This is my third article on the subject of pastoral loneliness. I began the series a month ago when I learned of a pastor I knew who had taken his own life, leaving behind him a grieving church and a devastated family. Then, in my last article, I suggested that the professionalization of ministry both contributes to pastoral loneliness and misses the biblical vision of the church as the body of Christ. Now I want to suggest some ways that pastors and other church leaders might experience relationships that ease their loneliness and help them to be better pastors.
Although pastors can and should experience mutual care with members of their churches, there are some limits to what is realistic and even healthy in relationships between pastors and church members. For example, pastors are rightly expected to hold many things in confidence, and sometimes the bearing of so many secrets deepens the sense of pastoral loneliness. I think, for instance, of one occasion when one of my closest colleagues on my staff was interviewing for another position. He had told me about the process but asked me to keep it confidential. Although I felt deeply saddened at the prospect of losing such a close partner, I was not free to share it with members of my church family.
If pastors are going to be less lonely, if we are going to experience the intimacy offered in Christian community, then we simply have to develop close relationships with people who are not church members or staff colleagues. We need people with whom we can honestly share our discouragements, our dreams for the future, our questions about whether it's time to leave the church, our doubts, and a host of other "secrets." Moreover, if we are going to fulfill our pastoral calling faithfully, we need places where we can openly share our failures, temptations, and fears. Pastors need to be less lonely, not only so that we might feel better, but also so that we can be better or more effective in our pastoral roles.
Different types of relationships can serve as an antidote to loneliness. I'll touch upon two for now.
A pastor needs close friendships with people who are not church members. I'm not saying, as some say, that friendships with church members are not possible or advisable. But there are limits to these friendships. A pastor needs people outside of the church with whom to share and enjoy life openly.
This may sound too obvious to mention. But many pastors don't have friends outside of their own churches. It's easy to understand why. True friendship takes time, and time is in precious low supply for countless pastors. Many pastors travel frequently and rarely settle in one place for long. This makes it hard to develop deep relationships. Moreover, many pastors might not have obvious ways to make friends outside of the church. Where do you start? You can't exactly go on eHarmony just to find a good friend.
As one who recently moved 1300 miles from southern California to the hill country of Texas, I understand how difficult it can be to make new friends in a new place. I'm grateful for the technology that allows existing friendships to flourish over long distances. Still, I am trying to make the time to develop true friendships where I live now. (This is true, by the way, even though I'm no longer a parish pastor.)
A married pastor has the advantage, at least in principle, of a built-in friend. My wife, Linda, has been my closest friend for the last twenty-seven years. She is the one with whom I have been able to share my deepest joys, sorrows, fears, and dreams. Even though she was a member of my church in Irvine, Linda was, first and foremost, my wife. I was her husband far more than her pastor.
Yet sharing certain things with a spouse can be tricky. What if I had been attracted to another woman in the church? Would I have had the guts to share this with Linda? Would that even have been wise? Should I have risked angering or hurting her?
There were times in my pastorate at Irvine when I told Linda about difficult things I was experiencing at church without telling her the identity of the people who were making my life so unpleasant. On more than one occasion, I watched Linda talking with someone on the patio on a Sunday morning, having no idea of the nasty letter I had received from that person only a few days earlier. (I must confess I rather enjoyed watching the discomfort of Linda's conversation partner, who assumed that she knew about the letter and couldn't understand why Linda seemed so at ease.)
One of the problems associated with pastors telling their spouses about problems at church is that spouses might decide to get involved. This is never a good idea. It always creates more problems than it solves, especially in the long run. Pastoral spouses should limit their involvement in pastoral difficulties to supporting, counseling, and praying with and for their spouses.