"Aside From Family Members, I Have a Best Friend in My Congregation."

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

This is the 10th in a series exploring the 12 items that best measure congregational engagement.

Everyone needs friendships. We are created as social beings, not meant to live our lives alone. Some psychologists (and theologians) have claimed that loneliness is the greatest problem of our time, contributing to most of our social ills.

Popular culture has capitalized on our need for relationships, particularly through television. The most popular shows of all time -- dramas and comedies alike -- are built around relationships among groups of friends. We didn't watch M*A*S*H all those years because we were interested in the nuances of the Korean War; we watched because the relationships among the characters were so interesting, often poignant and downright funny. Cheers was built around the relationships developed at a Boston watering hole. And then of course there is Friends.

There's no getting around it -- people need friendships. Yet according to a 2001 Gallup study*, only 44% of congregation members strongly agree with the statement, "Aside from family members, I have a best friend in my congregation." In fact, only two other engagement items of the 12 received lower scores. It seems that deep, meaningful relationships are not being formed in most congregations in this country.

The best congregation environments are those in which there are many real, genuine friendships. Individuals are happiest, most productive and most fulfilled when they can cooperate and combine their efforts, and when they do not have to waste time "watching their backs." Members need to feel that they can trust the people around them. Friendship is the gateway to trust; best friendship is proof of trust. Therefore, the more people who feel they can strongly agree with this item, the more genuine trust there is in the congregation and the more effective and healthy the congregation will be.

Key Points for Spiritual Leaders

  • You cannot force friendship. You cannot make people be friends. However, you can create the kind of environment in which friendships are encouraged. Remember, relationships are the glue that holds all great congregations together. As the leader, you set the tone, creating a climate in which members feel valued.
  • Offer opportunities where there is no agenda except relationship building. The possibilities are endless: old-fashioned pot-luck dinners; catered dinners after services; donuts and bagels between services; family outings to the zoo, the beach, parks and ball games; dinner groups; cultural events. Use your imagination. And remember: it's OK for faith communities to have fun together!
  • Establish small groups. One of the best ways to encourage deep, lasting friendships is through small-group events. Throughout the last two decades, American culture has seen an explosion of small groups, not just in congregations but also in other areas of life. Small groups meet weekly for a common purpose. Some possibilities include:
    • Study groups. These groups meet to study Scriptures, books, video series or a variety of other things. Their purpose is for participants to learn and grow.
    • Accountability groups. These groups meet in order to help participants meet the challenges of everyday life and become better people. Members hold each other accountable for living up to the expectations of their faith tradition, and support each other in their efforts.
    • Support groups. Support groups cover myriad problems people deal with in their lives, and offer the comfort and assistance of others who are facing or who have faced similar difficulties. Support groups may be centered around divorce recovery, depression, grief, living with cancer or other diseases, addictions, parenting teen-agers, etc.

However you decide to focus on this issue, remember that your congregation is only as strong as the relationships within it.

The SE25 are protected by copyright of The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, 2001.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 729 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, conducted October through November 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3.6%.

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Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/6817/Aside-From-Family-Members-Best-Friend-Congregation.aspx
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