Greg Rogers has had mentors, ministerial support groups and an array of denominational colleagues to draw on during his long career in ministry.
But most of the strength Rogers needed to weather the challenges of pastoring a church, at least in the past decade or more, has come through a long friendship with a layman.
“I don’t think I’d be there,” Rogers said of Oakmont Baptist Church in Greenville, N.C., where he has served as pastor since 1986. “I might be alive, but I might not be in the vocation of pastoral ministry today if it were not for that.”
For Rogers, the spiritually intimate relationship he has with Lester Zeager falls under the category of preventing pastoral loneliness, an occupational hazard that befalls ministers when their high-pressure jobs isolate them from church and family members alike. It’s a condition that can lead to other ills often associated with ministry, such as depression, pastor burnout, poor health and sometimes even death.
The seriousness of the issue inspired Rogers and Zeager to lead a workshop on the topic at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly last month in Greensboro, N.C.
In subsequent interviews with Baptist News Global, the men shared how their spiritual friendship, and their shared spiritual practices, has sustained them through significant challenges to their faith and ministries.
‘A matter of survival’
The seeds of their alliance were planted years earlier when Zeager said he was influenced by the writings of Dallas Willard, known for his ideas on Christian formation.
“It challenged me to take discipleship to Jesus more seriously,” said Zeager, an economics professor at East Carolina University and a member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, where he is heavily involved in ministry to college students and internationals.
“It was about living life as a collaborator with God,” he said. That approach to faith also required community.
“When you take discipleship seriously, you need some people to be there with you,” Zeager said.
In about 1998, Zeager launched a spiritual formation reading group that consisted of several ministers and laypeople from the area. Rogers was one of them and out of book study developed the friendship between the two in 2005.
Zeager said the reading group and his relationship with Rogers helped him weather several years of uncertainty as his church continued to struggle and decline. Eventually it turned around and now has a thriving outreach to internationals, but the ups-and-downs before that were often discouraging.
“For me, it was a matter of survival,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been able to do it without the friendship with Greg.”
‘A safe, confidential space’
Rogers said the relationship is not a mentorship or coaching arrangement. Rather, it’s a spiritually focused friendship in which both men are free to open up on subjects or situations they find challenging or rewarding.
“You are getting as much as you are receiving,” Rogers said. “The focus is on what God is doing in our lives and our vocations.”
He said it helps him break the isolation that results from church dynamics that keep pastors from being able to form friendships with their members.
“This offers a place to feel be understood,” Rogers said. “It’s a safe, confidential space to talk about what’s happening.”
The spiritual friendship with Zeager is just one of the tools Rogers said he uses to maintain a positive perspective on his life and ministry. Others include the practices of silence, attending solitude retreats, daily devotionals and continuing to attend the monthly reading group.