Flourishments: Pastors and Friendship

Author: Philip Amerson

The 2013 Flourishing in Ministry Project document contains an evocative summary passage.  In it there are significant clues as to how transformation is best undertaken with pastors and within congregations. These insights have become foundational to my understanding as I listen to the stories, dreams and plans of pastors facing the daily challenges of parish life.  The passage confirms lessons learned from my years of pastoral experience and is even more resonant when I hear pastors and laity share honest confusion, discouragement or disappointment in ministry.  Regarding change, the report finds: 

Positive change does not come easily for individuals, nor does it come easily to organizations. At the Flourishing in Ministry Project, we have much to learn about what changes might be the most important, or which ones might lead to the quickest gains in pastoral well-being. We want to encourage pastors, local churches, and denominations to take the long view of change. Rather than large-scale, more drastic changes, we think the state-of-science about pastoral well-being suggests that careful, measured initiatives to improve well-being are the best approach right now. The wrong changes can have unexpected and detrimental outcomes.[1]

For those who seek to enhance the well-being of clergy – and the strengthening of congregations – this salient paragraph deserves to be underlined, highlighted.  These are instructive and cautionary words.  The encouragement to “take the long view of change” is so apt and so on target as to be commonsensical. The practices regarding change initiatives implied in this review should be given high priority for those who lead and those who seek to support pastoral leaders.  Here also is a cogent warning to those who implement new programs or interventions designed to “help” pastors and congregations. As one observes the ways certain well-meaning programs result in more discouragement and burnout for clergy, the wisdom coming from the FiM report is essential.

One element elicited from the research is shown to have many potential for long-term benefits.  It is friendship.  Friendship, constructive relationships with colleagues and the importance of the support of significant others are shown to be core to nurturing the well being of pastors.  Strong, positive relationships are key to wellbeing.  They are identified and confirmed in multiple ways through the Flourishing in Ministry Project research.[2]

Friends help. Often it is not a new strategy that is missing, but a friend or a group of friends that contribute to change.  Hardly a month passes that I am not in a conversation with other experienced pastors when we do not come to a similar conclusion.  The research supports our observations that considerable levels of anxiety and the sense of malaise experienced among pastors might be better addressed by the building of supportive relationships.  

There are clear and enduring benefits from stronger connection with friends and more supportive denominational and community partnerships. It is not some great plan coming from headquarters, but rather the gift of mutuality and caring relationships with others on the journey of faith and ministry that is of value.  The same is true in the work of improving congregational ecologies.  Constructive and authentic friendships are valuable. This research correlates with lessons garnered from other recent studies. In the book Connection, Christakis and Fowler argue that our social networks are formative for our tastes, health, happiness, beliefs and even our weight.[3] Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit points to the multiple ways friends, mentors and trusted associates assist persons toward more productive behaviors.[4

The FiM project report proposes a step away from short-term fixes and easy formulas.   It asks that a careful look be given to the essential question of the wellbeing of the pastor.  It calls for a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges being confronted and the availability of resources, psychological, social and financial needed for a person to thrive.  

Such findings, such wisdom, is frequently unknown, missed, or overlooked in the short-term, strategy-obsessed, world of too many of the consultants and leaders of North American Christianity.  Likewise, the unintended consequences of an overemphasis on strategy and ignoring of relationships is missed.  Too many pastor’s are urged to rush to implement changes designed so they will be seen as “the difference maker” – whether in worship or architecture, leadership style, small group initiatives or outreach programs – only to be disappointed when in a few months they discover they are leading a one person parade.  

Look at the passage from the FiM report again.  The researchers confess that there is still much to learn about constructive change and indicate that early findings suggest small, incremental initiatives appear to be most beneficial to pastoral wellbeing and enduring congregational renewal.

It is perhaps understandable that in the ebb and flow of demographic change in our communities and the secularization in society overly anxious congregational and denominational leaders who fear decline or societal irreverence seek some difference-making strategy.  This can leave the isolated pastor feeling she or he is the single lynchpin for “fixing” or “changing” the flow.  They gain the wrong impression that they alone are responsible for the success or failings of congregational life.[5]  Many denominational leaders, and their consultants-for-hire, offer remedies that miss the importance of seeing a longer view of change. 

On the other hand, there are resources available to assist in gaining a more robust understanding the congregation’s culture, historical trajectory and of the pastor’s role in the community.[6  Among persons who work in fund-raising or development activities for organizations there is an oft-repeated aphorism, one raises friends before one raises funds.  While the parallel for work in a parish is not exact, there is enormous value in understanding the friendship and positive relationships as a significant element leading toward the thriving of pastors in their work.

Denominations have both structured and informal ways relationships with other pastors are developed.  In recent years, many denominations have set up mentorship programs and/or covenant groups designed to strengthen the networks of support.  These structured alliances are important; still, more is also required.  One of the drawbacks of denominationally designed relationships is the real or perceived threat of power dynamics or evaluation of clergy persons at work.  

There are questions as to how to proceed.  Does the mentor have some say in future success or ongoing evaluation of an apprentice?  Do small groups offer a place of encouragement to succeed and improve in one’s vocational clarity and ministry skill?  Or, do these groups devolve into circles of complaint or even unproductive competition?  How can the focus of friendship also be a focus on challenge to think about one’s ministry in new ways?  How can relationships be both supportive and at the same time challenge a pastor to be attentive to new learnings?

Friendship, relationship, needs to be accompanied by an ability to see beyond the narrow limits of any single pastors limited vision.  Constructive relationships need to always be offering challenging questions and the pursuit of new insights and options.  This is why reading and study are essential.  Pastors will want to establish friendships with the broader community and with others beyond denominational or even religious circles – places where new ideas flourish along with the pastor’s sense of authenticity and self worth.  Pastors who are open to growth and change will want to discover lessons that come new perspectives on human service.  For example what can be learned about ministry today from what Atul Gawande has called Slow Ideas.[7]  Or, what might be understood by giving attention to the phenomenon known as positive deviance?[8]

Conclusion

Crucial to the flourishing of pastors are the relationships within the congregation, with denominational leaders, with mentors and with others.  I have observed exceptional pastors as they walk the halls of the hospital or the streets of their neighborhood.  In these occasions I have often witnessed a sense of pastoral authenticity, even exuberance, in the exchanges that occur.  One can sense a source of delight, even empowerment, as the pastor is seen as bringing value to a situation.  There is a balance struck where a pastor’s own self-awareness is strengthened by the exchanges with another they have come to know and join in a partnership of meaning and mutuality.  

I have witnessed the eudaimonic power of such exchanges with other professionals, religious and otherwise, in the hospital or courtroom, or with neighbors in a parish.  In most cases these relationships have taken years to develop.  Sometimes they are forged amidst tragedy.  The focus of ministry is often too much on one individual.  Yes, the pastor is set among the people – in a web or relationships.  It is often the case that until you are a friend, you will not hear the whole truth.

Perhaps the importance of relationship is often overlooked because it is a “slow idea.”  There are differing speeds of innovation and as the FiM research suggests it is important to take the longer view on pastoral health and the work of congregational ministry.  Again from the FiM report we read:

Smaller changes can improve things, and they also tend to have fewer and less costly side effects.
Our recommendation is to build well-being through many small changes, and a few bigger ones.[9]

American singer, songwriter Carrie Newcomer frequently captures this foundational element for well-being.  She speaks of daily encounters that provide new insights for those who are attentive -- those who live with meaning and purpose.  In her newest album The Beautiful Not Yet there is a refrain that captures the value of relationship and being attentive to the world around.

It’s not out there somewhere
It’s right here…

I can’t change the whole world
But I can change the world I know,
What’s within three feet or so.


Philip Amerson is a consultant for the Flourishing in Ministry research.  He a retired United Methodist pastor and theological educator having served as president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California.  For over twenty-five years served as pastor in urban and university settings and taught in a number of university and seminary settings.  You can read more of his thoughts at philipamerson.com.


[1] Bloom, Matt, Flourishing in Ministry: Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors, (Notre Dame, IN: Mendoza College of Business, 2013, p. 52.

[2] Bloom, op cit., see pages 20 through 40 of the document.

[3] Christakis, Niholas A. and James H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives – How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel Think and Do, (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009).

[4] Duhigg, Charles, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, (New York: Random House, 2014).

[5] See Steinke, Peter, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2014).

[6] See for example Ammerman, Nancy, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life (Oxford University Press: 2013); Ammerman, Nancy, Jackson Carroll, Carl Dudley and William McKinney, eds.  Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Abingdon Press: 1998)

[7] Gawande, Atul, Slow Ideas, The New Yorker, July 29, 2013, p

[8] Tuhus-Dubrow, R., The Power of Positive Deviants: A Promising New Tactic for Changing Communities from the Inside, The Boston Globe, November 29, 2009.  See also Sternin, J. and R. Choo, The Power of Positive Deviancy, Harvard Business Review, 2000.

9] Bloom, Ibid.