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I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a minister’s support group that’s been going now for the past 23 years. We started with a dozen or so guys who didn’t know each other well, sitting around a table at the Caraway Conference Center and trying to hammer out some sort of official covenant agreement to guide the process and ensure confidentiality so we could be comfortable spilling our guts.

It wasn’t long after Robin Williams’ movie “Dead Poets Society” came out, so we put a twist in that and called ourselves the “Dead Preachers Society,” thinking we could kill off the “preacher persona” that’s so heavy to carry and just be our vulnerable selves when we got together three or four times every year.

For the first few years we read books or discussed particular topics in addition to catching up on our personal or church-related triumphs and travails, but over time the books fell by the wayside and friendship took over. I doubt that most of us could still find a copy of the original covenant, but we no longer need it. Mutual care and respect guide the time we spend together.

Over the years, some members have moved away and we’re down to seven now. There’s more gray in our hair (and less hair of any color). We’re as likely to talk about grandkids as children and saving for retirement as salary packages. Though all of us remain actively involved in ministry of some sort, only three are still serving as full-time pastors.

No one in the group has died, but several of us have lost close family members, and all of us have confronted exigencies of life that can be hard to bear alone — but we didn’t have to, because every one of us knows at least six other guys we can call any time, with any problem. Sometimes we counsel each other with whatever wisdom we’ve accumulated; sometimes we just listen and engage and try to understand.

Everybody needs friends like that, and I’m grateful for mine. I encourage the young ministers I teach to either find a good support group and join it, or to find some friends and start one. One of the most effective things the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has done, I think, is to encourage the development of “Peer Learning Groups” and even provide some funding to help with travel or educational expenses.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be in ministry to find that a supportive network of friends, family, or neighbors can make life better in both happy times and hard ones. The hope, peace, love, and joy we celebrate this Advent season can often find its most welcome expression in the face of a friend, or in our own self-giving to others — no festive bows required.

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