For pastors, pastors’ wives, and other leaders under the pressures of ministry, friendship can seem like an unattainable dream. Perhaps, we tell ourselves, it’s something we’ll cultivate when life slows down, or when the kids are grown, or when work becomes less demanding. Far too many of us encourage others to pursue community and extol its great value in the spiritual life, while we ourselves grow more and more isolated. We easily excuse ourselves from one of the most vital means of emotional and spiritual health.
As Andy Crouch observes in Strong and Weak, “Leaders bear vulnerability that no one else can see. . . . It is the price of leadership.” He adds:
When we have no one who knows the depths of our fatigue, disappointment or despair, the gap between authority and vulnerability can become overwhelming. No one survives hidden vulnerabilities without companions who understand.
Leaders need co-laborers, companions, peers, helpers, friends. Certainly, friends can’t walk each step in our shoes, nor can they understand us fully, but they can point us to the Friend who knows, sees, and cares for us perfectly. We need friends like these if we hope to persevere in ministry.
Even the greatest preachers need friendship. In their new book, Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom, Matt Carter (pastor of preaching and vision at the Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, and TGC Council member) and Aaron Ivey (pastor of worship at the Austin Stone Community Church)—tell us the story of the friendship between Spurgeon and a freed African-American man. Spurgeon was world famous and beloved by the thousands in his church, but he found himself consistently isolated in sorrow, both from lifelong depression and also chronic illness. He preached and served faithfully, but he felt hopelessly chained to the Devil’s voice inside his sufferings.
Thomas Johnson was a black man born into slavery on a Virginia tobacco plantation. He was eventually freed and went to London for training at Spurgeon’s school to become a missionary to Africa.
The night they met, Johnson recognized Spurgeon’s hidden vulnerabilities and had the courage to speak about them:
Thomas extended his hands forward, then motioned for Charles to place his hands within his. Carefully, Thomas held the trembling hands of the weakened pastor. Choosing his words with caution, Thomas immediately felt the power of the Holy Spirit give him words beyond his own wisdom, beyond his own vocabulary.
“These bandages,” he whispered slowly, “are the sufferings we can see. They are on the outside. They are flesh. They are blood. But, they are only the physical, my friend. What about all of your sufferings that nobody can see?” (215)
Think on that incredible scene: a white Englishman and a black man from Virginia; a famous preacher, known for his oratorical skills, and a freed slave who learned to read and write only in his freedom. They crossed literal and figurative oceans to meet in that moment of profound ministry, and what immediately united them was their shared hope and freedom in Christ. Johnson recognized Spurgeon’s hidden vulnerabilities because they were his own—suffering, weakness, and chains of differing kinds but similar power.
Soon they were fast friends, exhorting one another to fulfill God’s call on their lives and learning from their differing backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. They grew so close that Johnson was at Spurgeon’s bedside when the “Prince of Preachers” took his last breath. Their friendship, as told in this work of historical fiction, remains a significant picture for us in these tumultuous days of the power of the gospel to unite us to one another, with all of our cultural and racial distinctions, under the banner of Christ.
This is true friendship: two people finding deep commonality in Christ, seeking to encourage and exhort one another, hearing one another’s most intimate thoughts and cares, listening and learning from differing perspectives, and ultimately pointing one another to hope in Jesus.
Spurgeon and Johnson shared this kind of friendship, and their story models the friendships leaders must cultivate. Are we willing to share our hidden vulnerabilities, darkest thoughts, and deepest insecurities? Are we willing to listen to others and bear their unfixable burdens? Are we willing to receive pastoral care as the famous Spurgeon did? Are we willing to go to the heart of the matter and speak with courage and boldness as Johnson did? Are we willing to engage those we may consider “unlikely” friends?
As ministry leaders, we want deep friendships, but we often feel self-protective and unsure where to begin. It’s encouraging to note Spurgeon couldn’t have seen Johnson coming, and Johnson couldn’t have guessed he would be close friends with someone he’d long admired from afar. God delights to give us the gift of friendship, perhaps through the “unexpected” person most of all. Our role is to cultivate what he gives.
Carter and Ivey have written a unique book and one I highly commend. It reads much like a missionary or ministry biography and will encourage you wherever you are—whether you’re in pastoral ministry, serving as a pastor’s wife (the influence of both men’s wives shines throughout), navigating deep suffering, or working tirelessly toward racial understanding and unity.
May we learn from the example Spurgeon and Johnson left us. May we be men and women who lay down our lives for others. May we be Christians who know the power of the gospel. And when our leadership brings inevitable hidden vulnerabilities, may we also recognize that we can’t survive them without companions who understand.
Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey. Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom? Nashville, TN: B&H, 2017. 304 pp. $19.99.