Oh the power of positive, redemptive, trust-filled stories! I am so thrilled to introduce
you to my friend, Happy Thorp, associate pastor of Torch Church in Illinois. I am
deeply blessed that Happy is contributing to pastors week. This is another story that
shows how forming deep relationships and trust move past an anxiety-driven
avoidant-bound evangelical culture.
Happy currently serves as an assistant to Torch’s lead pastor, Mark Carter. They are
both passionate about God’s word, and about seeing all of His people - both those
that are still lost and those that already know themselves found - made whole and
holy. Neither one of them dreamed when they set out five years ago with a handful of
other people to plant a church that their shared passion for ministry would lead
to friendship - but it did! You can read more from Happy about friendship on
her website, Simple Felicity.
If anyone had told us when we first met that there would be a day we considered
each other close friends, I don’t think we would have believed you. Having a close
friendship with any woman except his wife was beyond Mark’s paradigm, and while I
knew several men (some of whom were married) that I would consider good friends, I
viewed Mark as my pastor, not as a potential friend. But somewhere along this crazy
We’ve learned a lot about cross-gender
friendship by simply living it, and up
until a couple of weeks ago, we’d never
even really talked about it; our
friendship just happened. It was
completely normal, organic, and in
retrospect, maybe even a little bit
surprising, but it’s been such a gift to
both of us - one we honestly feel is from
the Lord. All relationships are messy -
because people are people, and we’ve all
got our growth edges - but here are five things we’ve learned that I hope will be helpful
to anyone wondering (as I once did) if it might actually be possible that Harry and Sally
are wrong. Men and women can be friends, without there ever being anything weird
1) Cross-gender friendship is not only possible, it’s actually a part of God’s plan.
And we’re living proof.
I didn’t have quite that far to go philosophically - I already believed it. I’d
experienced it first-hand with other male friends, and I’d seen it in the Scriptures: the
friendships between Jesus and Mary, Jesus and Martha, and those between Paul and
Priscilla and her husband Aquila are just a few of the examples to which I looked. The
New Testament is also full of references to the brotherhood and sisterhood of Christ -
which implies to me that a sense of family - a.k.a. friendship - was normative in the
For Mark, the very fact that we’d become friends, and that he could see God’s
hand at work in that, was what God used to open his mind to the idea that a
friendship as deep, emotionally close, yet as safe as ours was possible. He’d
experienced it, even though it was beyond his normal frame of reference. And if our
friendship was not only possible, but from the Lord, then it had to be possible for
other relationships like this to exist within the church, too.
2) Cross-gender friendship - like any relationship - requires healthy boundaries.
We would both be the first to say that if Mark’s wife Mackenzie wasn’t okay with
our friendship, we wouldn’t be either. Because we work together, I see Mark more
often than I see Mackenzie, but she has never had cause to be jealous of my friendship
with Mark. I don’t make inappropriate demands on his time. I never share anything of
a personal nature with him that she wouldn’t (or couldn’t) know about anyway, and it is
an unspoken but obvious truth that if I tell Mark about something majorly personal, he
can share it with Kenzie. And Mark never shares anything with me that Kenzie doesn’t
know about, either.
I have never, ever, flirted with him - nor he with me - nor would that ever even
be a possibility. With all due respect - that would be weird. He’s my brother. You just
don’t do that. And there are things we don’t talk about. Because there are things
you just don’t, and it’s okay. You can be authentic and vulnerable with people without
telling them everything.
3) Cross-gender friendship - like any friendship - takes time and intentionality.
Our friendship was a long time in the making. When we first met, we had completely
different philosophies of ministry, not to mention completely opposite personalities. We
argued - a lot. And said “I’m sorry” - a lot. But then, a couple of years ago, we both
went through some really hard things. Talking thru them required us to be authentic
and vulnerable because we couldn’t possibly do anything else, and we inevitably began
to grow closer.
We also took a bunch of personality tests and learned a lot about each other in
the process. Time and patience and shared history have yielded a slow process by
which we simply learned each others’ hearts.
We’ve learned over time to celebrate our differences and to appreciate the unique
perspectives that each of us bring to the table, rather than feeling threatened
by them. We’ve quit trying to fix each other, finally recognizing that different doesn’t
mean broken. We’ve learned to translate for each other - to communicate in ways that
the other will actually hear. And we’ve learned to be comfortable being real - which is
something we can finally do safely, because even on the days when the crazy comes
out, we know each other well enough to call it what it is and not be fazed by it.
4) Cross-gender friendship has the potential to heal a lot of brokenness.
No one really thinks about cross-gender friendship as a big deal when both
parties are single. Singles are allowed to have friends without gender being much of
an issue. But there’s something about getting married that has created a degree of
fear towards cross-gender friendship in evangelical circles - as if somehow valuing
someone of the opposite gender besides your spouse might put your marriage in
I have had so many close male friends get married and walk out of my life. Oh
sure, they’re still “friendly” if we run into each other - but we don’t hang out anymore.
We don’t talk on the phone, or do anything we used to do. It was like somehow my
value to them depreciated as soon as they got married. How did my friendship
become less valuable to them?
I don’t think I’d even realized how hurtful that pattern of behavior was until I actually
had a small handful of male friends who are married and yet value my friendship
highly. These guys are the real deal. They’re emotionally mature enough to recognize
that love has the capacity to grow - that it makes room for people; it doesn’t shut them
out - and that there are different kinds of love. They’re not afraid of intense emotion -
they love me fiercely, just differently than the way they love their wives. They are
there for me - and they make sure I know it. Mark and I have both seen cross-gender
friendship go south in the absence of healthy boundaries, clear communication, and
emotional maturity. Healthy crossgender friendships just aren’t possible without all
three of those things - but there’s something about healthy friendships that God uses to
mend our hearts from all kinds of brokenness.
5) Cross-gender friendship can be a catalyst for spiritual growth.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” - Proverbs 27:17
We could probably write a book about the ways God has used us to change
each other. That change hasn’t always come without friction - but I can truly say that I
am a better person, and more like Jesus, because of my friendship with Mark. The
depth of his faith in God inspires me daily, and he challenges me kindly but
unapologetically when he sees an area of my life where I really need to grow.
Our friendship has also impacted the culture of our church in some really positive ways.
When we first planted Torch Church, there was a rule that no one on staff could be
alone with a member of the opposite sex if one of them were married. It was what had
been modeled to us by Mark’s mentors and other pastors he respected, and out of an
honest desire to protect our church from any kind of scandal, it was a rule that seemed
It was also ridiculously inconvenient and occasionally awkward.
It left staff members sitting in their cars in the parking lot outside the office, waiting for
a third person to arrive before going in for a meeting. It meant calling ahead or bringing
someone along if we needed to swing by the office for something. It meant having
meetings at each other’s houses or over the phone. And it began to breed a culture of
fear and guilt among some of our leadership when they did find themselves in a
situation where they were alone with someone for even a couple of minutes in a public
place. The intention of the rule wasn’t to cause separation between people - but it did.
But over time, our friendship has caused Mark to rethink that rule. And while he would
still maintain that bolder boundaries are the riskier way to go, he sees that the benefits
to be gained, both practically and relationally, can be worth the risk. Our staff is now
free to use their own discretion about whether or not they’ll spend time alone with
someone of the opposite gender. Some of them have embraced that freedom; others
aren’t sure they want to.
When I asked Mark about it a couple of weeks ago, he said, “One of the things I hope,
when the story of Torch is told, is that we were earnest about acquiring balance
when it comes to spiritual guardrails and wisdom and saying only what the Scriptures
say, and not being foolish and not being naive about real evils in the world, but that we
gave people freedom to be led by the Spirit apart from laws.”
Part of the reason I’m even telling our story here is that we want our friendship to be
an example of how to do that. With wise boundaries, integrity, patience, time, and
prayer, we’ve been led by the Spirit past rules to a friendship that just keeps getting