“The Power of Holy Friendships” featuring Victoria White

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“The Power of Holy Friendships” featuring Victoria White
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Podcast Episode 129

How can holy friendships sustain pastors and church leaders? In this episode we speak with Victoria White about her book Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships that Sustain Pastors and Church Leaders. She shares how to strengthen relationships into holy friendships and how to create opportunities for people to cultivate holy friendships.

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Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by the premier Doctor of Ministry in Church Leadership Excellence from Wesley Theological Seminary and the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. With this track, clergy will receive the enhanced knowledge, skills, and motivation to increase congregational and denominational service, vitality, and growth. Learn more and apply for May 2024 at wesleyseminary.edu/dmin.

How can holy friendships sustain pastors and church leaders? In this episode we speak with Victoria White about her book Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships that Sustain Pastors and Church Leaders. She shares how to strengthen relationships into holy friendships and how to create opportunities for people to cultivate holy friendships.

Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Jessica Anschutz, the assistant director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talks.  Joining me is Victoria White, managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. She’s the author of Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships that Sustain Pastors and Leaders. Thank you, Victoria, for taking the time to speak with me today about holy friendships.

Victoria White: Absolutely. I am delighted to be here.

Jessica Anschutz:  We are glad to have you. As we start off today, I want to invite you to reflect on how church leaders can invest in their own sustainability.

Victoria White: What a great question. Resiliency and sustainability seem to be two of the top terms that I’m hearing when it comes to leaders today, especially within the Church and Christian institutions. So how can leaders invest in their own sustainability?

I think about the things that we typically turn to for sustainability. We think about continuing ed courses or maybe taking something to brush up on a skill, doing a certificate program, or going on a retreat to, you know, fill up our cup so that we can then give out to others. For me, one of the best ways I invest in my own sustainability is by spending time with my holy friends.

I am one of those people who, in order to do life and do life well, need my relationship with God, need my relationship with my family, with my therapist, with my spiritual director, with my coach, with all of those important people. Just as important, I need relationships with my holy friends because those are the folks who I cling close to me and see as my chosen family.

Those are the folks who tell me the truth when I want to hear it and when I don’t want to hear it. They hold me accountable. They keep me going. They remind me of who I am at my very best and at my very worst and they remind me of who I am in God’s larger unfolding story with creation. That’s one of the most important things that they do for me: help remind me that I have a place to play in God’s world. So, I believe that, just as important as retreats, continuing ed, denominational meetings, and all the things that we do to try to keep us sharp, sustainability is also a matter of who we stay in relationship with.

Jessica Anschutz:  Wonderful. I affirm all of those things that you have shared and those aspects of your relationships with your holy friends. Tell us about holy friendships. What are they? You named some of the things that your holy friends do for you. What are the characteristics of holy friendships?

Victoria White: Sure. My definition of holy friendships are mutual and sacred relationships deeply formed in God’s love. And there are a couple of key words in that definition:

Mutual: mutual means that the two people who are in the holy friendship know that this is a different kind of relationship. It’s not just the kind who go to lunch or catch up every once in a while or have a casual kind of relationship. This is not a surface level relationship. This is one where folks go to those intimate places, those deep dark night of the soul kind of conversations. They also have the lighter kind of conversations because we need those. But mutual means you both know that this is a particular kind of relationship that you both need for your sustainability and flourishing.

So Holy Friends are mutual and sacred.

Sacred is something that we Christian institution leaders are familiar with because we think about sacred as “set apart” like the Holy of Holies. It is a place that is important to God.

The sacredness of relationships to me also means that there’s a connection there to God’s love and God’s love for us. One of the ways that God loves us is through the way that we love others. That’s the sacredness of holy friendships.

So holy friendships are mutual and sacred relationships deeply formed in God’s love. That formed word is important to me because to me it connects to formation. And so holy friends are a part of our ongoing formation as Christians, as little Christs. My holy friends call me to be more Christlike as a part of my formation.

Those are the basic components of a definition of holy friendships: mutual and sacred relationships deeply formed in God’s love. I also go further in the book and talk about some of the things that holy friends do for us. Being a good Trinitarian, there are three things that holy friends do for us, at least three things.

The first one is that they validate our past. I don’t know about you, but I have these — I’ll date myself — cassette tapes that play in my head over and over again with stories of where I have failed or where I did something ridiculous or should have done something differently. They live in my head rent free, and they play over and over again and remind me of places where I’ve fallen short. My holy friends will hear those stories and they’ll come alongside me and say, “Yes, absolutely. I have no doubt that that happened. And let’s think about some other ways to reinterpret that story. Maybe it’s that you did fail in that. What did you learn or how are you a different person because of that?” Our holy friends, in validating our past, also help us re-narrate the stories we tell about ourselves. They also help us re-narrate the story sometimes that other people tell about ourselves, which is really important.

The second thing that holy friends do is they hold space for us.

I tell the story in the book about my friend Jean.  She and I have this phrase that we say: “Will you hold my basket?” If Jean calls and says, “Hey Victoria, I need you to hold my basket,” what that means is that I will hold for her a metaphorical laundry basket and she will just verbally dump everything that’s going on in her world into that basket that she needs to just spew out and get off of her heart and mind at the moment. I’m giving her a place to put all the stuff that she needs to lay down.

Then when she is done with the conversation, I will ask her, because I love her, I will say, “Okay, this basket is really, really full. What would you like for me to do with it? Do you want me to just set it down? Do you want to pull something out of it, and we’ll talk about it? Or do you want to come back to these things later? I’m not going to do anything with whatever is in this basket because it’s not mine. All of this is yours and it’s yours to figure out what to do.” If I were to take something out of Jean’s basket and deal with it for her … because I admit I am the type of person who likes to solve problems and I could very easily jump to it and say, “Oh, but you know with problems four, five, and six, I have an idea that we can just wipe those out right now.” If I did that for her, that would be me taking away some of the work that she has to do for herself and she would have to do it again later. My job in holding space for her or, as we call it, “holding the basket” is to just be that safe space for her to land, for her to process through all of her stuff, and then to be there for her when she decides it’s time for her to go through those things and work through them.

And then the third thing that holy friends do for us is they help us midwife a vision for the future. Alongside those stories that we tell ourselves that live rent free in our head, sometimes the future that we see for ourselves is quite limited to our own view of our lives. Holy friends look at our lives and our vocation in the bigger picture of God’s own love story with the world.

There’s a sense of telos to holy friendships. They see that the ways that we are contributing to God’s work in the world is important, so they are able to help us midwife new visions of what our future can be.

Now those are just three things that holy friends do for me. I am quite certain that there is a laundry list of things that holy friends do for one another. But those tended to be, as I listened to folks in my research for the book, those tended to be the three main areas that a number of the stories fell into about the work that holy friends do for each other.

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much for that and I can tell you that my experience with holy friendships fits those three categories. I want to pick up on “holding space” because I think that it’s so important for church leaders to have someone who will hold space. Talk about how it’s important and how leaders can trust the other person to hold that space — to hold that heavy and full and overflowing laundry basket.

Victoria White: That’s one of the reasons holy friends are so important to me. In the book, I talk about the importance of Christian institutional leaders and pastors having folks who can hold space who are outside of their constituency and a lot of times outside of their congregations because, yes, it is so important to be in beautiful relationships with the people in your congregation if you are a pastor. Yet, you are still their pastor, so there is a hierarchical relationship there. Folks in the church are going to need you for certain things. They may not be the right person to hold space for you because there’s always going to be a nuance to that kind of relationship. I recommend that folks find their holy friends in people who are like them in that they’re maybe at the same level of their professional development with them and who they would see moving forward in their vocational development with them.

I also highly recommend looking for and nurturing holy friendships with folks who are dramatically different from you. I know that I love going to denominational meetings and running into friends that I haven’t seen in a long time and reconnecting with them. It is just as important for me to go places outside of my normal stomping grounds, to go to design conferences, to meet people at art galleries or doing different kinds of social clubs who have a difference of opinion and experience and education and basic general outlook on, like, politics (super important today). To have folks who think differently from you is really important in our having a variety of people to hold space and help us think differently about the world.


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Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. I think that is incredibly important in the polarized dynamic we see at play in this country when we think about the importance of diversifying our friendships. Some folks may have relationships that they see have the potential to be holy friendships but aren’t quite yet holy friendships. How can folks nurture relationships into holy friendships?

Victoria White: There are a variety of ways to do that, and a lot of it is contextual and specific to personality. I’m one of those people …. In fact, right here on my desk there is a pile of stamps and notecards. I am note writer and I travel quite a bit. Any time I am at an airport and have time sitting there at the gate or whatever, I am constantly writing notes to folks just to reconnect, to remind them that I’m thinking about them.

When I do travel, if I am in a city say for three nights, I will make sure that every single one of my meals is taken with someone who is in within, you know, a 90-mile radius. I’m making sure that I’m not just sitting in my lovely hotel room with Uber Eats and a movie, which is also great and important. I’m making sure that I get to see folks when I am traveling. Text messages go such a long way. One of my dearest holy friends sent me the most wonderful meme last night that said, “My love language is reminding you of your power.”

Jessica Anschutz: Hmm. That really is.

Victoria White: Isn’t that beautiful? My love language is reminding you of your power. That little meme spoke volumes to me. Not only did it communicate that exact sentence, but it called to mind all the times that she has reminded me of who I am before. And here I am talking about the meme now, today, 12 hours after she sent it.

Holy friends begin with some kind of significant investment of time. In the book I talk about how you can develop a holy friendship through longevity. Some folks have friends from, you know, kindergarten, although that’s less and less available to us now as we are a much more transitory society and we move more often. My husband has friends that he’s known since kindergarten because he grew up in the same house his entire life. I moved around quite a bit. Thanks to Facebook of course and all of the other social medias I can keep in touch with folks, but longevity is one of the ways that folks are there for those major and minor milestones in your life.

Another way that we can develop holy friendships is through what I call “crucible moments.” Those are particular moments in time when we go through a dramatic growth. It could be something like — for pastors and Christian leaders — seminary when you are learning new things and you’re figuring out what you truly believe about Scriptures and about faith and about formation and how it is you want to live out your vocation. It might be the people — if you are raising tiny humans — the people that you had children with. It might be people that you podded with in the beginnings of COVID, the people you chose to spend a lot of time with when you couldn’t really spend time with anyone else. Those kinds of crucible moments have the space around it for you to have the kinds of intimate and vulnerable revealing conversations that provide the fodder for developing a holy friendship.

There’s one other way that I mentioned in the book that I think is really beautiful. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the idea of a “blink” and how you can recognize something or someone in a blink. I tell the story about two women who met and, instantly, the way they describe it is their souls recognized one another, that they knew that this person was going to be — and I gave them the language so they then use the language — a holy friend in their life. They recognize that there was some kind of kinship between the two of them. I do believe that’s possible. I have had that with one person who is one of my dearest holy friends still today, and it really is a beautiful thing.

There are a number of ways that you can develop holy friendships. A lot of it is simply intentionality. It’s seeing that in someone else, in recognizing that you need it and that you also know that someone else needs it, too, because we all need to be in community with one another, and then in intentionally following up, building that relationship, and investing in one another.

Jessica Anschutz: I appreciate that. I want to take a step back. Many clergy talk about the challenge of meeting new friends and making new friends as adults. How can we initiate those relationships so they may lead to holy friendships?

Victoria White: A disservice that we are doing to a number of younger leaders today is we aren’t forcing face-to-face contact with folks. So much of what we do is online, and there is anonymity to it. There is a level of protection to it. The screens enable us to hide a lot. So, it’s not that I don’t believe holy friendships can start online. They absolutely positively can because we have found ways to allow us to be vulnerable and reveal a lot of ourselves online.

However, I do believe that the majority of really significant relationships begin with some kind of face-to-face interaction. For me that means getting outside of our house, putting down our phones, meeting people for meals, going for walks, going to book groups, and going to places where you know there are going to be people who are interested in something that you’re interested in. And being vulnerable to the point of walking up to join a conversation that you overhear, that someone is talking about something interesting to you, and joining in the conversation, asking a question, and then — get this, Jessica — being interested in the person’s answer, really listening. Not just listening so that you can respond but wanting to learn about what it is they’re talking about. And then asking another question, continuing that conversation. And then at the end of the conversation, if it goes well, saying, “You know what, I really, I enjoyed this. Could we go grab a cup of coffee?” or “Would you mind if I sent you that book title that I was trying to remember and can’t think of now? And maybe we could follow up and have another conversation about this.”

It’s about putting ourselves out there. You don’t have to say, “Hey, I’m lonely. I need to develop more friendships.” All you have to do is go out and initiate a couple of conversations. If you are genuine and earnest in the questions that you’re asking and wanting people to engage with you, I promise one of those is going to work out. Now it’s important to know not all of them will. And I do tell a couple of funny stories in the book about how I’ve tried to initiate friendships with a couple of folks sometimes, and they’ve been too busy or they just weren’t interested. And, yeah, that hurt my ego at the time. And you know what? It’s okay because I don’t need to be in a friendship with someone who doesn’t want to be in a friendship with me. And at the same time, it’s important for us to put ourselves out there.

Now one thing I do want to clarify though because I can hear all of my introvert friends in the world cringing right now at the idea of putting themselves out there and having to initiate a conversation. I’m not asking for folks to do this with five or 10 or 15 people. For me, I believe that sustainability and flourishing in Christian ministry comes from having at least one holy friend, having one person that you can turn to and rely on and be in conversation with over time. You don’t have to have two or three or five of them. One of them is great. There are lots of people I know who are very healthy, thriving leaders who are “one friend” kind of people and that is totally and completely okay. So, I want to put that out there to all of my friends who are curled up on the couch right now, just shuddering at the idea of having to talk to a bunch of people. That is not what this is about. You don’t have to do that, but you do need to talk to at least someone.

Jessica Anschutz: I appreciate that, and I’m sure that we have listeners who are extroverts and some who are introverts. I hope that they will all find their way to holy friendships. You’ve talked about how we can cultivate them and what they look like. What are some of the barriers, other than somebody just not interested in being a friend? What are some of the barriers to holy friendships?

Victoria White: One of the greatest barriers to them is time. Folks will say, “You know, Victoria, all this sounds great, and I agree that it’s super important. And I have a full-time job or maybe two full-time jobs and I have a family and I have aging parents and I live in community. I have all these other things that I need to be doing.” I agree, absolutely, all of those things are very important. Like we talked about in the beginning of our conversation, if you’re spending time researching a text for your sermon, you are doing that because that is an expectation as part of your job as a pastor who delivers sermons. If you are preparing a funeral for a family who’s loved one has died, you are doing that because it is part of your job as a chaplain who does funerals.

I believe that being in relationship with our holy friends is part of our job as pastors and Christian leaders because whatever it is that we do, it makes us better at our jobs. It’s actually part of our jobs. If having a 20-minute phone call with a holy friend during the day puts me in a better mood, gives me more creative ideas, helps me access the more vulnerable parts of myself, and then enables me to be more effective in a meeting, more creative in a newsletter article, and give better leadership development advice to an employee, then that 20 minutes that I spent on the phone with my friend is part of my work. It is not something that is a luxury item that I do at the end of the day when I’m exhausted if I have 20 extra minutes on my commute home. Or it’s not something that I do on Saturday night if I have time at the end of the week. Being in community and nurturing our holy friendships is part of the work that we are called to do as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Think about how Jesus spent his time in ministry on earth. He spent it surrounded by friends. Jesus did his work in community. We are called to do our work in community. And I believe because we are called to do work in community, that means we need to hold our holy friends close. Because doing work in community is incredibly challenging work. It can also feel incredibly lonely. You can be in a room full of people and still feel lonely. That’s why we need our holy friends to help call us back to ourselves, to remind us who we are as the beloved children of God.

Jessica Anschutz: Beautiful. I really appreciate the way that both in our conversation here today and also throughout the book you tied this back to scripture and the example of Jesus. We have talked about so much. Our time is rapidly drawing to a close, but I want to encourage our listeners that, if they haven’t already, to pick up your book, Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships that Sustain Pastors and Leaders. And I want to invite you as we wrap up, Victoria, to talk about this: how can church leaders inspire other people to seek out and cultivate holy friendships?

Victoria White: One of the superpowers I believe that church leaders have that is greatly underutilized is the power to convene. When church leaders invite people to come together, there is power in that. There is an authority in that. There is a kind of underlying mystery that the Holy Spirit will be present and something beautiful and amazing is going to happen.

And I would encourage church leaders to utilize their power to convene people into groups in which they can cultivate the conditions for holy friendships to be realized, to be nourished, to flourish.

Because imagine what a finance committee could do if it was full of people who were holy friends. Imagine what a deacon committee could do, if it was a group of holy friends who trusted one another, who believed in one another, who held one another accountable, who truly believe that their flourishing was connected to each other’s flourishing. Imagine what it would be to lead a church full of congregants who are emotionally and spiritually mature enough to nurture their own holy friendships. For me, that’s a glimpse of beloved community. That’s a glimpse of what Jesus wants for all of us and the example that Jesus set for us. It also means that there will be challenge in it. It will be challenge done in love and an appreciation and in honor of one another. But I would encourage our Christian leaders to convene folks in really intentional ways that set up conversations for holy friendships to blossom and flourish so that their community might do the same.

Jessica Anschutz: Beautiful. I like it. Thanks so much, Victoria, for joining me today. It’s been a joy to speak with you about your book and about Holy Friendships.

Victoria White: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.

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Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships That Sustain Pastors and Leaders (Fortress Press, 2023) by Victoria Atkinson White. This book is available through the publisher, Cokesbury, or Amazon.

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About Author

Dr. Jessica Anschutz

Jessica L. Anschutz is the Assistant Director of the Lewis Center and co-editor of Leading Ideas. She teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary and is an elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy.

Victoria Atkinson White is the director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. In this role, she encourages traditioned innovation among Christian institutions and their leaders. For eight years, Victoria was a chaplain at the 900-resident Westminster Canterbury Community in Richmond, Virginia. Before that, she worked as minister to alumni at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Victoria is a graduate of Duke Divinity School, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and Rhodes College. She is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.