In whatever way that it has materialized, these men (and often their families alongside them) have maintained friendships with a few very close friends from their seminary years. Those friendships have been a central factor in keeping them in ministry, stable, and focused on serving God. I know few men who have been in ministry for more than ten years for whom this is not the case, and everyone I know who has been in ministry more than 20 years has done this.
It doesn't always look the same, but some common factors arise among all of the people I've talked to about this:
- All of them are in contact regularly-- usually by phone at least once a quarter, and visiting face-to-face at least once a year.
- All of the relationships have a component of basic accountability to them-- checking in on the health of marriage and family life, personal spiritual growth, avoiding temptations, etc.
- All serve as a “dumping ground” for ministry problems and frustrations-- allowing an outlet for all of the things that these men want and need to talk about, but feel they can't with anyone in their congregation (or even in their town).
- All eventually become a “true North-pointing compass” for the individuals-- giving them a safe and trustworthy place to explore where the Lord may be leading them in the future.
One man I know has a week-long “vacation” with two other families, and they've been doing this for over 25 years. Another man meets twice a year for 48 hours with his two closest friends from seminary, and they call each other periodically. One friend gathers with a dozen others for three days, and they close up on a family farmhouse to play, talk, sing, pray, and laugh together. Another takes turns with a best friend, each visiting the other's house every six months-- whoever is the visitor “dumps” everything while the other listens.
However it turns out, the constant among variables is this: having one or several close friends who can-- over the years, through the moves and transitions, in spite of geographic differences-- be the kind of peer and brother that every Christian needs has become one of the very few keys to long-term, Godly ministry for the men I know.
On the other hand, among any of the men I know who have been in ministry for 20 years or more and don't do this in some form, none of them has the kind of ministry that I want to be a model for my future. I simply don't have a lot of admiration for their ministries. I can't say for certain that this has been the deciding factor, but it certainly seems to have been a contributing one. (And I should mention that I don't really know very many of these-- which is probably also related to the absence of this factor; without this kind of support, you are almost certainly more likely to leave the ministry earlier.)
The lesson here for new graduates and/or new transitioners: get in touch with those few closest friends from seminary and work out how you will keep in touch. Then do it. Don't put this off.