Lonely in the church

From Thom Rainer:

The three most common causes of loneliness shared with me by pastors are insightful:

1.     Church members do not want to get too close to a pastor.  

2.     The pastor is accustomed to giving instead of receiving.  

3.     The pastor is in a defensive mode.

Three Dangers . . .

Here are the three most common negative consequences of loneliness straight from the mouths of pastors:

4.     Burnout.  

5.     Moral failure.

6.     Depression.

Three Solutions . . .

I plead with pastors to who are experiencing loneliness to take one or all of the following steps:

7.     Find a confidant.

8.     Involve your spouse.

9.     Get professional help.   

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  • Phil Miller

    I would say that pastors probably experience this sort of thing in a more profound way that the average church attender, but my experience of visiting different churches over the past few years is that it seems this sort of loneliness is probably pretty common all around. The thing that strikes me in churches is how hard it is to actually get involved in community. I was just telling my wife yesterday how it seems people really don’t even notice you’re there. They have their group of friends, possibly, but it just seems that there’s little interaction between people.

    Roger Olson touched on it in this post last year, and I think he makes some good points: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/12/have-american-evangelicals-become-secularized-some-new-years-reflections-on-changes-during-a-lifetime/

    I think most people don’t see church as an integral part of their life, now. It’s just another thing they do for a variety of reasons.

  • DMH

    I’ve noticed this also. I sure I’m guilty of not noticing people, and now that I’m looking for a new church I’m feeling the “unnoticed” side of the coin. Church isn’t structured to get to know people/community, it’s structured to spectate. There’s probably some “cultural” stuff also playing into it.

  • Two thoughts: First, I remember when a church planting team that I was a part of was going through some pre-plant training (it was good; it made me think of pre-marital counseling). At one point after meeting together for several hours and getting the impression we were more focused on Sunday morning than we should be, I felt compelled to ask if we were planting a community or starting a service–what was our focus? I realized then and now that these were not mutually exclusive, but it’s so easy to focus on building/planning/executing a series of events/meetings and not necessarily focus on building a community.

    Second: Pedestals are lonely. Always have been and always will be. Avoid standing on them or putting others on them. If you think that being a pastor requires a pedestal, rethink that.

  • Marty Thurber

    My wife has always been a natural people person and that has been so valuable in our ministry. I had to work at it, and thanks to her personality, I’ve grown better at it. But she has suffered more than I have because of the inability to have friends in our churches. We talk often of what it would take to have better/more friendships in our lives. We have some of course, some really good ones in fact. But somehow we still grieve for what we think we should have or be experiencing in the friend category. I’m glad you brought this subject up and I hope you will continue to talk about the health of pastors and their pastoral families.

  • NateW

    As close as Jesus was to his disciples, I can’t help but feel that he must have been incredibly lonely at times. There was not a single other human soul on earth that understood Him or related to him. He was loved, to be sure, but hated by many more, and even those who loved him did not understand him, did not know him. They all left Him. Imagine always speaking in parables, because what is in your head and your heart is simply beyond your ability to spell out plainly. Imagine the blank stares and hateful taunts following your very best illustration. The hopelessness of feeling like nobody will every understand you.

    In my own small way I can relate to this. I can’t even hear myself think most times, let alone speak the contents of my thoughts so that someone else can share in them with me. I’m not a pastor, but I wonder if this isn’t the the true calling of every shepherd, to hurl his bruised heart against the hardness of others’, taking up his cross and finding himself forsaken in the end, all the while moving forward knowing that Christ is somehow there in the emptiness too, and placing his hope in the resurrection.

    Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, essentially says that the experience of true Christian fellowship is a tremendous blessing, to be enjoyed when it is given but never taken for granted. Those who have it will often be called to give it up, those who don’t may never find it, but from each moment of death for the love of our brothers grace and peace and love will rise.

  • gingoro

    For a church member if one needs a special diet then it is likely that no one will invite one to their home. eg celiac condition, extensive food allergies or both. It gets very lonely!

  • The issue I see most often regarding loneliness and isolation that is particularly problematic for pastors/priests is that they feel unable to share with their parishioners due to concerns of impropriety or other issues that would endanger their jobs if they were to be more open with them. The need to “find a confidant” should specifically state that there needs to be someone ideally outside of the pastor’s congregation to talk to.

    I would also add the need for a confidant outside of the pastor’s denominational circles, as there are related political matters of denominational scope, not just congregational, that could make opening up to fellows within the local denominational sphere problematic, as well. I’m suggesting multiple confidants, due to these differing needs. A person who can help with some issues may not be able to help with others.

  • Rick

    I appreciate the post, but I agree with some of the comments that this is a common problem.
    My concern is that pastors think this just happens to them, thus they see it as just a leader problem, when in fact it actually happens across the board. If they see it as just a leader problem, then churches will have a tough time getting past it.

  • eric_in_ohio

    I’ve been pastor of my current church for 10 years. I can count on one hand the number of parishioner homes into which my wife and I have been invited for dinner….

  • Steve Pierzchala

    I understand God calling people to be pastors, because I certainly don’t see why anyone would “want” to do it. As good friends with a couple of pastors, my wife and I have seen and walked with them through the things of this post, and more. Interestingly, as we became closer and closer to our pastor, we lost more and more “friends” within the church. Then when the pastor and his wife were called to another church, we had the “joy” of receiving criticism, complaints and pent up anger of people mad at the pastor. We particularly humored in hearing how imperfect they were from such “perfect” people. Yet, our experiences with pastors has been such a blessing while growing in faith and and servitude that we look forward to the next opportunity. Hang in there pastor’s! We love ya and appreciate you and what you do and what you have to struggle through. 🙂

  • Susan_G1

    I don’t know if you’ve tried this, Eric, but our pastor regularly schedules lunches with all of the parishioners. It’s not the same, but it starts things off. He also has small group at his house, and regularly hosts evenings for all the parishioners. But I agree, it seems to be a problem, not only for pastors (who may have it worse), but their parishioners as well.

  • eric_in_ohio

    Absolutely. Done that. My wife and I have hosted parishioner dinner parties (one a month for two years), open houses, etc. Parishioners love it when we entertain. Reciprocation, not so much…. Seems to be a local cultural thing. (You’re not really a part of this community if you don’t have grandparents buried in the cemetery.)

  • Susan_G1

    That is really a shame. Everyone needs a shepherd; psychologically, we all need a ‘herd’ as well. I hope things will change for you. In the meantime (don’t know your age), if you have children, it’s often easier to make good friends around them than around church. Sad but very true for my husband and I. I couldn’t even tell you why, except parents are “in it together.” That need for reassurance seems to be stronger than our need to be together in our brokenness and love of God. I’m sure someone can explain it, but not me. I think Phil below is correct. Please forgive me if I seem condescending, I don’t mean to. I really hope for the best for you.

  • Susan_G1

    It sounds like there’s both a cultural element at work here, and a sociological/psychological element, in the “inequality of power” sense between parishioners and pastors. I hope this serves to remind us parishioners to reach out to our pastors.

  • Steve

    I see this as an unfortunate by-product of the artificial establishment of a professional clerical class that separates “pastors” from the rest of the congregation.

  • Hello Scot,

    since I am a very curious and even inquisitive person, such a situation is not going to happen in a Church I’m currently a member of :=)

    And lonely pastors should have more time for theological discussions…provided of course I don’t gross them out :=)

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Eddy Hall

    The first reason pastors give for their loneliness is that members do not want to get too close to a pastor. While it makes sense that that would be pastors’ experiences, I wonder if the flip side is at least an equal reason: pastors do not want to get too close to their members? When my dad attended seminary, he was explicitly taught that he should not have close personal friends within the congregation. He practiced that. While he was warm and jovial with people, he never in his life had a relationship with a parishioner in which he shared his struggles or made himself vulnerable in any way.

    I now have the joy of being part of a congregation where vulnerability is part of the core DNA. That is true in large part because the founding pastor, who just resigned after being here 26 years, practiced great humility and vulnerability, both in small groups and in the pulpit. It is normal in our church for whoever is preaching/teaching to share vulnerably as part of the teaching, teaching out of our own struggle with sin. We have come to believe that James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another,” is actually at the very heart of the disciple-making process. While we are serious about communicating biblical truth accurately, we have come to believe that life-transformation depends primarily on creating environments that “make is safe for regular open-heart surgery.”

    Of course, a part of this vulnerability is non-defensiveness. Our pastor was genuinely open to correction. He did go to counseling. (Almost all our congregation’s leaders do, from time to time, and the church has a counseling fund to make this possible for those who can’t afford it.)

    The two things visitors to our church most comment on is how friendly people are to them and how “real” our church is. They contrast what they experience at our church with the mask they encounter at most other churches.

    Our pastor had no shortage of intimate friends within our congregation. I do think this was largely because his vulnerability and humility largely (but not entirely) eliminated the perception of class distinction.

    With our pastor’s leaving, I now find myself as head of staff. Fortunately, my church is my family. It is where I have my closest friends. It is where I am most free to be real. I have found that preaching out of my pain and my struggles and my failures actually increases my credibility with my brothers and sisters.

    I’m sorry my dad never experienced the freedom this could bring.

  • Phil Miller

    Great story about your current congregation, Eddy. I’m glad to hear that places like that actually exist.

    As far as pastors not wanting to get close, I’d say that your dad’s story is probably pretty typical. My father is a pastor as well, and when I think of the people he’s been close to, they typically haven’t been those in the congregation. As he’s gotten older, he has done some activities with men from the church, but I never got the feeling that he would consider these men his close friends. Right now, there is an associate pastor at the church, and he and my dad are pretty close.

    I think one thing is that many pastors have unfortunately been on the receiving end of some pretty nasty stuff. I can think of several instances where people who I thought were friends with our family outright turned on us and started spreading lies because of the way something was handled in the church. My parent’s church has never really had a huge split, but there have been factions of people who have left over the years. When that happens, it seems pastors bear the brunt of it. I think they naturally try to be peacemakers, but that leaves you in a vulnerable position.