Sunday, January 18, 2009

Maintaining Friendships

For more than 25 years I have participated in an annual gathering of close friends and colleagues in ministry for a week of study, prayer and conversation, along with a great deal of mirth and merriment. The cast of characters changes a bit from year to year – we have been as few as six and as many as fourteen – as does the location. We choose a theme for our study and invite a scholar with expertise in that field to join us (remarkably, many of the finest scholars of our time have been willing to do so). Last year we studied Augustine on an island in Puget Sound, while this year we studied early Christian architecture in the mountains of Vermont (we are happy to travel wherever someone offers us free lodging). We count several gifted chefs in our number (sadly, I am not among them), so we eat wonderfully well while we are together.

The roots of our group were forged by our common identity as young (see “more than 25 years” above) senior pastors of large congregations in the United Church of Christ. Sharing this identity, we spoke a common language, faced similar challenges and shared common hopes, dreams and frustrations. We could talk to one another as we could talk to no one else, and over time we have built deep bonds of trust and affection. We have nursed one another through deaths, divorces, injuries, illnesses, and reversals of fortune. We share a remarkable sense of friendship that grows richer with each passing year.

Sad to say, we have very limited contact with one another outside of our yearly gathering. A fair number of us – the men in particular – are not especially good at taking the initiative to pick up the phone and call one another to ask “How are you doing?” Each year we vow to do better at this, and suddenly we find another year has flown by.

A month ago I had a chat with an acquaintance who had retired six months earlier. I asked him if he had experienced anything unexpected in retirement and he answered without hesitation: “I was surprised to discover how many of what I had thought were friendships turned out to be business relationships.” He said this without bitterness, or even disappointment. He admitted that he was not taking a lot of initiative to get together with his former “friends,” so it was unrealistic to expect them to take the initiative to call him. When we brush up against one another on a regular basis – in the workplace or the community – it is much easier to say “Do you want to grab lunch sometime?” Out of sight really is out of mind, particularly for busy people.

Maintaining friendships that matter – friendships that nurture us, challenge us and sustain us – is a spiritual practice, and like all spiritual practices it requires discipline. Many folks resist this notion: they think of friendship as something that “just happens.” It doesn’t. Genuine friendship requires commitment and intentionality, just as a healthy marriage does.

It is, of course, easier to say such things than to live them. As we grow older, our friendships become ever more precious. I need to be more disciplined in letting my friends know how much I appreciate them, which means that I need to call or write my friends rather than waiting for them to reach out to me. I confess this does not come easily or naturally to me. My excuse is that it is a “guy thing,” but that is pretty feeble. If friendship is not worth investing myself in, what in the world is?


Anonymous said...

Trust is more important than anything you speak of here John, maybe that is why your friendships leave you only as an aquaintance.

John said...

I do not know what the roots of this comment might be, but it feels like a mean-spirited slam...

Manner said...

I, for one, thank God for you friendship, John. Your warmth, humor, generosity, and uniqueness have made my life here much, much better.

Anonymous said...

It's about Truth, Honesty, Integrity, Character and much more! God himself knows exactly what I am talking about and the most it is not about is deception.