This is the fourth and final installment in a series on "The Loneliness of Pastoring." Let me offer a short recap of what I've covered so far.

Part One reflected on the recent suicide of a pastor I knew and how it underscores the loneliness of pastoring. I suggested that the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane exemplifies the experience, as well as showing that Jesus understands how pastors feel. Although we seem to be alone, we are not, because Jesus is with us in our loneliness.

In Part Two, I put forth the thesis that the professionalization of ministry exacerbates aloneness among pastors. Recovering the biblical vision of ministry, in which each member of the body of Christ is a minister, might help pastors be less removed from their congregations.

Part Three explained that all pastors need safe places to tell their "secrets." They need relationships in which they can share their struggles, temptations, and fears, as well as their victories, opportunities, and dreams. In particular, pastors need close friends with whom they can share their true selves. Married pastors can open up with their spouses, though wisdom might require certain kinds of limits in marital communication about the church.

Today, I want to explore two other types of relationships that are essential for every pastor. Pastors who have these relationships not only will feel less lonely, but also will have safety nets to keep them from falling into disaster and coaches to help them excel in their calling.

A Small Group of Pastors
The first type of essential relationship is a small group of pastors: four to twelve people who meet together on a regular basis to share their lives and ministries. In this context, they can receive and offer wise counsel, accountability, encouragement, and prayer.

During my twenty-three year tenure as a parish pastor, I was in five different groups of this sort. Some met weekly, others monthly. Some were local, others regional. Some had a well-defined structure, while others were more fluid. Every group became, after a while, a safe place for my colleagues and I to share our work and our lives: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

These groups weren't perfect, of course. Human groups never are. In every group, some members took genuine risks in sharing their struggles and temptations. They found the help they needed. Yet, in every group, certain members did not share their deepest secrets, much to their own detriment. In several cases, colleagues of mine ended up engaging in behavior that led to the loss of their pastorates. Yet they never risked opening up about their temptations so that we might walk alongside them and help them walk in paths of righteousness.

For me, these groups became invaluable sources of wisdom, support, empathy, accountability, and prayer. This reflected both the high quality of the group members and my own willingness to open my life to them. I am extremely grateful for the impact that these groups had on my life . . . and still do have. Although I'm not serving in a parish now, I am part of a pastors' small group in Texas.