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 ...1