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When Friendship Fails

October 26, 2014
Christine Pohl

Christine Pohl

 Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

In this post Dr. Pohl draws upon her book,  Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, (Eerdmans, 2012) as well as Friendship at the Margins,  Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission co-authored with Christopher L. Heuertz (InterVarsity Press, 2010).

In forming friendships at the margins, we often encounter difficulties—difficulties that challenge the friendship and provoke reflection on larger cultural and social realities. Unequal distributions of power and resources, envy, fear, betrayal, and dishonesty impinge on our friendships and threaten to undo our relationships. Recognizing and addressing these challenges allow friendships to endure despite difficulty.

All friendships, all relationships, encounter difficulties. Whether as a result of external or internal dynamics, at some point, there are always challenges that need to be addressed in order for the relationship to move forward. In friendships at the margins, some of the challenges are made more complex by differences in cultural expectations and values, by differences in power and resource distribution, fear, and inexperience. These difficulties often provoke reflection on the larger cultural, social, and even economic realities in which the relationships are embedded.

Promise Making and Keeping.

Broken_PromisesIn friendships at the margins, we are most likely to run into misunderstandings and disappointments in the area of implicit promises. When expectations have not been spelled out, people may have very different assumptions without even realizing it. Generally, it is helpful to be clear about expectations and commitments. Particularly in multicultural communities and cross cultural friendships, we can encounter substantial difficulties with unarticulated expectations. Certain practices, etiquette, ways of living out commitments that seem so obvious to one culture are totally unknown to another, and you don’t realize it until you are in the midst of the misunderstanding.

For example, cultures may have different understandings of time, and the meaning of saying “yes” to a question or request. Their orientation to family values and the importance of education may also vary. There are significant differences in concerns about “saving face” and how we handle mistakes. So these cultural differences shape assumptions and expectations that we bring to the relationship and require a certain patience and fidelity and openness to alternative ways of approaching the world.

handsIn friendships at the margins, progress toward trust is often slow, and when we encounter substantial difficulties or frustrations, the person with more power and resources often responds with “I’m out of here. I didn’t bargain for this. I’m doing them a favor. I’m done.” So issues of fidelity and patience are crucial. People who have experienced betrayal and abandonment do not readily trust. Those who have been violated or ignored have learned to be careful about folks who act interested in them. One of the pastors I know talked about the necessity of weaving a fabric of faithfulness over years before people would trust the church or the pastor. That means if we want to become friends with people on the margins we have to become “friends of time.” It doesn’t happen quickly.

To weave a fabric of faithfulness, we need to be very careful about the promises we make, and then be very attentive to keeping them. When we can’t do something we’ve promised, we can’t just brush it off. I think this is true, even when the other person is somewhat inconsistent with their promises. There needs to be accountability in a relationship and not just indulgence on one side or the other, but that develops slowly, in conversation, and through modeling.


truth2Along with fidelity, truthfulness is crucial to building trust, and dishonesty or lying undermines trust in very powerful ways. Truthful friendships, relationships and communities will not necessarily be neat and tidy. There are often loose ends because living truthfully, though life-giving, is often also messy, and again, it takes time. It requires forbearance, fidelity, patience and engagement.

There are lots of reasons people are hesitant to tell the truth. Sometimes our reluctance results from a desire to protect ourselves or someone else, especially another vulnerable person–or innocent family members in the context of community. Even when we create environments of trust, truth telling can still be very painful. Lots of hurts at previous injustices can come out when it is a safe environment; hurts that have been buried or hidden, and come out with just the people who are trying to do the right thing. And, of course, there are times when truth telling can be misinterpreted as grumbling or complaint.

Communities need to cultivate ways to deal redemptively with failures, slipups and wrongdoing. Especially with betrayals and deception, we are often ready to give up on the person or the relationship, but all of us fail and need a way back. Obviously discernment is important here because there are ways that people can basically say they don’t want the relationship, and can do terrible damage, but my sense is that overall we tend to give up too quickly and to not offer a framework for coming back.


Our task orientation, a focus on measurable results and efficiency, can make the kinds of investments necessary in cultivating friendship at the margins seem very inefficient. We demand evidence of success. And hospitality does not lend itself to easy measurement. The fact that opportunities for hospitality often come to us in the form of interruptions in our regular tasks, makes it harder to value the time and effort it requires. And it makes it easier to overlook the natural opportunities that come our way.

hospitalityThe relationship of hospitality to possessions is complex. Practicing hospitality assumes we have something, some resources to offer, but in long term friendships with people who are poor or on the margins, we discover that friendship and possessions are awkwardly related. While social ministry is sometimes perceived as focused on helping people with their physical needs, hospitality and friendship involve sharing ourselves as well as our resources. And, having too many possessions gets in the way of friendship because relationships are undermined if one person always has all the physical resources. Significant differences in resources can result in envy or paternalism, but when we share ourselves and not just our things, we become more fruitful.

If forming friendships with exploited people is important to us, we will be drawn into some complicated situations. We will probably get splashed with some of the ambiguity and uncertainty. Can we really be friends with convicted felons or women who abuse their children? What does it mean—for us, for them, for mission? Ambiguities often cause us to pull away. The circumstances are too tainted, too unclear. We worry about becoming complicit in the evil, about facilitating the wrong, or being personally corrupted. It’s not just these very dramatic circumstances that challenge us—anyone who has a family member or close friend who struggles with an addiction knows about some of these questions.

In sorting out responses in compromised situations, we become deeply dependent on the community’s practice of discernment. We need faith filled wisdom to discern the best response. Sometimes we can only do small things that reduce harm and give glimpses of the kingdom, trusting that if we are present in the midst of the difficulty, God will open up opportunities to minister and help. Such difficult choices humble us and force us to rely on God’s grace and to seek God’s wisdom.


gratitudeOne of the most destructive impulses in friendship and community is envy, one of the traditional vices associated with the virtue of gratitude. As Kierkegaard wrote, envy is a “small town” sin where we compare ourselves to those who are like us or those with whom we are in close proximity. In our friendships and small communities we all too often compare ourselves, our accomplishments, our recognitions, successes, blessings with those of another. It’s easy for envy to get a foothold—in subtle but powerful ways.

Somehow, in most comparisons, we see ourselves as coming up short, diminished by the other person’s success or blessings or by the attention they receive. And envy is the biggest destroyer of friendship and community. We keep it hidden because it is so unholy. But resentments, jealousies, wanting what someone else has so much that we don’t want them to have it—these things grow and undermine friendship and community. And as we grow in friendships at the margins, this can also develop as persons from different statuses and socioeconomic settings grow closer. Comparisons are easier and sometimes very awkward. Envy is very hard to address because we try so hard to keep it hidden.

Efforts to cultivate a practice and posture of gratitude will also encounter challenges. Those who come from more privileged positions of strength, status and resources, who are used to being the one who is seen as helper or minister—often expect gratitude from the persons they help. And often they receive it. But not always, and this is complicated when we try to think in terms of friendship. Friendship emphasizes mutuality, and mutuality means that each person brings gifts to the relationship. The gifts may not be evenly distributed, but it is terribly important that the relationship not be viewed as unidirectional or else it is not really a friendship.

It is so important that we come into friendships not out of a sense of duty but out of an overflow of gratitude and grace, a desire to open ourselves and our lives to others in response to grace and love we’ve received. If our friendships at the margins do not come as an overflow of gratitude, we can quickly resent the costs, and begrudge the time. Even if we don’t expect thanks, it is important to cultivate an environment of gratitude in which persons are celebrated, affirmed, and appreciated.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Identify the difficulties you have encountered in forming and maintaining friendships within your personal life? Within your church community?
  2. What is meant by a “fabric of faithfulness”? How can such a fabric cultivate promise making and keeping?
  3. In what ways can truthfulness be painful? How can it be redemptive?
  4. How can possessions block hospitality? How can they facilitate hospitality?
  5. In what ways can a discerning community facilitate appropriate friendships with people on the margins?
  6. What is the relationship between gratitude and envy?
  7. Why is a posture of gratitude so important for friendships at the margins?

Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.

As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).

Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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