This is a guest post from Zack Eswine, Pastor of Riverside Church and Director of Homiletics at Covenant Seminary.
The Apostle Paul was physically and emotionally worn out. Fear thunderstormed his soul. Conflict awaited him. He had no rest. Rather than hide this fact, the Apostle gave voice to it. As pastors, the idea of giving voice to the hurricane that batters against the boarded up windows of our souls feels dangerous. But God has a remedy in mind.
Notice how Paul describes his experience to the congregation in Corinth: “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within” (2 Corinthians 7:5).
Paul was a minister. But he was also a human being who needed comfort; the kind of comfort that moths and rust cannot destroy, the kind of comfort that digs down deep. Have you ever known this kind of soul-deep need? You are in good company. This predecessor of ours tells us the way in which God brought comfort to him in ministry.
“But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you…”(2nd Corinthians 7:6-7).
God comforted Paul, not by absence of stress, but by presence of a fellow friend in ministry. Not by absence of fear but by shared testimony in in ordinary place on an ordinary day. Does this surprise you?
The Pain of Friendship in Ministry
Many of us pastors guard ourselves from friendship with good reason.
First, we’ve known the sting of congregation members who befriended us only to use us or to hold us up on a pedestal from which, in their eyes, we fell. We provided a product or a good feeling. They were “in the know” and liked the power of it. But to know us and to stand with us in our weakness and sin as well as in our gifts and success wasn’t their aim. In the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian fell into the Slough of Despond, his friend named “pliable” left him there to fend for himself alone. Many of us in ministry know this pain. We say with King David:
For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God’s house we walked in the throng.
Second, trying friendship among fellow ministers has offered us no joy-ride either. Competition, rivalry, turf, envy, guarded souls. Risking friendship with fellow ministers sometimes feels like walking into a mine-field. They too feel this way about us. We walk among fellow ministers like we are driving at night in a sketchy part of town. We roll up our windows and lock our doors. So, at some point, finding companionship among fellow pastors became an untrustworthy road for those of us in gospel ministry to travel.
Recovering Our Hope
The problem of course is that going friendless in ministry poses genuine danger and robs us of the inward re-fueling that God intends to provide for us. Paul teaches this to us by means of Titus’ visit. These two fellow-ministers didn’t do much. What they did looks puny and thin compared to the mountain and strength of pain and conflict confronting Paul. They shared time, place, ordinary presence. Nothing spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary happened here. And yet, by sharing stories, eating together, talking, laughing, praying, these two ministers gave the materials of friendship to each other. They cocooned. They opened the curtains, sat in chairs, and let the sun shine in for a moment. And they spoke humanly of all that was on their heart and of the ache taunting their bodies. Paul learned in that kind of grace-moment, what he now shares with us.
The soul-companionship of a fellow minister is God’s means for providing down-deep comfort within the pains of ministry.
No wonder in the old story entitled, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian finally finds amid the pains of lost friendship and false friends, a true companionship with “faithful” and “hopeful.” Bunyan draws attention to this companion need as gift from God:
When saints do sleepy grow, let them come hither,
And hear how these two Pilgrims talk together,
Yea, let them learn of them in any wise
Thus to keep ope’ their drowsy slumbering eyes;
Saints fellowship if it be managed well,
Keeps them away, and that in spite of Hell.
“Let them come hither and hear how these two pilgrims talk.” To keep from quitting and to finish well, we need companions to travel with.