My pastor recently asked me, “Why is it so hard for people to see pastors as friends and not just pastors?” In one respect, the question caught me by surprise. He is part of a large pastoral staff of a big and vibrant church with a reputation for being highly relational. How can someone whose life revolves around forming caring relationships have a lack of friendship?

It turns out my pastor is far from alone. In a recent study, my team discovered that most relational-style pastors and missionaries average fewer personal relationships than the typical adult, and an alarming number have too few close confidants to support them in their life and calling.

Though it may be tempting to simply encourage ministers to seek more relationships, many ministers are faced with a trade-off between quality and quantity. Those with a large number of very intimate relationships have a smaller overall social network, and those who form lots of relationships have impoverished inner circles. Failing to get the right balance corresponds with burnout and ministry ineffectiveness.

Quantifying an Inner Circle

Our research is rooted in the idea that humans naturally have a certain number of personal relationships to which they gravitate. Known as “Dunbar’s Number” because it was first discovered by British evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the number of genuinely personal relationships that we can actively maintain averages around 150 people but varies broadly. Some people can handle more and some less, but 150 seems to be the human norm.

Interestingly, Dunbar and colleagues note that 150 people is both the approximate size of typical small-scale human villages and about the number of people who can live or work together without needing power structures to enforce cooperation. The group is small enough that social pressure can keep people in line.

Within those 150 active personal relationships are rings of ever greater intimacy and trust. Around 50 of those 150 are close friends and family members whom we interact with a little more often and trust a little more. Within those 50 is another ring of approximately 15 very close friends and family members. We turn to these 15 in times of trouble or would drop what we are doing to help them.

Then there is the inner circle of best friends. These five people are the keepers of our darkest secrets, those that we count on through thick and thin, who we would be happy to see every day if we could. Interestingly, around five people is also largest number of people who can be in a conversation in which everyone feels comfortable to contribute.

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The Limits of Friendship

The rings of 5, 15, 50, and 150 are typical, but they may not be the best sizes for everyone.

Why can’t we simply have as many friends as we would like? Research by Dunbar and colleagues suggests that we are limited by physical proximity, brainpower, and hours in the day. For relationships to become emotionally intimate, physical touch is our go-to method.

Though we humans do not pick bugs off of each other like chimps do, we do need to “socially groom” each other, and that requires being near each other. Have you noticed that children often brush and braid each other’s hair and love to wrestle? These are acts of social grooming. Positive touch, such as pats on the back and hugs, releases chemicals in our body that make us feel good around that person and inclined to trust them. Laughing with others or acting in synchrony (as when singing or clapping) may do something similar.

Our relational capacity also seems to be limited by brainpower. Humans have unusually large personal social groups proportional to our unusually large brains. Keeping track of lots of individuals—their personalities, their changing likes and dislikes, their friends and foes, their current concerns and struggles—requires a lot of computing power. And while humans have a lot, it is not unlimited.

Of course, our number of relationships is also limited by time. We cannot spend all of our time hanging out with friends and socially grooming them. We need to sleep, work, and meet other basic needs. Working and eating alongside our friends and family can do double-duty, but not everyone has this luxury.

The result of these limits is that if we begin investing in someone new, someone old may drift from an inner ring of intimacy to an outer ring, or from an outer ring out of the active network of genuine personal relationships and into the “acquaintance” zone. We cannot simply choose to have an unlimited number of super-close best buddies.

Making Friends for Christ

I first learned of this research while I was teaching at the University of Oxford and Robin Dunbar joined the faculty. One day I asked him, “What happens if someone deliberately tries to add more people to their social network?”

“We don’t know,” he said. People don’t typically wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll make a new friend today.”

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But I had served in Young Life with my wife. We did wake up on some days and think, “I am going to try to make a new friend today,” and we encouraged our volunteer leaders to do likewise to help introduce kids to Christ. Many relational-style ministers actively try to make and maintain new personal relationships without losing the old ones.

Is that even possible? I had my doubts, and not only based upon Dunbar’s research. I remembered the sometimes-crushing emotional burden I felt in having to constantly expand my social network and push beyond 150, or whatever my natural relational capacity might be.

When I took my post in Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Psychology, I started a research project that applied Dunbar’s insights to ministry contexts. My colleague Cynthia Eriksson helped recruit a team of doctoral students to the research.

In our study we examined 237 missionaries and youth ministers who approach their ministry primarily through building relationships. Like me when I worked for Young Life, these ministers may wake up in the morning looking to make a new friend for Christ. We led them through a process to identify all of the members in their active social network and determine the various rings of intimacy. We also gauged, among other measures, their sense of ministry satisfaction and whether they were showing signs of burnout. The results were surprising.

From my personal experience in ministry, I thought these ministers, like me, would have few really close relationships and an unusually large number of less intimate relationships. So I expected fewer people in the 5, 15, and 50 rings but active social networks well beyond 150. I was wrong.

We did find clear evidence that there is a trade-off between quality and quantity in relationships. But people with lots of intimate relationships (inner rings) actually had smaller social networks overall. On average, the ministers in our sample only had 119 personal relationships, not 150.

In fact, the missionaries and the youth ministers were nearly identical in this regard. Rather than rings of 5, 15, 50, and 150, we found rings of 10, 26, 87, and 119 on average. A quarter of ministers had very large numbers of relationships that they identified as very close (7 on a 7-point scale), almost twice that found in previous research on typical adults. It appears, however, that this investment in going deep with some people meant little ability to go broad.

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But if the average makes it look like ministers are flush with best friends, sadly, it doesn’t tell the whole story. While a small group of pastors indeed have many close relationships, they are the exception and are skewing the numbers. In fact, almost a third of ministers had no friends at all in their inner circle (only family members). The plurality of ministers had only one person in their most intimate group.

What this all means is that many ministers are doing an emotionally and relationally demanding job with a much smaller core support network than the average person, and this lack of support appears to be impacting the effectiveness of ministry. Ministers with fewer than normal of these core relationships saw their ministries as less effective than did ministers with four to six intimate relationships.

Interestingly, having more than this optimal range did not appear to have any additional gains in terms of ministry success, but it was associated with smaller total numbers of personal relationships. Instead of having a full allotment of trusted friends and family members that they can turn to for help, support, and love when navigating life’s challenges, they appear to have invested so much in a smaller number that they have fewer people to turn to in times of need, to solve problems, or emotionally survive losing that ministry position.

Realistic Relational Ministry

Our research suggests, then, that most ministers in relational-style ministries fall into two groups. The larger group has spent a lot of time cultivating very intimate relationships with 20 or 30 people, often on their ministry team, at the expense of a broader social network. If the ministry demands forming genuine personal relationships for the sake of sharing the gospel or making disciples, these ministers have little relational capacity available for those new relationships. Their time and emotional energy are already spent.

The smaller group of ministers is relatively lonely and isolated, with few really close, intimate relationships to turn to for support, and yet they may have lots of shallower relationships, possibly those required by the demands of a relational ministry.

I offer implications of this research tentatively. Just because some traits tend to go together does not mean one is causing the other. That said, I encourage churches and other ministries to consider the shape and size of their leaders’ social networks and how demands placed upon them could lead to distortions. At least 13 very good friends and family members and 4 to 6 best friends appear to be good targets.

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Pressure to form and maintain too many meaningful personal relationships with ministry team members, top financial supporters, and other “strategic” individuals may fill ministers’ relational capacity to the point that they cannot wake up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to make a friend for Jesus.” The result could be ministers who feel ineffective or even lonely. They may have too few people in their lives who see them as good friends instead of ministers or ministry colleagues.

Perhaps your pastor needs a friend.

Justin Barrett is regarded as one of the founders of the cognitive science of religion. He is a psychology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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