Becoming close to your spouse & to your friends DEFINITELY is worth all the hard work!

In the last year Jennifer and I have hosted 3 marriage retreats for pastors and church leaders, Last

weekend was our 3rd one. Almost 30 pastor and church leader couples have taken advantage of these retreats we call “Exploring an Emotionally Healthy Marriage.” Following the retreat I was thinking how important getting away has been over the years for both my marriage and my friendships.  When I started out in the ministry years ago, an older pastor actually told me that pastors should be very careful about becoming friends with people. Warning me to be careful, he told me that in his various ministries he had been burned several times by becoming too close with people.  I was just a young kid with lots of youthful zeal, but I remember being really puzzled by the “advice” of this pastor.

Anyway, thinking back on that encounter this past week led to my today’s (4/24/2016) religion column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.  Take a look…

When I was 23 and brand new to campus ministry at the University of Illinois, I met a pastor who was about 60.  He noticed my youthful zeal and then took it upon himself to warn me about being “too friendly.” People will come and people will go, he said.  So will pastors, he warned. “You’ll probably be gone in 5 years yourself. That’s just how it goes.”
I discovered that he believed pastors can’t have close friends. He proceeded to tell me how several of his friendships with parishioners in various congregations ended badly.  The whole discussion left me puzzled, sad and determined. 
It turns out he was both right and wrong.  Especially in a college town, people do come and go.  I actually like that.  While I’ve said good-bye to lots of people, I also have friends all over the world.
            On the other hand, the pastor was wrong about befriending and developing deep relationships. While I was sorry about his failed friendship experiences, authentic relationships have given great meaning to my life. It is one of the reasons I’ve stayed here. 
I do know the questions, though.  I still ask them often.  “But what if people move on in the next few months?”  They will.  “What if I am transparent with people and I get hurt?”  You might.  “What if not everyone likes me?”  They won’t.  “What if you get used by someone and dropped like a hot potato?”  That may happen.  “And what if that pastor who warned me about not making close friends is right?”  Well, I’m sorry but he isn’t.  He wasn’t then and he isn’t now.
            I hope it is clear that in no way mitigates the messiness of relationships.  Authentic relationships are messy.  That’s one reason I began taking pastors, church leaders and their spouses on marriage retreats. Those working hard at being transparent need respites. In the last 12 months my wife and I have hosted and led 3 marriage retreats at the Chiara Center, a Catholic Franciscan retreat center on the northeastern side of Springfield, IL. Each time we take about 10 couples. 
We usually are a little nervous when we start, wondering if the group will bond. Happily, the retreats end quite beautifully.  The most important part of the retreat is simple:  Getting away.  Stepping away for a few days helps you realize that if God does not fill your empty spots, they will not be filled. Pastors normally are caregivers, and they need a safe place to charge their batteries.  
            At the retreat’s first session, we tell the group our assumptions: Humility is foundational, submission is mutual, confession and forgiveness is vital and truth spoken in love is essential.  We are clear that no one has to say anything they don’t want to say.  No one is put on the spot. Feeling safe is a high value.
The first evening we gather in the cavernous, ornate St. Francis of Assisi Church connected to the Chiara Center.  There we talk about what positive emotions marriages need – love, acceptance, approval, comfort, respect and encouragement. We dismiss the couples with this assignment: “Before you go to bed, tell your spouse one thing you appreciate about them and then tell them one positive emotion you need from them.”
            The next morning is spent exploring tools that help keep marriages emotionally healthy. We discuss Jesus’ emotional life, reading the account in Luke chapter 7 where Jesus is invited to a dinner party hosted by a community leader, a Jewish teacher.  Turns out, the scene is thick with emotions, mostly painful.  When he arrives, Jesus is not properly greeted.  Adding insult to injury, a local prostitute shows up at the party and goes right for Jesus. Her tears fall on his feet. She wipes them with her hair and then rubs them with special perfume. 
You think there might be a little emotion there?  “How do you think Jesus felt with a prostitute weeping on his feet at this party of community mucky-mucks?” I asked. We explore what it meant for Jesus to be self-aware in that moment. While he could have fled the party or frozen and retreated to the land of the numb, he stayed controlled and emotionally present. In front of the guests, Jesus courageously spoke up, defending the woman and showing the dinner guests how the prostitute treated Jesus better than the host.    
With stories like this as a backdrop, we give the couples are lots of private time to discuss their own emotions. What makes us happy?  Sad?  Mad?  Afraid?  What are our wishes, hopes and dreams?  At every retreat we get to observe that a person who feels truly listened to feels loved.
After two days of practicing lots of relationship building exercises and taking long, slow walks, we all head back home, resuming our day-to-day life as pastors and leaders.  When we feel rested and recharged we have a better chance of jumping in all the way with our congregations. Come what may, fully entering life with people is way better than thinking the pastoral vocation is not the place for deep and meaningful friendships. 


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