Your Pastor Needs Pastor Friends

By Walter Henegar
Senior Pastor, 
Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2024

Before I became a pastor, I would not say I was estranged from a single soul. Almost 20 years in, the list is longer than I would have ever thought bearable. It includes some of my most intimate former friends and ministry partners: people whose names are etched on major milestones in my life, and I on theirs; people whose secrets I still carry, and they mine. Some have betrayed me. Some would say I betrayed them. All those, plus hundreds of beloved people who for legitimate reasons have left my church, which means, functionally, they have left my life. This scarred heartscape would be enough to justify forswearing friendship from now on. And yet, if I ask myself how God has sustained me and refined me and healed me through them all, the answer is always other friendships.

Friendship is an endangered arrangement for everyone these days, but it’s especially precarious for pastors, their spouses, and others in full-time ministry. On one hand, every pastor’s life is relationally full, anchored at the swirling vortex of community life. On the other hand, it can be the loneliest job in the world. Christians who understand this tension can become vital allies in their pastors’ long-term spiritual health.


A Friendless Pastor

More than a decade ago, a close friend of mine had a major life crisis, and two months later he moved across the country. Soon after, it hit me that he was my last local friend. Of course, I wasn’t totally alone. My wife is truly my favorite person, staunchest ally, and closest friend. I also had some old friends in other states, guys I could catch up with on the phone and go fairly deep. There were even a few men in the church I felt a special affection for. But there was no one I could sit down with, face to face, who had no claim on my life but friendship.

I was depressed for a jumble of reasons, so I started talking to a counselor. One of his main recommendations was to do something about my friend situation. He asked if I had any idea whom I might pursue. “No,” I said, “but I can rule out one category: fellow pastors. They’re always sizing me up, drawing implicit comparisons, and generally making me feel like more of a failure than I already do.”

My counselor paused. “Yeah,” he said, “I think you should look for friends among your fellow pastors.”

“Wait—what? Why?” I asked, mentally shopping for a new counselor.

“Because very few people understand what it’s like to be a pastor.”

Oh, yeah. That. Fine.

Hopes low, I thought of a few pastors I had met who seemed cool, but not too cool. I called three of them. It was more awkward than asking out a girl in high school. The conversations went something like this: “Hey, so, we don’t really know each other, but I was wondering if you would be interested in maybe being, like, my friend.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know, just, like, getting together every week and talking.”

“About what?”

“About whatever is going on inside of us.”


“I’m not really sure. I just think I need someone besides my wife to really know me, or I am not going to make it.”

The first two guys stuttered that yes, they needed that, too. The third said, “My wife would tell you I need that.” Close enough.

We put it on our calendars every week during work hours. The only agenda was honesty. Some weeks we all talked, and some weeks it was all about one guy. We told formative stories from the day before, and from decades before. Often we prayed. Sometimes we wept. Three of us kept meeting for almost seven years. Two of us still meet once a month, and others have joined us for a season.


Jesus & Paul

Jesus’ own life bore witness to the perils of friendship. His disciples left everything to follow Him but still argued about which of them was greatest. He called them brothers, children, and eventually friends, but one of them betrayed Him. He was closest with three, but one of the three (whom Jesus had nicknamed “rock” and also once called “Satan”) denied Him three times. And in His moment of greatest need, the only one to stand by Him was … well, nobody.

The Apostle Paul is often seen as intense, goal-driven, and uncompromising. Yet it’s easy to miss how often he expressed deep attachment to a staggering number of people. At times he comes across as almost recklessly vulnerable, opening and reopening his heart wide to the very people who have already turned on him. Elsewhere he can seem hurt or even vindictive, naming those who harmed him, or parting ways with an immature assistant and then a faithful friend who refused to do the same. God’s people were simultaneously his “crown and joy” and a recurring source of heartbreak.

Study almost any other leader in Scripture, and you will find a similar tension. It’s no wonder many pastors conclude that friendship is one of life’s many luxuries we simply can’t afford.


Tour de Friends

After my first 11 years in ministry I received the gift of a sabbatical, funded by a foundation grant. My family and I devoted ourselves to exercise, exploration, photography, art, baking, and study, including an epic summer in Vancouver, Canada. I put miles on a mountain bike and tried, unsuccessfully, to learn the violin. The most important thing I did, however, was to take a long road trip to see a handful of old friends I’d barely seen since becoming a pastor. I called it my Tour de Friends.

These visits opened a room in my heart that had grown dark and dusty from nonuse. We found joy and laughter in shared memories that had nothing to do with being helpful or spiritual or wise—often, in fact, the opposite! I remembered why I liked them to begin with, and I was surprised to see how much they still liked me. Even more surprising, it opened a fissure for the gospel to seep in.

The hardest thing for me to believe is that God likes me. I know He loves me, that He forgives me, that He has prepared good works for me now and is preparing an even better future for me in eternity with Him. But likes me? Come on. Another unaffordable luxury.

Yet at the end of my tour I found myself believing it more instinctively—that I, hidden by faith in Jesus the Beloved, am actually lovely to the eyes of God. This absurd claim suddenly sat like a boulder in my living room, impervious to my usual attempts to shoo it or shame it away.

It turns out that when people who really know you also like you, it’s easier to believe that God does, too. It also helps to get a break from the daily self-referendums on the value of your ministry: Did I pray enough today? Was my sermon any good? Was my advice worth following? Have I answered all those emails, calls, and texts? Are any of my efforts bearing genuinely good fruit? In place of those questions a blanket lay over my loosened shoulders: I am lovely in the Beloved. Full stop.


What About Friends in the Church?

This is where it gets complicated. Perceptive Christians often detect a relational reticence in their pastors, an invisible buffer that sets us just out of reach. You might think it’s because we have a spiritual image to protect, as if the natural vulnerability of friendship would compromise your willingness to follow us. That’s not it. Of course, we have to be wise about whom we choose to trust with our sins and failures, but if a pastor’s leadership is dependent on a reputation of faultlessness, the church has a much bigger problem—they’ve lost sight of the gospel.

The real challenge is that pastors are more responsible for their people than people are responsible for their pastors. Healthy friendship, on the other hand, is mutual, bidirectional, balanced. At some point, the other person always pivots and asks, What about you? Godly Christians will often do that with their pastor, which is great. It’s just not how the relationship is set up. Even if we temporarily reverse the direction of responsibility and allow you to care for me, I’ll walk away feeling like I need to schedule another meeting to care for you.

Most pastors have learned how to mete out little details about our lives that may seem intimate but are really quite safe. It’s not disingenuous; we’re just trying to help you talk about yourself without feeling self-absorbed. That’s why we’re here.

One of the most meaningful ways you can love your pastor is to pray for and encourage him. Recommending prayer sounds predictably spiritual, but prayer is actually an admission of deep need. People who pray for you know you are human, beset by the same sins and fears and weaknesses as they are. The presence of such people lowers the pressure we always feel and raises our curiosity about what God may yet do. And when you share specific details about what God is doing in your life, or in our community, it helps us believe that our labor is not in vain — even if we had nothing to do with a particular outcome. When you put your encouragement in writing, especially with literal pen and paper, it can buoy us for weeks.


Walking the Blurry Line

Years ago a member of our church called me and asked if he could talk to “the friend Walter, not the pastor Walter.” I enjoyed his company, so I accepted the challenge and walked to his house bareheaded, sans pastor hat. Only later did I realize I had never taken it off—because it doesn’t come off. The line between pastor and friend is always there, even if it’s drawn in blurry ink.

Other dear believers have invited my wife and me to a meal with the tantalizing promise that we won’t talk about anything church-related. It’s such a generous impulse. They sense we could genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and usually we do. But if we end up talking about their lives, we’re talking about one of the most important church-related matters there is!

I have come to think of every event at which church folk are present as work. It can be, and often is, delightful, fulfilling work. Being invited into relationship with so many unique bearers of God’s image is one of my life’s greatest privileges. But listening to your lives as someone who shares responsibility before God for your spiritual well-being is also an undeniable weight. My wife, Anne, describes it as “carrying your stories.” There are only so many stories we can carry. The heavier they are, the fewer we can carry at one time.

A lot of Christians want to carry their pastors’ stories, too. The church I pastor is packed with them, and I’m so achingly grateful for every one of them. They share the work of ministry, give generously, encourage me regularly, and critique me graciously. Insofar as we live life together in our community, we learn each other’s personalities and share memories and develop sweet familial affection for each other. All of that is beautifully real. It’s just not the same thing as the kind of friendship pastors need in order to thrive in the long run.

There are rare exceptions. If you’ve ever told your pastor, “I know it’s your day off, but … ,” you probably aren’t one of them. It takes an unusual degree of emotional maturity to be friends with a pastor, especially your own. You usually have to be the one to initiate. You have to actively resist the temptation to get the inside scoop on church drama. You have to honor boundaries that feel like they shouldn’t apply to you. And sometimes we still don’t have much emotional energy left for you.


Pilgrim Family

In John Bunyan’s classic allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian never would have made the long journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City without certain pivotal people. These companions bear lovely names like Help, Goodwill, Watchful, and Greatheart. Yet none of them accompanies him on the entire journey. They all enter and exit at exactly the right time. It seems that, on the way to our forever family, God gives us the particular pilgrim family we need for each leg of the journey. I think that’s true for every Christian, but for pastors, the cast of characters tends to change more frequently.

In the years since I initiated my first awkward group of pastor-friends, I’ve joined every other pastor group that would have me. Some meet annually, some quarterly, and some only for a season. I’m sure it’s possible to overdo it, but that’s not a danger for any pastor I know. One of my most formative groups, curated by a unique organization called Leaders Collective, includes six pastors from different denominations scattered around the country. For seven years and counting, our churches have supported us to gather several times a year, where we discuss and eat and drink and pray and laugh and seek each other’s counsel. Between meetings, our group text thread rarely goes quiet for more than a few days. I’ve learned to see all my pastor-friends like flying buttresses on the walls of a medieval cathedral. Without each other, we wouldn’t still be standing.

If God enables me to finish my course in ministry without burning out or bombing out or otherwise dishonoring Jesus, two human factors will have played a decisive role: the gift of my closest friendships, and a healthy local church that encouraged me to cultivate them.

Originally published in ByFaith magazine

Walter is the senior pastor of Atlanta Westside, which he planted with his wife Anne and a core group of friends in 2007. He grew up in Chattanooga, went to college in Chicago, and received his seminary training in Philadelphia. Before seminary, he worked in Nashville as a carpenter, as a public relations executive, and as a business writer. Walter and Anne met as infants and have been married since 1995. They have two grown daughters, Abigail (married to Daniel) and Emily. He loves reading, watching movies, working out and mountain biking.

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