A minister's wife can find them in the strangest places -- like church.

There's a special chemistry I've shared with a dear friend since our earliest days in Washington, D.C. Whenever Mary Jane and I get together and drive somewhere, we inevitably miss exits because we become so absorbed in talking to each other we forget where we're going. As we turn around and head in the right direction, we laugh and promise ourselves, "We won't let this happen again." But of course, it does.

In my lifetime, I've had many friends, but those with whom I've formed intimate friendships — like Mary Jane — are rare. I can count on my hands those people in my life whom I feel totally accepted and loved by, at one with and willing to give my life for.

That's a big statement for anyone to make, and especially for a minister's wife. Like you, I've heard all the arguments against the wisdom of pastoral couples forming friendships within the congregations they serve. But I don't buy them. Something in me says, "Phooey!" As a partner in ministry with my husband for more than 30 years, I have sought close friends in each of the three churches we served.

My husband, Louis, and I believe that companions for the journey are necessary for ministry couples and that the Lord not only gives us permission, but encouragement to seek them. As we have done this over the years, I have discovered some guidelines that have been helpful along the way. But first, let me tell you how I came to call Mary Jane, a member at the last church we served in D.C., my best friend.

Mary Jane and Me

Early in 1974, my husband and I had just moved from a church in La Jolla, Calif., where, during 10 years of ministry, we had developed some warm relationships among the staff. While Louis jumped into the excitement of a new call with characteristic enthusiasm, I went into a time of mourning the loss of those friends.

Now in a large church in downtown Washington, I found myself among people who were gracious — but very busy. Each month, I became more lonely. I would meet women with whom the chemistry seemed good, and my hopes for friendship would soar. Then I would discover that their schedules were so jammed that they had no time for a new relationship.

So I backed off. Instead of looking for that special person who would be my friend, I began praying regularly that God would send that person to me.

"I quit, Lord," I prayed. "It's all yours. Just send me one person I can trust. Someone who needs me as much as I need her. Someone with whom I can share my life and faith." Months passed with no answer, but I kept praying.

Then one Sunday after service, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, thinking it was one of the four children, but sitting in the row behind me was a woman I had met at a luncheon weeks earlier. I had been drawn to her immediately when we met, but knowing she was the wife of a congressman with a busy schedule, I dismissed any thought of seeing her again.

But there she sat with her husband, asking, "Colleen, what do you do every Thursday morning?" I gulped and said something like, "Nothing ... that is, nothing I can't change."

"Good," she said, "because that's my free day, and I have a strong feeling that God means for us to be together."

Unbidden, tears filled my eyes. In that moment I knew Mary Jane Dellenback was God's answer to my prayer.

First, we met at my house on Thursday mornings for about an hour. During that time, we talked and prayed, but I didn't tell her anything too intimate. As months passed, however, I saw that Mary Jane was someone I could trust. She wasn't a gossip. She didn't have a need to be "in the know" about the minister's family. And she never held me to unrealistic expectations because I was her minister's wife. Within a year, we were talking often, and I felt safe sharing nearly everything with her.

That was 24 years ago, and my husband and I have long since left that church. But though hundreds of miles separate us (Mary Jane now lives in Oregon and I in California), we call each other often, and we fly to see each other five or six times each year.

The Rules

Now, I know what you're thinking: That's great for you, Colleen. But how can I form friendships in the church without getting burned? And how can I be open with people without jeopardizing my mate's ministry? That's where the rules come in — what I call the ministry wife's three must-knows for forming friendships in the church. Here they are:

Pray for discernment.

This is the most important rule, because only God can lead you to someone you can trust. On the surface, some may seem trustworthy, but I 've been burned by such people. In short, don't get too close to anyone whom God doesn't give you a good feeling about. Enough said.

Dare to be transparent.

I remember the first time I dared to be open with Mary Jane. A small group of members was challenging Louis' leadership (sound familiar?), and he and I were hurting.

My heart was pounding as I broached the subject with Mary Jane, prefacing my words with a warning: "Mary Jane, I need to ask you to keep what I am going to share confidential."

Mary Jane looked at me in her very straight, no-nonsense way and said, "I have no need to repeat anything you say to me." And she didn't. In fact, over the years, she has never breached my confidentiality.

But have I ever trusted the wrong person? Of course. Did I get hurt, or was my husband's ministry affected? Yes. Have I learned to be more cautious? You bet! But has that kept me from being transparent and trusting again? No way! Because intimacy means taking a risk.

But use good sense.

Yes, take risks, but don't be stupid. Look for people who are mature and emotionally healthy. Stay away from gossips, people who don't hesitate to tell you about everyone else's business. Being loose-lipped with the wrong person can be disastrous. Let me illustrate.

In one church, a member asked me, "How is your husband, Colleen?" Sensing her compassion, I told her that Louis had been feeling the demands of ministry and was having trouble sleeping. Consequently, he hadn't been feeling well during the day. The woman said she would pray for him, and I thought that was the end of it.

Within days, we were flooded with calls from people — some of whom we barely knew — who were "really concerned about Louis." We later discovered that woman had put our name on the prayer chain of a nearby church with 1,000 members! I was embarrassed as I explained to each caller that Louis really wasn't having heart trouble, as they had heard; he just had a little insomnia!

Worth the Effort

A good friend, chosen by God, can bring so much joy into life, and God knows we ministry wives need to laugh and have a good time.

Mary Jane has added a sweet fragrance to my life. We have laughed and cried our way through the last 24 years — learning to tap-dance (a gift she gave us as we both turned 50), holding hands and praying at hospital bedsides, and everything between. I cannot imagine life and ministry without this special woman.

If you don't have such a friend (other than your husband, who I hope is your best friend), pray today, "God, show me why I don't." Then ask yourself, Am I willing to be transparent and trusting? Am I willing to give of myself? Am I willing to risk? And if I have been betrayed and wounded by a past friendship, am I willing to let God heal me so I can love and trust again?

God created us with a desire and need for friendship. It is part of God's dream plan for our lives — a resource for health, joy and ministry. Jesus confirmed this truth when he said to the early disciples, " You are my friends" (John 15:14), my companions for the journey.

What a privilege we have, this possibility of friendship with God and one another. Let's live up to our privilege.

Taken from Pastor's Family magazine, Dec 1997/Jan 1998.
Article copyright © 2003, Colleen Evans.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Colleen Evans lives in Southern California with her husband, Louis.
They serve in a renewal ministry of the
Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.