Thursday, July 23, 2015

Covenant Friendship- are you a rescuer?

We are not the messiah  
But I have heard many people tell about having people stop recuing them, coming to the end of themselves, and finding God and sobriety at the bottom. In fact,  rescuers have often been the thing that kept these people from hitting bottom, finding God, and sobriety! Jim Jackson, Covenant Friendship

In Covenant Friendship: An Ex Loner's Guide to Authentic Friendships (2015), Dr. Jim Jackson brings his many seasons of pastoral ministry and recovery to bear on the topic of friendship. The result is a rare coalescing of rich biblical insight and pastoral wisdom hard won.  

The persistent theme of the book is simply put: "We need friends- people- who choose to share their lives with us. Without this chosen intimacy, we are spiritually and emotionally malnourished." p.68
Jackson admits that there's only space in our lives for a few covenant friends, so while the book is about friendship, most of the content will relate to intimate friendships: "We all need four intimate friends who would not allow any obstacle to prevent them from helping us." p. 168 Why four? Read the story in Mark 2 about the paralytic's four friends.
Jackson finds the origin of covenant friendship in Scripture, in the covenants made between Jonathan and David, and Naomi and Ruth. He maintains that Jesus had only three such friends among all the disciples and multitudes: James, John, and Peter. Church tradition is filled with examples of covenant friendships from Paul and Barnabas to Saints such as Francis and Claire. Wedding vows, according to Jackson, have their origin in the Early Church, when covenantal rites were made between friends.  
Pastors, whether in recovery or not, may find the discussion of "friendship fatality" (7) one of the more interesting and helpful chapters. Co-dependency is not friendship. It is where one is controlled and the other is controlling. The fruit of covenant friendship is freedom and growth. It's counterfeit (co-dependency) ends in rescuing: "False Messiahs easily slip into the roles of ... help-aholic,  protector, provider, fixer, and martyr. Playing these roles makes us feel important. We get hooked on the need to be needed." p.137 
Rescuing others can easily be the drug of choice for any helping professional. By focusing on others, we never have to look at ourselves honestly. Neglecting our own self care and focusing on others keeps us isolated and exhausted. At one point, a friend had to confront Jackson, asking him, "Do you have anything left to give to all of those people?"   
Much of the content of the book was first presented in a sermon series. Maybe that's why the chapter on choosing friends (5) seemed a little how- to-ish: "Look for new ways to connect with people. Use social network opportunities...Take advantage of Starbucks bulletin boards, and even free publicity in community newspapers to find like-minded potential friends." p.98  Sure, but simply connecting with an old classmate across the country is sometimes just that.
Jackson's paradigm for covenant friendship is taken, in part, from the sponsor/sponsee relationship in AA. The sponsor is the giver and the sponsee is the receiver. Adult Children of Alcoholics mentions "fellow traveler," in addition to sponsor. It would seem that many aspects of covenant friendship, such as accountability, require mutuality. We could consider being equally accountable to each other as a kind of safeguard against co-dependency.

The role of pastor comes with a power differential which makes mutuality with those we serve more problematic. Too, looking to cultivate intimate covenant friends among parishioners may be considered a conflict of interest- since ministry is about serving others instead of our needs for friendship.

Clergy groups would do well to use Covenant Friendship as a guide for greater transparency, self-awareness, and mutual accountability with peers. We pastoral leaders need to drop the false masks of our finely tuned personas in a few safe and non-judgmental relationships- so that we can grow in wholeness and joy.    

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