciples; then He had 70 close acquaintances. Beyond that were the multitudes. By following His example, Jill felt free to pursue friendships that met needs and helped her to be a better wife in ministry.
My circle of friends includes some who do not live where I do. My best friend in high school, also a ministry wife, is still a close friend. I can discuss church-related issues with her because she lives far away and doesn't know the people involved, and I trust her godly wisdom and insight. But I have also learned not to depend on just one person to meet all my friendship needs.
I want to develop new friendships, and I make sure to look beyond the women on staff and other ministry wives. I seek out women who participate in the activities I am part of, such as a Bible study and our church's journal for women. However, the closeness I feel with these women is not the same I share with a dear friend who will talk with me late into the night about my spiritual struggles. But if she is a member, even that friend would not hear about problems in the church.
A New Place of Support
Nine years ago I had a major problem, and a new friendship solved it. At our Tuesday morning Bible studies, I wanted to get acquainted with as many women as possible, and so I would sit at a different table each week. But when prayer time came, I didn't want to talk about my personal request with women I did not know - the risk of starting ripples of misinformation was too great. So I found myself talking only about issues that I didn't mind being passed beyond our circle. I grew frustrated with not being able to share my deepest concerns for prayer.
Then Mary, who was not a member of our church, came to my rescue. She was starting a group for mothers to come and pray for each other's children. Confidentiality would rule. She invited me to attend once with no obligation to return. I did return, again and again. We are now finishing our eighth year of monthly meetings. While I do not discuss church-related issues (unless they involve my children) in this group, I feel free to talk about the challenges we face in our family.
Years ago at a ministry retreat, I heard one minister's wife say, "I don't understand what all this friendship talk is about. I'm too busy to maintain old friendships!" My heart sank for her. Someday she will wish she had developed deep friendships. And I couldn't help wondering if such an arm's-length attitude keeps a person from true friendship with Christ. That's a risk I don't want to take.
My friends and I spur each other on in our Christian walk, such as encouraging each other to meet our neighbors and open doors for evangelism. We challenge one another with the Word of God, asking tough questions and helping recognize our various gifts. We also have fun together, with and without our husbands or children. And while we use the utmost caution and discernment when we discuss problems involving church people (usually to help me work on my relationship with them as a pastor's wife), we can talk openly and honestly about our joys, sorrows and dreams.
We may think it is unfortunate that ministers' spouses must use extra caution in forming friendships. That is one of the costs of ministry. But with the Lord's guidance (and His own companionship available), we can find true friends who will help bear our burdens and not ask too many questions.