4 Unmet Emotional Needs of Pastors: Friendship

by Ben Mandrell July 8, 2021

Confession: This article is written by a man with a lifelong addiction to achievement. Prioritizing friendship has never been my strong suit.

In the 5th grade, I discovered that straight A’s were a surefire way to separate myself from the pack, to get ahead and to chase a dream. While my passion for learning has opened up doors along the way, it has also been an obstacle in forming deep bonds with other men.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, and it seems especially prevalent among pastors. As I’ve opened up with church leaders in this area, I’ve discovered several reasons why pastors are friendless in the ministry.

There’s a Masculine-Fueled Reluctance to Be Vulnerable.

In Disciplines of a Godly Man, Kent Hughes writes:

We all know that men, by nature, are not as relational as women. Men’s friendships typically center around activities, while women’s revolve around sharing. Men do not reveal their feelings or weakness as readily as women. They gear themselves for the marketplace, and typically understand friendships as acquaintances made along the way, rather than as relationships.

I agree with Hughes, and I see this tendency in myself. In order to bond with a brother, I have to be willing to share uncomfortable feelings such as fear, shame, guilt, and sadness. These emotions are not feminine, but human, and true friends are able to open up when experiencing them.

Over the years, I’ve noticed how awkward men can be at church events. The conversation usually revolves around surface-level topics like sports, hobbies, and recent purchases (boats, fishing poles, tools, etc.). Rarely does a man lock eyes with another and say, “I’ve been experiencing a tremendous amount of fear the past few months,” or “I’m walking through a grief process since losing my job.” These kinds of statements are a glue that brings men closer, but are rarely used.

Pastors especially struggle to display vulnerability. The pastor is expected to lead a life worthy of imitation, which includes the fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace,etc.), so it’s expected that he focus on the positive and be strong for the weak. But what if he’s the one feeling weak? In that case, he–along with his wife–assumes they had better keep the struggles under wraps.

Vulnerability matters in leadership. Pastors often think success looks like running the perfect staff meeting or leading a growing church. But sometimes success is going into that staff meeting and saying, “Hey, can I let you all in on some of the battles raging in my heart?” Likewise, vulnerability matters in community. Vulnerability is necessary to move anyone from “acquaintance” or “colleague” into a deep, meaningful friendship.

Here’s another challenge for you: Identify three other local pastors, even if you don’t know them well–or even at all–and invite them to lunch. Who knows? Maybe they’re in the same boat. And you just might find they are a safe place for you.

There’s Constant Pressure to Grow the Ministry.

“How many are you running?” a Bible Belt native recently asked a West-coast church planter. The planters confessed to me that the question activated a shame cycle that took days to deactivate.

Whether we like it or not, America’s focus on franchising and scaling creates an unhealthy scorecard for church leaders. In order to “get a trophy” in our context, your church needs to be highlighted in a magazine for steep spikes in attendance or baptisms. While we all agree that multiplication and growth are grounds for celebration, the size of one’s church is not a healthy measure of God’s favor. Many times, the church’s growth is related to factors outside a pastor’s control.

What does this have to do with friendship? A constant feeling that “I am not enough,” or “my church is not enough” causes pastors to put their personal needs behind the needs of his feeble flock. The sermon could be a sizzler with just a few more hours of study. The staff will be stoked with a more carefully prepared meeting. The church will be challenged if  one more person is won to Christ, and that story can be told on Sunday.

Please hear me: Sizzling sermons, inspired staff meetings, and souls won for Christ are answers to prayer! These are the moments a pastor lives for. But the constant pressure to do it again, and again, will ultimately lead to a shallow way of life. When is enough enough?

According to Jesus, we are already enough (Rom. 8:1). Here’s a critical truth: We need close friends in order to be emotionally and spiritually healthy. We can’t lead our churches well if we’re leading out of burnout and loneliness.

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of befriending other pastors. But before you discount church members as friends, remember this: It’s easy to let church business disconnect you from the people you serve. An emotionally healthy pastor is connected with his flock.

There’s a Challenge in the Scriptural Command to Manage the Home Well.

This rarely gets talked about, but I felt this pinch often as a pastor. There’s an underlying expectation that the pastor’s kids are a model to follow, that his marriage is free of all contempt. The Bible says a pastor must “manage his own household competently, having his children under control with all dignity (1 Timothy 3:4).” Who is sufficient for such a task!?

Leading at home is often harder than leading at the church. We think: What if the deacons discover that my kid is walking through a hard season, or that my marriage looks like a long stretch of Kansas interstate? These are real insecurities that cause pastors to focus intensely on home and less on friendships.

We have four kids, and while they are certainly not perfect, we are tremendously proud of them. My wife, Lynley, and I are heavily invested in helping them mature into followers of Jesus. But it’s messy. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. Parenting feels more fragile than we would prefer, and it requires the vigilance of a private detective. At any given time, least one of our kids is moving into a season of struggle, needs help processing a hurt, or has been notified that the basketball roster did not include his name.

Making time for male friendship, as a pastor, comes after family. This is biblical and right, but the stakes seem higher for the preacher on a platform. Dating his wife, finishing his sermon, coaching a soccer team, managing tense relationships with his church staff, and responding to unfair social media posts are more urgent. That means “playing golf with Joe” remains #14 on the to-do list.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably a pastor who longs for meaningful friendship. When the Lord said, “It’s not good for man to be alone,” this applied first to Adam’s need for Eve, but it also speaks to deep longing in everyone for community. Open up to your wife about your desire to build a strong friendship or two. Explain your need and ask for her help in making friendships a priority. Invite her accountability on this.  Involve her in the friendships; plan double dates with other couples. Make sure to include ministry couples who share your struggles and can speak truth and life into the two of you.

Don’t be an island or a work machine. Be a human. Be a friend. We all need community; pastors are no exception. Authentic friendship is risky because it requires vulnerability. But it’s well worth it.



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