“Some people make enemies instead of friends because it is less trouble.” The statement attributed to E.C. McKenzie feels like real life on a lot of days. But, I’d rather be surrounded by friends who have my back than enemies where I have to watch my back. As leaders, we should give the example about why maintaining relationships is so vital to life. If you are a pastor, it can be a solitary experience – but only if you let it be. Though our marriages and parenting skills will not be perfect, we can give an example to others about how you work on them with joy. Ministers need strong personal relationships for support, accountability, and encouragement. Being in the tribe of church leaders should never exclude you from a strong circle of friends that enjoy life together and show up when dark clouds are hovering overhead.
To that end, we need to know how to protect the relationships we have. Whether it is a spouse, child, parent, or friend – we could all do a bit better on our relationships. Here are several ideas that are both practical and principled to help you protect the connections you have with one another.
1. Intensive listening. People have a story and they need to be heard. It is universal. No one likes to be ignored. But that is usually not the problem in our closest relationships. It’s more likely the case that we simply “zone out” or lose focus when someone is talking. The person you value the most should easily capture your attention. As a husband and father, it should be easy for me to listen intently to my wife and two sons. Notice I wrote: “it should be.” The stress of the daily commute, pressures of unfinished tasks, and a million other things seek to distract me. You and I must choose to listen, to focus, to care.
2. Step away from the smartphone. One of the great culprits of our relational dysfunction is the smartphone we carry. I have one and it’s a great tool to get stuff done. It can also be the greatest distraction in my life.
I heard about one group of friends who regularly go to dinner together. At the beginning of the meal, they stack their phones in the middle of the table. The first one who breaks the rule by answering a call, text, or notification has to pay the bill. If no one breaks the rule, everyone buys their own meal. It’s a silly idea but one that helps the group put presence of friends as a priority over the dinging, whirring, buzzing, vibrating notifications. Whatever you find distracting – smartphone, game on TV, overdue work, unfinished chores – make sure that people have the priority in your life.
3. Carry their burdens. The idea of carrying another person’s burdens could be the very definition of having a relationship. Relationships are (metaphorically) heavy. They require an exertion of your will and your emotions. But never is a relationship more sacred to you than when you unpack another person’s burden and carry it with them.
Jesus even encouraged us to bear the backpack of our enemies. “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). If first century believers were to do so for a Roman soldier, how much more should we do so for the people closest to us? It’s not likely that your spouse, children, or friend actually need you to carry anything. Unless it’s a moving day. They need you to be present and attentive. It’s in that type of moment you carry another person’s burden.
4. Let your burdens be carried. By their very definition, relationships are reciprocal. If you wish to guard the bond, then give up your burden-carrying as well. If you don’t, you’ll keep a guarded place in your heart where no one is allowed. The lack of humility to admit the need for help and the growing habit of keeping secrets both undermine healthy relationships. Give up your pride and let someone hold you up in the trying times of life.
5. Forgive quickly. The decision needs to be made right now: I will stop keeping score. Relationships grow when we hold short accounts with one another. So as to not belabor the point about doing something quickly, think about what needs to be mended in the relationship and do it right now. Then you can finish the article later.
(Now that you’re back…)
6. Choose activities that are interactive. Sometimes we get frustrated with a spouse or friends because of what they won’t do. Your friend said he would go to the game with you on Sunday but now he’s backing out. The reason is valid (for him) but you’re peeved. Why are you so mad? It’s not because you’re missing the game but because you’re missing the experience with your friend.
It serves as a reminder to be intentional about how we spend time with people. Movies and things that we watch are fine taken in small doses. But, real friendships need to be developed in the midst of activities that breed interaction. Cheering on a team with a friend. Board games with your kids. A canoe trip with your wife. Activities like these help us interact rather than just spectate. Make sure you’re not spending time watching the same thing but that you are building your relationship.
7. Have fun. Never underestimate the value of a good laugh. In the 2014 NFL season, Peyton Manning broke the record for the most passing touchdowns. Manning is an intense player and hates to lose. But, he is also known as a jokester who is constantly pulling pranks on teammates. I suspect he does so because he values the guys who are in the proverbial trenches with him each week. Even in the midst of the intensity that is professional football, Manning understands the value of having a good time with his closest allies. Our relationships require work but they are intended to be fun. So make the choice and enjoy the journey with those you hold closest to your heart.