the shape of leadership

The Lonely Pastor

The value of relationships in ministry

People are lonely more than ever today. In the last 30 years, the number of people who lack strong, close relationships has tripled. In one study, when researchers asked people how many friends they had, the most common answer was “zero.”

Relationships make us healthier and happier. On the flip side, loneliness increases our risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. In short, we need each other.

With the amount of social connectivity over the internet and through our devices, you'd think people would become less isolated. However, just having friends on Facebook doesn’t make up for a lack of friendships in real life.

Pastors are not immune to loneliness. In fact, I think it’s worse among ministers. Pastors have always found it hard to connect closely with others. Today’s climate just increases that problem. We need to do something about this.

Why Are Pastors Lonely?

Before we can address the problem, we need to identify the cause. Why do so many pastors feel alone at times?

For one, we find it difficult to get close to those around us. If a member of your church confessed they were lonely, you would probably encourage that person to join a small group or get involved in serving. These are ways to build relationships with others in the church.

But pastors often feel they can’t connect with members. They worry they may end up playing favorites, or that others will perceive them that way. And what if that confidant leaves the church? Not only have we lost a member, we’ve lost a friend.

Pastoral ministry is self-sacrificing by nature. We put aside our own needs for the needs of our flock. That means spending time with those who need us, regardless of whether we need them. We give our time and often don’t get back a healthy relationship in return.

Pastors also suffer from past hurts. These slights can be real or imagined. You might have heard a harsh word or criticism that broke a friendship. Perhaps someone let you down or a relationship went up in smoke. Maybe you just had a front-row seat for these things because your parent was a pastor who experienced unfair treatment. Possibly a friend or fellow pastor went through something difficult.

Such experiences can make us hesitant to form close relationships, so we retreat and isolate ourselves.

Warning Signs

We tend to spiritualize solitude and independence. Spending time alone with God is how we grow spiritually. But every pastor of every church knows that’s only part of the process. God created us for community. When we as pastors neglect this important facet of our souls, we run the risk of greater damage.

When you start feeling lonely, don’t ignore the warning signs.

Loneliness is a sign that something is wrong. It’s also a warning that something worse is just ahead. As we grow more and more alone, we will isolate ourselves from others. We believe we are simply isolating ourselves or our families from criticism or pressure.

But the truth is, we are cutting ourselves off spiritually and emotionally from God’s family. Surely that’s not good.

Isolation will create distance. We can detach from those who care about us. We can become standoffish to those who can help us stay in check. We can become proud of our status or self-righteousness. While we see all this as growth, it’s actually leading to a fall.

Loneliness will lead to depression. When we cut ourselves off from others, we lack a support group during difficult seasons. Having no one to talk to increases our worries and anxieties. Think about this: Do you have someone you can call at 2 a.m. if there’s an emergency? If not, then there’s a problem in your life.

Depression leads directly to burnout. We may run at a high rate of speed for extended hours with no downtime, because downtime just reminds us of our loneliness. And burnout can lead to all sorts of damaging consequences, including moral failure. Don’t ignore the warning signs of loneliness. God is trying to speak to you in your pain.

Finding Friends

So, what’s the answer? I’m sure I’ve painted a picture of despair right now for the majority of you struggling with loneliness. But there is a way to go from all alone to a part of something great.

First of all, look for friendships around you. Don’t be afraid to form relationships with people inside and outside your church. Maybe you find something in common with someone who goes to the church down the street. Or perhaps that person doesn’t go to church at all. What a great way to evangelize by meeting someone else’s need for friendship.

Don’t be scared of being yourself. Look for people who will accept you for who you are, both as a pastor and a person. And find those with whom you have something in common. They may be pastors on your own staff team, at other churches in your community, or within your denomination.

Understanding the different types of friendships is also helpful. If your expectation is that every relationship is perfect, then you’ll likely be lonely for a long time.

You will have lifelong friends and friends for a season. There will be people in your life you don’t see for months on end but then pick up right where you left off. And there will be those you used to know and don’t anymore. And that’s OK.

You will have deep friendships and shallow ones. And you need both. People you can share your deepest dreams and insecurities with, and those you just share dinner with. You will have trustworthy friends and friends who break your trust. You will experience a wide range of relationships in your life — and that’s how it’s meant to be.

Going from lonely to connected is vitally important. It will improve your health, make you a stronger leader, and give you better perspective. It will also improve your walk with Christ. When you start feeling lonely, don’t ignore the warning signs.

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