the shape of leadership

What Friends Are For

The importance of friendship in ministry, Part 1

Having friends in leadership and in ministry is important. The phrase, “It’s lonely at the top” is true when we get too far ahead of the people we’re leading, or when we isolate ourselves from healthy friendships.

Via the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon provides some great wisdom on what a good friend looks like. His words are often shared in marriage ceremonies, but their application is much broader.

Solomon writes: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

In this passage, Solomon writes about the difference companions make in our lives and gives us four reasons to connect with friends. This article focuses on the first two reasons, and how they shape our lives as leaders and ministers. (I’ll cover the others in the second installment of this two-part series.)

1. Friends help you reach the mountain of success. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to train a group of young leaders in Japan. On that particular day, I was going to talk about being the light of the world. To reinforce the point, we decided to do a brief teaching from a lighthouse at the top of a steep hill. When we reached the lighthouse, I was utterly exhausted (and without water).

Trying hopelessly to catch my breath, I handed my notes to the guy in charge and said, “You teach.” I’m sure he was a bit surprised to have the guest speaker hand off the speaking responsibility. In the meantime, he sent one of his students (without me asking) all the way back down the hill to get some bottled water.

The young man then ran back up the hill to the lighthouse where I was seated. Needless to say, I was both grateful and a little embarrassed.

Mountaintop experiences are fun, but here’s the truth we often forget: If you’re on top of the mountain, you likely didn’t get there alone. Others helped you reach the top, and they probably made a few sacrifices along the way. Simply put, these friends draw out the best in you and then celebrate success with you.

The New Living Translation of Ecclesiastes 4:9 says, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.” Notice the “each other” part of that verse. Good friends draw out the best in each other, and then celebrate the success of each other. It’s a two-way street.

Some people are great friends until your success surpasses theirs. Then jealousy sets in and the friendship dissolves. That’s not the kind of friend you need. Ministry ebbs and flows with hard decisions and difficult challenges.

You have to be a friend when you don’t need one so that you will have a friend when you most need one.

You need somebody who will pray for you, help you discover best practices, and share new discoveries that will enable you to reach the summit. When you have friends who champion you (and that you will champion), each of you can grow to your full potential.

2. Friends help you in the valley of hardship. Five years ago, I unexpectedly experienced heart failure and pulmonary failure when my mitral valve suddenly ruptured (and no, it wasn’t from climbing up a steep hill to a lighthouse). It happened on a Sunday morning, likely while I was preaching, but I didn’t even know it at the time.

That night, I felt like I was coming down with the flu, and by the next morning, I could hear fluid in my lungs when I breathed. We immediately headed to a small ER by our home. After running some tests, the doctors thought I had pneumonia, but said, “We don’t really know what’s wrong with you. We just know you’re really sick and we can’t treat you here.”

I was then transported by ambulance to Harris Hospital Southwest in Fort Worth, Texas. When I arrived, the doctors there also thought I had pneumonia, but noticed that my heart rate sounded irregular. I told them I’d had my annual heart checkup just nine days earlier, and everything had looked great. I also told them my cardiologist had his office at Harris Southwest, in case they had any questions.

The doctors contacted my specialist, who came to my room. He listened to my heart and immediately suspected what was wrong. After looking at my echocardiogram, he said to me, “You don’t have pneumonia. The cord to your valve has snapped. This is serious. You need heart surgery. I’m calling CareFlite to have you transported to the heart center downtown.”

In the hours that followed, I was sedated, intubated and flown to the heart center downtown where it was discovered that, because of the ruptured valve, my lungs had filled with two liters of fluid. That night, the medical team successfully drained the fluid without any infection setting in, and then performed open heart surgery the following Tuesday afternoon.

I spent eight days in the hospital, and then six weeks recovering at home. But it was during that time my wife, Karen, and our daughter, Ashley, experienced the beautiful support of friends and family. A couple of friends met Karen at the hospital and helped her find me at the heart center. Another friend drove Ashley home from college so she could be with me at the hospital. And countless friends and family visited me, prayed for me, and brought meals to our family when I returned home.

The words of Solomon describe what happened to me during that unexpected ordeal. “If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). I’m thankful that when I fell, I had friends to help me up in my valley of hardship and despair.

Ministry is not all up and to the right. It’s filled with many shades of pain, hardship and disappointment. But when the pain shows up, it’s too late to go looking for a friend. You have to be a friend when you don’t need one so that you will have a friend when you most need one.

Do you have friends who stay with you during the extremes of life — the top of the mountain and the bottom of the valley? Let me ask it another way: Are you someone who can celebrate when a friend experiences success, and walk with them during their valley of hardships? You need this kind of friend, and you need to model this kind of friendship.

In my next article, I’ll share two more characteristics of a friend, and how they make a difference in ministry.

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