A veteran of spiritual friendships shares why they are so important for ministry leaders, and how you can begin to create them.
“I am always administering the table.” But this time, my friend was invited to the table. And he felt the difference. This man is a member of a regular retreat group I lead with clergy and leaders of faith based organizations. We had just spent 90 minutes in personal, silent reflection on Jesus’ last meal with his friends, as told by Luke.
Ever feel that way?
Those of us who lead, teach, direct and manage congregations and faith organizations can slowly and subtly become disconnected from the very God we serve day after day. We maintain an internal spiritual journey (or not) while not disclosing that journey to our constituents—we cannot share where we experience the grace and healing of Jesus. Those broken places may not be permitted within the context of the community we serve.
How spiritual friendships can help
It is my vocation to spend about a third of my time as a spiritual friend to those who lead, direct, operate churches and faith organizations. We sometimes laugh, and say that we are in greater danger of losing our souls while doing “God’s work” than those who operate in the corporate culture.
Friendship with a few others that connects us deeply to the God who loves us in an environment of trust, confidentiality and safety is a discovery we have been making over many years.
Spiritual friendship nourishes our inner journey. It is a way of living in companionship with Christ—and a few other people—in which listening to the movement of the Holy Spirit in one’s life is understood and confirmed by conversation with people you trust, and with whom you can be completely transparent.
The biblical rationale
Jesus tells his disciples they are not servants but friends. He says they are to love one another and so demonstrate their connection with him. He teaches that we are to serve, to give our lives for our friends—the very reverse of imposition and exercise of power. Friendship provides the context for love to grow. It is then that the partners, or group, can stay together in love, even when the mission becomes costly and demanding.
“Lay down your life for a friend,” is Jesus’ yardstick for love between friends. Often we identify this with his extreme sacrifice on the cross, but not with his patience for kids, the slow uptake of the disciples, or encounters with the sick and needy.
What laying down our lives looks like
We are rarely asked to take a bullet for a friend. But would we consider laying down our agenda, our need to preach, fix and control, for our friend? Real friendship emerges from trust. Trust is built over time. The ability to listen, accept and question, but not impose an agenda, are significant nutrients in that growth.
The ancient tools of listening to God through meditation on scripture and developing awareness of the moves of the Spirit in our own lives become health-giving ingredients to a peer friendship. Rather than only discussing ministry strategy, funding problems or career challenges, we sit quietly together listening to a Psalm or imagining ourselves in a short Gospel story.
As a friend in denominational leadership once said “these times together connect me to Jesus.” We all do great work for the Kingdom, but we can quietly become disconnected from the one whose call we follow into the brokenness of the world.
Instead of being competitors for air time in our professional gatherings, we reshape it into times of listening deeply to the God who loves us. In this process, we begin to listen deeply to the rhythms of the Spirit in another’s life.
Companions who know the realities of vocational ministry can sympathize, encourage, challenge and correct effectively if first their mutual relationship is grounded in the love of Jesus.
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 asks for a kind of centripetal spiritual force created by intimate relationship between us and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This mystery, called by some perichoresis, can mean making space for “the other.”
Here are a few key lessons we’ve been learning on this friendship journey which may help you as you look for “the other” who shares your longing for friendship with God:
The God you serve knows your heart’s longing and will guide you to the friend or friends who will be your companions on this quieter but deeper form of friendship.
It may feel awkward, but identify a friend you trust, and suggest creating a quiet, conversational time to share your spiritual journeys by consciously inviting God’s presence through listening prayer.
It takes a commitment of time, space and focussing the conversation on listening to the inner journey of each other with patience and kindness.
Make your times together natural—be together, let the stresses of the day release, and let the comfortable rhythms of your relationship guide toward more focus.
Remember that this is not a transaction, but building a pattern of regular (even if it’s only two or three times a year) times together where comfort, experience and experimenting will teach you what helps you hear God and one another.
Norm Allen is author of Spiritual Friendships: The Art of Being Friends with God and a Few Others (Clements Publishing 2012). He leads Touchstone Ministries (www.touchstone.ca).