“Friends” is an amorphous term in our day and age. For many, anyone who in another era would have been considered an “acquaintance,” we call a “friend.” In the social media realm, friend is defined as “a person I consider not so completely random or stalker-ish that I will let them onto my page.” A very low bar.  There’s even a category called “frenemies,” (a cross between friends and enemies that is so common spellcheck didn’t flag it as I typed it just now) which doesn’t really sound to me like a friend at all.

I’m afraid most of us don’t really have all that many true friends, especially if you’re a guy. True friendship requires trust, transparency, and vulnerability that, frankly, scares the bejeebies (which spellcheck DID catch) out of us. Which is why, when we actually meet and make true friends, we need to celebrate it and identify for others what makes it so special, so worthy of replication and the sacrifice necessary to form and sustain it.

As is true for most leaders, being a head of school is lonely. Making decisions, then living with the consequences, carries with it an inherent degree of isolation that is impossible to manage out of the job. I have three (we recently added a fourth) guys who do what I do, all of whom understand and live this loneliness, and who have agreed to walk alongside and do life with me.

After tragedy struck a mutual friend of ours several years ago, one of these guys reached out to the rest of us via email: “This tragedy made me realize I don’t have any friends. You guys are going to be my friends. Let’s get together.”  We came from our schools in Tyler, Little Rock, Atlanta, and Charlotte to meet in a cabin in the small town of Banner Elk, North Carolina for the weekend. There, we formed a lifetime friendship. We now get together several times a year, and talk and text several times a week.  There are a few characteristics that I believe make this friendship, or any among followers of Jesus, powerful, purposeful, and life-giving.

Rooted in Jesus.  First and foremost, we’re joined in our love for Jesus.  I believe completely that a disciple of Jesus can be friends with a nonbeliever (after all, that’s what discipleship is all about), yet there is something about the Holy Spirit residing in me, interacting with the Spirit in you, that is profound. Deep calls to deep in a way that transcends words.  I have an understanding of the heart with these guys that is truly Spirit-given. I think about Jonathan’s and David’s covenant of friendship, a commitment before the Lord that they would be truly for each other no matter what, and I understand what that means. My mom always said you pick your friends and you’re given your family, but once you choose your friends at this level, you’re stuck with them. They become your family. They are yours for life. It’s what Proverbs 18:24 means by “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

Forged by great work. I suppose you can have strong friendships centered around affinity, like golf or football, but there’s nothing that joins people together like doing great, purposeful life work. The closest relationships in my life are those centered around some great mission or purpose, something outside ourselves, something Kingdom-focused. With my Banner Elk guys, it’s Christian education. We’ve been mutually called by the Lord to train up the next generation of Christ’s Church, and we are all incredibly passionate about that calling. We talk about it, think about ways to do it better, read articles and books about it, and debate and discuss it. We are also all geeks about leading Christian schools. No one else would think our conversation is cool; our wives get pretty bored pretty quickly (except one, but she’s a geek like us). Yet, we think we’re fascinating.  Together, God has allowed us to build great Christian school associations, and separately, but through each other’s encouragement, we’ve each had a role in building more than one great Christian school. These bonds unify us in a way that simply being interested in cigars or something never could.

Characterized by encouragement or accountability. On any given day, one of us has a monumentally bad day. We will hop on a Zoom call together, laugh and make fun of each other, commiserate about our work, pray for each other, and end the call feeling better, encouraged in the way that only guys making fun of each other can do. We have walked through the darkest, hardest years for Christian school heads together, through COVID and quarantine, deaths of our own family members and those of our school family, suicides and suspensions, job transition and personal illnesses. Because we are all engaged in the same work together, we have a shorthand way of talking to each other, common phrases, jargon, and gestures that convey profound meaning. We understand each other in a way even our wives cannot. This connection brings understanding, and understanding brings encouragement.

We also hold each other accountable. Our ability to tell each other anything gives us the freedom to speak truth into each other’s lives, even when its hard or painful to hear. I’ve been called from sin and stupidity by these guys more times than I can count, and I know they would say the same. Proverbs 27 tells us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Anyone can enable and perpetuate your stupidity and error to puff up his own selfishness and vanity; only someone who really loves you will risk it all on saving your life.

Resilient through trials and challenges. One of the greatest marks of a friend is how many times your friendship has survived genuine threats.  My Banner Elk guys and I have fought with each other, walked each other through job terminations, had passionate arguments about the best way to care for kids through pandemics, and other things that were so stupid I’m not even going to talk about them here. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul tells us that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We recite this passage at weddings so often we often believe it only applies to marriages, but Paul wrote it in the context of friends. Real love, love between brothers, endures everything. A true friend is someone who has learned to forgive you and keep loving, and to have friends like that is the greatest blessing in life. To be a friend like that is to have the heart of Jesus.

Author Rebecca McLaughlin notes that Christian marriage is at its best a beautiful picture of Jesus’s love for us. But, she observes, it’s not the only one. The apostle John writes, “by this we know love, that Jesus laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 16). Are there brothers (or sisters) you would lay your life down for? Don’t let the shallowness of what constitutes friends in these short days rob you of investing in friendships that will last forever.