By Mike Hess

Solitary confinement is said to be one of the worst forms of punishment. Often referred to as “the hole” in prisons, solitary confinement deprives prisoners of communication and conversation, making it a form of torture. Being alone with no one to share life with is a horrific way to live. In fact, studies have shown that prolonged time in “the hole” has had detrimental mental and physical effects on prisoners.

Pastoral ministry can be a lonely place. But it doesn’t have to be. Years ago it was common for seminary professors to caution aspiring pastors about having close friendships. The thinking was that the closer a pastor is to others, the more vulnerable he is to being hurt and betrayed. This warning contributed to a mentality that deprived pastors and their wives of the blessing of close friendships—both inside the church and among ministry peers. Scripture is replete with warnings of how dangerous it is to live as a loner. Every text about Christian growth in the New Testament says Christlikeness is to be lived out within relationships. This context includes those who have been entrusted as undershepherds to lead the church.

Two specific lists in Romans 16:3–16 and Colossians 4:7–18 seem to indicate that Paul served in ministry within the framework of close relationships. Jesus also served closely alongside others whom He called “friends” (John 15:15). Ministry longevity is interwoven with close and meaningful friendships within ministry.

Let’s consider four key benefits of close pastoral friendships.

  1. Close ministry friendships keep you from potential harm. It’s difficult to have people speaking into your life if they don’t know you. Years ago God brought into my life several close pastor friends who consistently ask me hard, heart-probing questions, such as How has your time in the Word been? How fruitful is your prayer life? Who are you sharing Christ with? How is the overall health of your marriage? Granted, you wouldn’t want just anyone to ask you those kinds of questions. Seek out a small group of trusted and mature ministry peers who will consistently challenge you in a non-harsh and compassionate way. A common trait among fallen pastors who disqualified themselves from ministry is that they didn’t have close friends speaking into their lives.
  2. Close ministry friendships can be a constant source of encouragement. Wisely and carefully choose your friends. Choose close ministry peers who will pray for and with you. Seek out friends who are not scoffers or demeaning. Just as a surgeon skillfully uses a scalpel to cut in such a way that eventually brings healing, wise friends know how to speak in a way that doesn’t seek to do harm but seeks to point us to Christlikeness. The nature of ministry demands that we seek out mutual encouragement. As a pastor, you have a front row seat into the carnage of sin. This can naturally lead to discouragement and despair. Avoid the temptation of taking your pastoral frustrations out on your wife and family or “venting” on social media in passive-aggressive ways. Also keep in mind that the best encouragers are those who themselves are constantly encouraged.
  3. Close ministry friendships can sharpen you as a servant of Christ. God has used my pastor friends to point me to several helpful resources. These include insightful, practical books; challenging conferences; training in Biblical counseling; continuing seminary education; involvement in our association of churches; serving on boards at colleges, parachurch ministries, local/national associations, and camp boards; preaching resources; and observing how seasoned pastors love their wives and children and present themselves as humble servants of Christ. Open yourself to having your preaching and ministry evaluated by loving and mature friends in ministry. Seek out close friendships that will sharpen you in such a way that your “progress” will be made known to all (1 Tim. 4:15).
  4. Close ministry friendships can provide necessary transparency. Due to the nature of pastoral ministry, certain things cannot be shared with church members. Yet at the same time, these issues require the wisdom and insight of seasoned pastors. Close friendships among pastoral peers provides an outlet for honestly sharing some of the burdens, hurts, and even blessings that come with local church ministry. So much of pastoral health and longevity is contingent on pastors having a “safe place” to share their burdens with trusted and close friends. Honest transparency among pastoral friends can give us the necessary wisdom to navigate the dangerous waters of ministry trials. It has been my experience that the pastors who thrive the most are those who have strong interpersonal relationships with other pastors.

We’re facing a real crisis in our day. Many churches have no pastor and are without a large pool of qualified candidates to choose from. Most men who begin in pastoral ministry will not finish in pastoral ministry. It’s my firm belief that much of this can be avoided if we would emphasize more the need for close, transparent, and sharpening relationships among pastors.

If you’re a pastor reading this, don’t allow yourself to stay in “the hole” of solitary confinement within pastoral ministry. Please recognize the tremendous blessings and the imperative of having a close-knit network of trusted peers.

If you’re a church member reading this, please do everything you can to make sure your pastor or pastors have thriving friendships within ministry. Free them to attend conferences and retreats, and provide time to foster meaningful friendships.

To my close friends in ministry I want to say this: Thank you! Thank you for being an instrument used by God to be both a blessing and an encouragement to Christina and me over the years. May your tribe increase!

Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.