The Deep Loneliness of Pastoral Leaders
Mark Tidsworth, Pinnacle President
Seven out of ten.
Yes, that’s right. Seven out of ten pastors say they have no close friends, according to an Alban Institute study from around 2002. We’ve been sharing this statistic in clergy gatherings and coaching over the last seventeen years; with a surprising response that’s no longer surprising: a clear lack of surprise. When clergy hear this statistic about clergy loneliness, many of them respond with a “yes, we knew that” kind of response. So research and anecdotal evidence suggests a stark truth; clergy live with a deep loneliness.
The factors forming the loneliness demon are legion.
· Pastoral relationships require some level of boundary to remain pastoral
· Awareness that friendships with those select few in the church can turn south given the right circumstances
· Recognition that one can become friends with some in the church, while also remain willing to step out of the friendship role into the pastoral role when they need a pastor
· Awareness that one is the temporary one in the network of church relationships, given a new call/appointment could come anytime
· Recognition that leadership itself requires a small degree of separation from those one is leading
· High people demands of pastoral ministry leave little emotional energy for relationship development outside of church, especially if one even slightly trends toward introversion
· Pastoral schedules, with many evening meetings and weekend work, interferes with social opportunities
· The public nature of pastoral ministry means many people in/outside of one’s congregation are curious about you, but rarely for personal relationship reasons
Though not an exhaustive list, these are some of the dynamics contributing to the relational disconnect clergy experience when they are passive about personal relational connection. So, given the inherent challenges, we want to challenge clergy to make relational connection a priority. Here are four strategies for shrinking the deep loneliness of clergy.
Recognize it’s not just you
Loneliness is rampant here in our advanced, technologically savvy society, regardless of vocation. Numerous researchers are giving themselves to investigating the factors contributing to rising rates of loneliness in such an “advanced” social environment. Affluence? Technology? Busy-ness? Yes to all of the above, plus some. Though the dynamics of pastoral ministry complicate social connections, everyone is finding relational engagement fairly challenging in our current environmental mix.
Accept the relational challenges inherent in the pastoral role
Unfortunately, there are some clergy who allow the challenges we are describing to turn them bitter, cynical, and generally unhappy. Though the minority, some interpret these challenges as a mild form of persecution or as exceptionally onerous, blaming their call to ministry for their personal loneliness. These clergy need a wake up call. Blaming someone or something outside oneself for one’s troubles is the fast track to personal misery. These pastors and church staff persons need to remember personal contentment is everyone’s individual responsibility. A far better response is to accept the challenging dynamics inherent in the role, growing creative and adaptive, finding one’s way to a satisfying outcome. If one cannot get there, ask for help from others (colleagues, coaches, denominational ministers, therapists). If one can still cannot get there, maybe a vocational change will help.
Accept and cultivate the relational connection opportunities available to you with those who share your journey
Every profession (if we can include vocational ministry in this category) has its culture, slang, and humor. When clergy get together and relax, they are hilarious. Being with them in training events, coaching groups, and denominational gatherings is big fun. When they relax, watch out! Over time, I’ve seen clergy connect with other clergy to form enduring friendships enriching them over time. This week, during the introduction portion of a training event, one pastor introduced another pastor as her mother. They are not biological relatives, yet one mentored the other in ministry until they became like kin. When with one another, clergy don’t have to explain what it’s like. They can simply BE together with others who know and share the journey.
Make relational connection part of your ministry, given ministry is a calling which involves your entire life
Yes, this clergy life is a calling. Yes, the schedule is bizarre at times. Yes there are inherent limitations, while also inherent blessings. So, in this vocational journey, when we believe relational connection is important, let’s go ahead and prioritize what’s important. Consider making relational connecting one of your priorities for this year. We would predict your creative energy would rise, leading you to a variety of relational connection opportunities which you could not predict from where you are now. When we make a commitment to pursue priorities, our generative resources tend to gather around those priorities, leading us to progress. So, rather than me writing an article on “The Top Ten Ways To Make Friends, Even Though You Are A Minister,” I’m suggesting a more deeper approach. Make relational connecting a priority, committing to cultivating this part of your life for a year (or more). Then pray, trust God, and start noticing the doors opening. Be ready to walk over the threshold, following the guidance you are given.
May we be good stewards of this one precious life God has given us, even while serving as vocational ministers.