CHICAGO, IL (October 5, 2015) — In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself.… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
Those philosophical words are borne of Lewis’s own close friendships, and for many people, they remain words of longing for something still to be attained. That can be especially true for ministers who, according to study after study, tend to suffer social isolation and a serious lack of friendships.
Chris Breuninger, pastor of Redwood Covenant Church in Santa Rosa, California, says, “I’ve asked a lot of pastors if they have friends, and they say, ‘We don’t have any.’”
Breuninger considers himself among the fortunate, however, as he and three other Covenant ministers have gone far beyond the extra mile to disconnect from the rest of the world in order to be renewed through their friendship and strengthened in their faith.
For more than two decades, Breuninger, Jan DeWitt, pastor of New Hope Covenant Church in Richland, Michigan; Brad Bergfalk, interim pastor of First Covenant Church in Omaha, Nebraska, and Andy Larsen, who works with a peace organization and lives in Seattle, Washington, have spent a week each year hiking “off the grid” around the Lower 48 states and Alaska. Most recently, they traveled to Glacier National Park in Montana.
“When I ask people if they have longstanding friendships, people they are close to, I haven’t found one that comes close to this,” says Breuninger. “I recognize that it’s really unusual. That’s one of the reasons we value it.”
“I’ve made friendship be a boundary issue,” he adds. “I’m not going to let my vocation define my identity. We all have a sense one day that our vocation will end, but our friendships will continue.”
Breuninger and Bergfalk have known each other since junior high and began hiking around the Lower 48 states and Alaska 25 years ago. Along the way, they were joined by DeWitt, who was Breuninger’s housemate in college, and Larsen, who has known Bergfalk since the 1980s.
“It started as a way to get exercise and be with friends,” Bergfalk says. “It turned into something much more meaningful than we ever thought it would.”
Lewis, who ruminated a great deal on friendship, wrote in a letter, “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”
“Sitting around the fire is like a Midwinter pastors conference without the schedule,” DeWitt says. “You debrief and de-stress with people who understand. There are no secrets. We know each other’s lives. We can talk about anything.”
Over the years, the men have also watched each other’s families grow up. Occasionally their sons have accompanied them on the hikes. “They get to see what real relationships between men can be,” Bergfalk says.
That includes conflict between the friends. “If you have an argument 20 miles from nowhere, you can’t just leave,” Bergfalk says. “You have to work it out. It’s six to seven days in a microcosm experience of community.”
“We all have our idiosyncrasies,” Breuninger says, laughing. “That comes with friendship.”
Larsen adds that hiking is a great way to be together—and be alone at the same time. There might be as much as a 90-minute gap between the first and last person’s arrival at a particular destination. “When you’re on the trail, even though you hike with others, it’s a very solitary experience,” he explains.
Yet it’s also an opportunity to learn to depend on one another and walk together. On their most recent trip, Bergfalk became ill and was unable to carry his 50-pound pack for a brief period.
“I wanted to quit. I was done,” Bergfalk recalls. And then Larsen offered to carry the pack.
“I looked at him in complete surprise,” Bergfalk says, still sounding amazed. “Andy carried the pack a mile and a half on top of his head while also carrying his own pack.”
All four say that disconnecting from the world has been an essential part of their reconnecting with each other and with God.
“For one week every year we make this pilgrimage to the cathedrals of God’s First Church of Creation,” DeWitt says. “It’s faith out of the box, literally. Human stick-built Covenant churches with spires on the roof are nice. But, God-made spires of rock are infinitely more awesome. God has no lack of a magnificent, expansive imagination. Worship in God’s cathedral is always contemporary, always ancient.”
The trips have changed over the years. “As we have grown older, the hikes have gotten more level,” Breuninger says, laughing, but he’s quick to add, “There’s still a lot of up and down.”
They already are looking forward to next year. “It’s not like we think we have to go on hiking so we don’t break the streak,” Bergfalk says. “I just look forward to the experience of being in the wilderness and spending time with this group of guys. It doesn’t matter where we go.”