Pastor with Limited Capacity for Relationships?

A while back, I heard a principle, called Dunbar’s Law, that suggested that each individual can generally maintain approximately 150 relationships at any given time and sincerely keep up with the happenings in the relationships around them. Often if you make new friends in a new job or church, it becomes hard to stay “as current” with the friends who you no longer connect with on a regular basis. Some have a surprising capacity to do more than this; some less. But I’ve found it to be really true, at least in that there are limits to how many relationships you can legitimately sustain.

When I was the Children’s Pastor at my fairly large church, I was generally able to maintain good working knowledge of the majority of our kids and the majority of the volunteers (many from the same family). As I transitioned into the Executive Pastor role, though, I began building relationships with volunteers in many other spheres, and all of the sudden, couldn’t keep up with all of the children’s workers and families as well anymore. I deeply missed some of those relationships, but no matter how hard I tried, time made it harder and harder to keep up.

I think it’s important for everyone to be aware that there are limitations to our capacity for meaningful relationships. When you’re in an industry that values meeting and engaging lots of new people on a regular basis, I have found that I have to

  1. choose carefully into which relationships I’m going to invest lots of energy and time. Filling your life with new people, faces, and relationship could reduce your capacity to steward the priority relationships in your life: close family and friends, etc. You can’t just this as an excuse to keep others at arm’s length, but it is important to guard your key relationships. Be willing to be honest with yourself that you can’t be everyone’s “best friend”, even if you recognize that is a need in their lives.
  2. use notes, to-do lists, and calendars to keep up with happenings in people’s lives who I want to care for, but may not have the capacity to remember. Simple birthday texts, or “I’m praying for you because I know you have surgery tomorrow” can go a long way to showing care and just require that you make note of these things when they come up. 

Side note: Some say that if you really cared, you would work to remember all of these things. I contend that I care enough to recognize that I will have trouble remembering everything, so I manage that personal weakness by writing things down so that I can show that care when the timing is appropriate.

A pastor I respect greatly shared during a message that there were 12 men in his life who he had given himself to as friends and as a mentor. Those men were the key leaders in his church and he was committed to taking their calls and being available to them. Beyond his family, he admitted that he couldn’t maintain that same availability to everyone, especially in his very large church.

Are you minding your capacity for deep relationships?

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