Shasta Nelson, Adventist-pastor-turned-relationship-expert, talks about her new book Frientimacy, her national friendship business and the importance of close relationships.
Question: You have a new book out called Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness. Who should read this book? Why is this topic important? Don't most of us know how to have friendships already?
Answer: Unfortunately, most of us haven’t had amazing education or impressive modeling in how to build healthy friendships. We all too often believe it has more to do with discovering the right friend, rather than in understanding how to develop the right friendship.
I wrote this book primarily for women because about 75% of us are reporting dissatisfaction with our friendships. (Although I have a huge heart for men too who desperately need more intimate friendships and who have even less modeling, permission, and practice at developing deeper friendships.) The truth is that far too many of us don’t have deep, familiar, and meaningful friendships that leave us feeling supported. We are more networked than ever and yet don’t feel like we have a support net underneath us; we know more people and yet feel less known; and we don’t feel like we have enough time to develop the intimacy we know matters.
To ignore our hunger for more connection leaves many of us harming not only our happiness, but also our health. In fact, there may be no more important factor in determining our future health than how we answer the question “How loved or supported do I feel?” To feel disconnected is more damaging to our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice as harmful as being obese, and leaves the equivalent damage on our bodies as being a lifelong alcoholic.
This book follows your 2013 book Friendships Don't Just Happen!: The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends. I see that it has 4.5 stars on Amazon. Have you been pleased with your first book's success? What made you decide to write it?
It means so much to me that my work has resonated with so many people. In my first book about how to make friends as an adult, I explained the five types of friends and helped break down the steps to developing new friendships. Research shows that we are replacing half of our close friends every seven years, so all of us — throughout our lives — will want to become very practiced at making new friends. In other words, two or three of the people we confide in the most right now probably weren’t the same people we felt closest to seven years ago; and me might not even have yet met who we’ll feel close to seven years from now. I wanted readers to realize that there is an ebb-and-flow to our friendships and a tremendous amount of life changes (i.e. moves, job changes, marriages, divorce, kids, empty-nest, retirement) that all impact our friendships. I wrote my first book to help people understand the different types of friendships and how to establish healthy expectations along the way.
But as I’ve been teaching that work, I realized that for many of us the loneliness we feel isn’t because we don’t have enough friends, but because we haven’t gone deep enough with a few. So this second book is about how to develop greater frientimacy — or friendship intimacy — with the people we already know.
Both of your books follow your real-life, online to in-person social networking groups GirlFriendCircles.com, which you launched in 2008. How does GirlFriendCircles.com work?
GirlFriendCircles.com is an online community for women who value friendships — kind of like a Match.com for female friends. We love nothing better than being able to introduce women to new friends across the United States and Canada in their local areas. The wonderful thing about meeting someone online in this way is that we’re meeting other women who we know care about creating intentional and healthy friendships with other women. Women join and attend local events to meet other women offline.
We also offer weekend retreats, TravelCircles abroad, learning classes, and training programs.
Everything we offer is the for the purpose of creating healthier relationships.
You are now known as a friendship expert, have appeared on Katie Couric and the Today show, and have been quoted by numerous newspapers and magazines on the topic. You also are a sought-after speaker at events. Would you say you took this role intentionally? Is "friendship expert" the career you saw for yourself as a child?
Haha! Perhaps had there been a degree in it I would have been drawn to it, but unfortunately the tragic truth is that most of us never even take a single class on the subject. This has had to be a self-motivated and self-taught area of passion.
But I will say that now I can look back on my life and say that without a doubt I have always been passionate about developing meaningful relationships and inspiring people to be their healthiest. To that point, I believe we do our most significant growth in our relationships. All the sermons and self-help books in the world can only go so far to inspire us. Our real relationships with others are the gyms of our personal growth where we actually work the muscles of forgiveness, compassion, boundary setting, and honesty. And our spiritual growth is tied to our relationship health.
In that way this role was very intentional — I knew as a healer and teacher that I had to help people heal their relationships with others, too.
What do you think is the most important advice people need to know about making and keeping friendships?
In my newest book Frientimacy, I teach the three requirements of healthy friendships: positivity, consistency, and vulnerability. The unfortunate truth is that most of us can’t even define what a friendship is — we tend to just assume it’s people we like, or we name qualities we prefer in people, or use really ambiguous language such as “someone who is always there for me.” But those phrases don’t capture a working definition that informs us how to start a friendship, develop one, repair one, or identify if we even have one.
The truth is that a friendship is "a satisfying relationship between two people that is safe and where both people feel seen." In my book I help unpack what that means and how we can assess every friendship in our lives and know what action to take to deepen friendships when we want.
A friendship has more to do with how much we practice the three behaviors of friendship with someone than how much we like someone. We all have met people we like who we never became friends with, and the reverse is just as true: we have developed friendships with people we wouldn’t have initially guessed were people we’d one day feel close to.
How does your background as an Adventist pastor impact your current role?
When I first started GirlFriendCircles.com it couldn’t have felt more different from pastoring. But after some time, I actually realized I was doing much of the same work: helping people become more loving and whole. I used to do that in a church setting through facilitating small groups, counseling couples and individuals, and writing and delivering life-growing sermons. Now the work is done beyond the walls of a church but I’m still writing, teaching, speaking, leading small groups, planning retreats and events, and helping coach people to develop their areas of growth. It’s miraculous to see how little has changed — I still have the same gifts, passion, and calling, even though everything looks completely different!
I credit my upbringing in church to showing me the power of community and gifting me with some of my bestest friends. I’ve never doubted that we are at our best — or most like God — when we are in a relationship. The Bible is filled with an emphasis on relationships and love and forgiveness and I couldn’t be doing the work I am today without having that ingrained in me all those years.
Other practices from my religious background that I still talk about regularly are things like the health message and the Sabbath. Part of what helps Adventists live longer compared to the general population is undoubtedly tied to the relationships of being in a tight-knit community. Research is showing more and more, in fact, that more important to our longevity than adopting healthy behaviors, even, is whether we feel supported. Adventists understand how holistic we are and that the human DNA is to be in relationship. Churches give that gift to so many, for which I am so grateful. And the Sabbath is increasingly important in a world where the number one obstacle to close friendships is lack of time. The idea of a day that is meant to restore us and reconnect us with each other, with God, and with ourselves, can change the world.
What work do you still do with churches? How important is friendship to the work of churches? And how are churches doing, in your opinion, in helping people build healthy friendships?
Relationships are the foundation of nearly everything a church does whether it’s evangelism, discipleship, community service, or community building, so my work is at the heart of what a church is called to do. To that end, I’m often hired by churches or conferences to preach for church services, teach workshops (for women, for men, or co-ed), speak at a health or women’s event targeting the community, or speak for weekend retreats. If we can get our relationships right, pretty much everything else will build on that.
One of the mistakes I see frequently in churches is a similar mistake to what many of us do as individuals: prioritize impressing people over loving people. I’m guilty of this myself — worrying more about appearing perfect or strong or right, instead of practicing one of the requirements of friendships: vulnerability. If the churches could learn how to share vulnerably in appropriate and healthy ways then they’d be more relatable (and less likely to be accused of being hypocrites) and a safer place for others to be real about their imperfections, too. As part of being more Godly — or more loving — churches have unfortunately not always been seen as the safest places to come and grow.
Another problem in many of our churches is an imbalance in who gives and who receives. We want to teach mutuality so that no one burns out, so that everyone grows by serving others, and so we can teach the oft-forgotten skill of learning to receive. To let others give to us is one of the hardest life lessons to learn.
What most churches do so beautifully is give their attendees a sense of having a support net under them. That is something that far too many people live without in this world. I am inspired when I see people come together to care for, fundraise for, cook for, and love people through the transitions of their lives. So many people ache to belong to a group of people who really care and have their backs.
And churches can be such a great place to connect to people in meaningful ways because one of the requirements of friendship, consistency, can happen somewhat automatically — people can see each other regularly without having to initiate, schedule, and plan that time together. Plus, there are likely to be shared commonalities (i.e. backgrounds, interests, beliefs) to be discovered among the people who we’re meeting, so we are more likely to feel a bond.
I pray that churches across this country might be known as places to foster meaningful friendships while the people in them grow their emotional and spiritual health.
For more about Shasta see www.ShastaNelson.com
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Shasta Nelson graduated from Mile High Academy, earned a BA from La Sierra University, and received her M.Div from Andrews Theological Seminary, serving as a pastor in Washington and California, before launching her own business.