It can be lonely at the top.

You may be surrounded by people who adore you. Yet the pedestal where they put you is a lonely place.

Church problems rest on the shoulders of leaders—further isolation. Even the news is enough to drive you to distraction. Every time you read of the church shrinking or read an article attacking your beliefs you probably feel isolated from the culture. Certainly the downfall of prominent Christian leaders piles on feelings of retreat and isolation.

A few scriptures might strengthen your hand.

You’re not the first to feel alone in a crowd. Paul complained to Timothy, “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” That’s bad! But he was able to add, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed, and all the Gentiles might hear.”

So if you and I come under attack we can look to our ancient older brother for words of wisdom and an example of Jesus being there in his hour of dread.

It reeks of a cliché to say the Lord is near. But clichés exist because they trumpet often stated truth.

You and I are never alone—though it is natural to feel that way. Just knowing that can get us through a rough patch. But we know it by faith not sight.

Someone, maybe King David, wrote, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” So, 3,000 years ago a leader felt what you feel. The fact to glean is that God must have turned to him during his affliction or we wouldn’t find these words in the Bible. Again, we’re dealing with faith rising to grapple with truth.

There is a bit of a promise coupled with a warning which has served me for a long time. “God settles the solitary in a home, he leads out the prisoners to prosperity.” That’s the promise to a leader imprisoned by the ministry. Pastoral leadership can be a prison.

There is a warning when we get mad at God (I have, have you?). When you’re feeling sorry for yourself remember, “The rebellious dwell in a parched land.” My feelings of loneliness and imprisonment became a prison of their own making. Each time I found myself wallowing in self-pity I needed a dose of faith (often found in the Psalms) to drag me back into the land of reality and trust in the Lord who has never failed me. I don’t know about you; I do not want to dwell in a parched land.

For more on this click on   Look for “Overcoming Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation (preview).”

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As shepherds of Jesus’ flock, we sometimes overlook the need for a bit of self-protection. Some friends are better than others—some friendships are dangerous (aside from sexual temptations).


Some are more pronounced in smaller churches, especially in newly planted congregations but all merit a look. Here’s the deal; there are people who long to control you!


My wife and I parachuted into our first church plant when I was 25. For a while, we had friends only on Sundays as we knew no one in the immediate community, and our initial members were freeway Christians, driving several miles to our small campus. Loneliness rendered us vulnerable to a few new “friends” harboring hidden agendas.


Several motivations can beget malevolent friendships: Personal insecurity. A longing to satisfy an unfulfilled calling through another person. One issue stems from pastors trying to build friendships hoping to manipulate boards, etc. There are many sources, but control is the issue.


So let’s look at safeguards and protective solutions as we look to strengthen leaders in what can be a lonely job.


1 The $50 Handshake


Early into our church planting adventure, I got the $50 handshake three times—well, twice at $50, and one guy low-balled at $20. The first couple sucked me in, as did the lovely flowers a woman donated (before trashing those “dirty hippies” who were the bulk of the congregation).


These people warmed me up to gain control over our baby church.


I eventually learned to reject strangers bearing gifts after some meaningful struggles. The worse were the guys who had graduated from a ministry training school but never followed their call any further. And there were always insecure individuals who lived under a need to control others. Whatever the reason, beware of new people greeting you with money or dinner in restaurants where you couldn’t otherwise afford to eat.


2 Too Tight with Board or Staff


I’ve witnessed this one in others. It is a pastor befriending influential people within a congregation in an attempt to manipulate a board. Not good! Sow dishonesty and reap the reward. The same goes for cozying up to wealthy individuals to access their generosity.


Sometimes too close a relationship with staff members can backfire (again, this is not about sex—that’s a topic for another blog). One pastor going through deep water bared his soul to one man and two women on his staff. He shared nothing that you or I wouldn’t. The problem was that these people gained personal meaning and a sense of control as his go-to people. When the pain disappeared, they couldn’t stand the idea that he was no longer needy and they were not so needed. They turned against him, even attempting to twist his earlier revelations to their advantage.


3 Peers Turn to Pressure


I love pastoral peer groups but won’t allow them veto power over my life. Again this is not my story but one I’ve witnessed. A leader opens up to a group of local pastors during a time of weakness. He later passes through the waters, but they begin to attack his decisions on higher ground.


Love and support are one thing. Veto power is not part of that equation. Any idea that suggests you owe someone control because they supported you in deep water is evil. There is wisdom in a multitude (or handful) of counselors, but we’re talking counselors, not controllers.


4 Denominational Turnabout


Leadership is a lonely business. Truman’s motto, “The buck stops here,” is as isolating as it is relevant. Denominations exist to support churches and pastors.


I’ve learned to turn to denominational leadership for support in times of turmoil. I’ve also learned to measure my openness. What you share in private has a way of becoming public and bent when you and where you least expect it. The advice is simple—only speak in a closet, whatever you wouldn’t mind hearing shouted from the housetops or appearing in writing under a denominational letterhead.


5 Healthy Measured Friendships


Build your deeper friendships outside your congregation’s power structures. Don’t disdain friendships with board members or your staff. But it would be best if you respected the purpose of those relationships. They are not positioned to be your best friends, though a close friend may enter one of those roles.


You must disciple your staff. Discipling your team is a primary responsibility. But remember that you are their boss, which is a special kind of relationship. You may need to discipline or even fire a team member. The wrong sort of friendship could render that impossible. And there are some things you need to keep to yourself and your family.


6 Reconnect with a Mentor


Most of us got into ministry pretty well sponsored by a mentor. Time and task take their toll on mentoring relationships. If you struggle with loneliness as the key leader in your congregation, it will bless you and your mentor if you rekindle the relationship. And they’ve certainly earned your trust. I’ve done this well, and I haven’t. When I did, life was better for them and me. However, life’s daily grind caused me to only reconnect with a couple of meaningful pillars in my life via their funerals. Just saying…



7 Join a Group Where You’re Not the Leader


Join a group of learners outside your church. A peer group focused on mutual learning works well, as joint participation provides constructive support. Take a class at an adult school or enroll, even audit, a course in a local junior college. Besides, studying something not ministry-related will benefit you and might even enrich your preaching.


8 Walk Across the Street


Do you know the first names of three neighbors on either side of your home and the corresponding six across the street? Doing so will aid evangelism, but we’re discussing loneliness as pastors. You need to know some people who are nonbelievers. I value friendship with agnostics and even a couple of people who are hateful toward the gospel. We’re not talking deep dark secrets in those cases, but keeping company aside from church is healthy and balancing. Inevitable conversations about God with nonbelievers can toss buckets of cold water over our most cherished prejudices. Balance is good, and outsiders are good sources of it.


9 Seek Counseling


If you feel alone and have no healthy alternatives, please seek help from a pastoral counseling ministry. If none are available locally, search online.


Leading a congregation is an isolating job. There is no way for that to change other than through healthy relationships with people who may never quite fully understand what you feel. Of course, your spouse should be your closest friend. Beyond that, the magic ingredient is authenticity. After developing a slow friendship with another pastor, he eventually told me that it felt good to know that I wouldn’t judge him if he let out a curse word or two. There was wisdom in his observation.


For more on this check the Equippers Library tab in the menu.

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Pastor’s families live in semi-isolation because congregations hold them on a pedestal. However, a larger problem is isolation of the pastor from their family.


This is because our jobs are never ending, and we get so busy we forget our personal priorities. Many pastors leave ministry because of root problem of loneliness in their own families.


As the pastor or leader of a church, you need to make sure that you spend enough time with your wife and kids. If you don’t, your family will feel left out and separate from you. Your children may resent you. You may find yourself in a divorce. Understand that your ministry can threaten your family dynamic.


But how do you rectify the problem?


Healthy Boundaries


Early in our ministry we blocked time in our calendars for family. One of the boundaries was set around the kids favorite TV shows on Tuesday nights. During those times we isolated ourselves from the church which so often isolated me from my family.


Involving Your Childen


The best solution other than reducing your time away from your family is to include them in your ministry. If they partner with you it reduces isolation. Table-talk over dinner is no longer about your ministry but their ministry.


We involved our children in a microchurch inside our congregation at a very early age. Often their contribution to the discussion was as simple as “Carl, what do you think about what Uncle Aaron just said?” They grew up in this extended family. Several members of that microchurch moved to Hawaii with us. Uncle John and Uncle Terry were my son’s first employers. Better than that, the relationships built in that microchurch continue to this day.



Partnering In the Ministry


When we planted the church in Hawaii the entire family joined the project. My wife, Ruby, became sort of famous as the wife of a megachurch pastor still teaching in children’s church. From the outset our children got involved. At age 12 Carl and his buddy were our ushers during those first few weeks. That morphed into Carl as the head usher half a year late. There were 30 year-olds coming to him for instruction. Our daughter, Kelly, served as a diligent children’s church helper at age 11. The end result reflects the wisdom of involving familes in ministry. Kelly and her husband, Travis, serve a refugee center in Istanbul while maintaining their jobs throuth the internet. Carl led huge youth groups and succeeded me as the pastor of Hope Chapel in Kaneohe (Anchor Church today).



Don’t Build a Dynasty


When involving your family avoid turning the church into a family business or molding it into a mom-and-pop store. I worry about churches large and small where a husband and wife duo lead together. This works for highly gifted people but the model can reduce a smaller church to a being led by a two person dynasty. It’s not healthy for the entire family and can become a growth restricting obstacle as people will tend to leave decision making to the power couple.



Finally avoid nepotism. No person should be promoted because they are family. Our family were never promoted or given jobs because of their last name. Both children proved themselves as young adults in ministry while living away from home. Carl did return to Hawaii but only after partnering with a friend to plant two churches in California and helping rescue a third.


For more on this check the Equippers Library tab in the menu.

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Loneliness in leadership is never fun. It’s also less than necessary when it comes to living on a pedestal.


Pastors are often surrounded by people who elevate them as super Christians. We’re already called by God to live to a higher standard so it’s no fun being judged by one that is entirely artificial.


Are You Causing This?


And this may be your own fault. Pastors sometimes gather unrealistic authority while attempting to protect themselves from toxic individuals. But this easily gets out of hand. We can learn to dominate and manipulate a church board or even an entire congregation. Aside from being ungodly, this serves to isolate whoever does it. Not good!


We often get so busy that we only relate to others professionally. We serve as preachers, managers, counselors, and centers of spiritual knowledge. These roles may be necessary, but they are also isolating, especially when we, or others, confuse them with our personal identity.


One fundamental problem is that pastors too often lack personal friendships. When I was in a Bible college, one professor taught us, wannabe pastors, never to build personal friendships with people in the congregation. Now, I think there’s a certain measure of wisdom in that, but he took it too far and overall, it was detrimental advice. You need to have friends within your congregation and apart from it.


You may feel freer when speaking with outsiders. Because they are not stakeholders, these friends won’t interfere with your goals. You are able to talk freely to think out loud, and then not be held to some judgment over it.


That Clergy-Laity Thing


A major solution to isolation is teaching against the clergy-laity split. As soon as you start to teach it, you’ll have to live it. This presents a mechanism to undermine many of the isolating factors in your life. Eroding the clergy-laity divide reinforces the elements necessary to get you off that pedestal and give you a healthier life.


Standing on level ground with your congregation frees you to be more transparent about your struggles. The more that you expose your heart, the less isolated you’ll become. For me this gets down to confessing a silly outburst of anger in traffic, the bad words I may have said, or, whatever nonsense I’ve been up to. The more that you step off that pedestal the happier you’ll be.


When managing the pedestal, pay strong attention to vocabulary, and process; especially the vocabulary and the process Paul gave us in Ephesians. Jesus placed apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers for good reason. Those people-gifts are there to equip the body of Christ to do the real work of ministry in and outside of the circle of the church. To invest all five gifts in one person is to build the ultimate pedestal. If your people, or your polity, charge you with the gifts of dozens or hundreds of individuals, you have a very large problem.


A Better Take on Titles


If I were to live my life afresh, I’d manage my leadership vocabulary more carefully. I would insist that people call me the leader of our congregation rather than its pastor. For one person to be “the” pastor of a large congregation cuts a few hundred others out of their perceived gifts. And it nullifies those apostles, prophets, teachers and evangelists among us. Vocabulary shapes culture. Be careful how you use it.


I would, however, accept the title of pastor in a small group or microchurch within the circle of the larger congregation. In my former life, I always led a microchurch and required the same of each staff member. We identified the leaders of all those groups as pastors. And we loosely identified the apostles, etc. among us. Though we were never into titles, we tried to attach vocabulary (form) to function whenever possible.


Leading a microchurch, trust group or whatever you call them is a simple hike off that pedestal. You live among your people and better understand their needs. Importantly, they see you as human rather than superman.


For more about feelings of loneliness click on

Then click the link that reads “Overcoming Feelings of Isolation and Loneliness (preview).”

It’s under the heading “Leadership: Bulletproofing Your Life and Ministry.”


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Pastors are leaving vocational ministry at an alarming rate. Coupled with slow church planting, the problem threatens the church’s existence. The pandemic accelerated the pain, but this is systemic and ongoing.


As we wonder what can be done, I want to spend a few weeks exploring possible solutions on this website.


This Is a Big Problem


The number one reason pastors who have left specify is that they quit due to intense feelings of isolation and loneliness.


The good news is that many who quit took jobs in supporting roles in other churches. The bad news is that many did not. Along with them, they deprived the church of their training and enthusiasm.


You can feel isolated from your own family. You come home, eat dinner, and go to bed, having spent a few precious minutes with your spouse and children. The church and incessant time demands interfere with your family life to the point that many pastors’ children abandon the church or their parents as adults. That isn’t very comforting but all too real.


Alone On a Pedestal


Perhaps the worst problem that leaders face is being put on a pedestal.


You’re being asked to live to a different standard than everybody else at church. The pedestal insulates you from the body of Christ.


Sometimes we put ourselves on a pedestal because doing so gives us a sense of control or dominance over a congregation. Many pastors are guilty of this. Humility works a lot better! And, for whatever reason you find yourself there, people will kind of back away from you because they see you as a holy man. You become an untouchable, an outcast. In that elevated position, you’ll never develop the right kind of friendships to strengthen the life of your church,


Many of us do not engage in proactive disciple-making. Again, we face ministry pretty much by ourselves.


Some of us isolate ourselves because of a need for self-protection. You may be in a church where a toxic element threatens you, or perhaps the entire church is unhealthy. Either way, you find yourself backing away while building a layer of insulation around yourself.


At Loss In a Crowd


You may feel alone in a crowd.


I can remember eating at home before attending church potlucks. I learned this early. At such events, I’d be so busy talking with people who saw their chance for a few minutes with the pastor that I’d get to the food line when there was nothing left but rice and mashed potatoes. I was alone in a crowd without any meaningful conversation with people I knew and who knew me well (I also left hungry, which is not usually a good thing).


These feelings of loneliness and isolation are not just feelings—they result from actual isolation. Some of this goes with the territory. That’s scary, but there are things we can do to overcome the problems. It’s just a part of being a pastor.


The combination can be lethal. But there is always tomorrow. And there’s the Lord who’s on our side.


One Small Step


I’ve learned to get out of bed each day, quoting a bit of scripture, “This is a day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” I’ll do this despite what I believe are fiery darts from the enemy. Spiritual warfare is real, but I choose to stand firm this day. And I’ll do the same tomorrow and the day after.


I want to stand with Paul when he says he doesn’t consider himself to have arrested that for which Jesus Christ arrested him. His advice is worth following when he says he’ll forget yesterday and press on to whatever he faces, including tomorrow, next week, month after that. Along with him, I try to press for the mark of the prize of the high call God in Christ Jesus.


I’m looking for God to do good things in my life. I’m trusting Him to do good things in your life.


We need to hang in and trust the Lord while working against isolation and loneliness. Your life may feel like a prison. If it does, remember the passage in Jeremiah where God talks to the captives in ancient Babylon. A whole nation of Israelis living in captivity. They struggle and wallow in their problems. They refuse to sing the praise songs of Zion.


Rejoicing is no option for these folks, as often seems the case for many of us. The Lord promises them only good things. He adds that he has a future and hope for a people held captive by circumstance.


I believe the same holds for those of us held prisoner in what began as a bright calling. We’ll see victory if we persevere. But, perseverance isn’t the same as lying around hoping for a better tomorrow. There are practical steps out of the isolation trap. We’ll look at some in the next few weeks.


So, what have you done to overcome feelings of aloneness in pastoral ministry? We’d like to hear from you in the comments box below—remember, it’s the only way I have of knowing if this site is doing any good—I get lonely too!

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13 thoughts on “Pastors Combatting Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation”

  1. Ralph, very good article. I still have good memories of Debbi and I having lunch with you and Ruby.
    We are now living in Greensboro, NC.

    Garry Neavitt

  2. I connect with other pastors in town. This is a safe space and they understand. Also, share with my Core Group of guys these struggles. I like to say, “I check up on a lot of people to see how they’re doing, but people rarely check in to see how I am doing.” This statement with ‘safe people’ seems to heighten their awareness. I am also working to do something my friend Lee Eclov said he does. Find people you find interesting and invite them out. For example, he and his wife invited Kevin Vanhoozer and his wife out and they said yes. You never know other people may be just as desiring of fellowship as you.

    1. Wow, this is so true. Taking that first step is difficult for me as a card carrying introvert. I keep reminding myself that I need to be a friend to make a friend. I’ve always found that I need friends outside the leadership circle of the church. They keep you “normal.”

  3. I have found this to be extremely true for me. I recently told my leadership team my biggest struggle since taking the solo pastor role in our church almost 4 years ago was my wife and I lacked true friends here. We came from a multiple pastor context where we were friends with a few of them and had true friends in our congregation. It has been difficult for us and we’ve tried reaching out to other pastors in town and have had minimal success. We are in a rural setting, which is known for being very friendly, but what we’ve discovered is they are cordial with everyone but it’s almost impossible to break through the shallowness and go deeper with people if you’re from outside their family social circle.
    Can’t say we’ve figured out a good strategy yet. 4 years in and still looking for ways to connect with people in a deeper, genuine way.

    1. Your story is so much like my own. We moved to San Diego from Honolulu four years ago. Struggled to find a church. Finally have a few friends. I pray that God gives you one person outside of your church that you can befriend and who is worthy of your trust.

  4. “The pandemic accelerated the pain, but this is systemic and ongoing.”

    The pandemic only revealed problems that were already there. Systemic and ongoing is right.

    I am arriving at the place where I see the real issues as stemming from trying/hoping to achieve New Testament results by using methods that simply hinder movement in that direction. Until very recently I was saying that Sunday morning church (legacy/traditional style) is good, just not *that* good, meaning that it leaves out a vast amount of what is needed for a vibrant church. Lately I’ve had to revise my critique to say that Sunday morning church is actually the problem. The issue is that we don’t only teach what we teach on Sundays, but we teach a lot that we never verbalize—ministry is for the professional and being a good Christian just entails sitting in church on Sundays, not causing anyone trouble, and putting something in the offering basket. If our church members are indeed getting that unspoken message, how can any pastor hope to feel like they are accomplishing important, world altering eternal purposes?

    Just yesterday I was listening to a podcast that mentioned that the lack of meaning-making is the cause of feelings of isolation. When we feel we have no positive influence on others we sense a lack of meaning and become isolated. If after preaching and teaching week in and week out a pastor feels isolated, could it not be this key—that they don’t see any response in the congregation and lack a sense of meaning?

    I’m beginning to long to see pastors set free from the shackles of traditional church! Some of these very same pastors could and would be world shakers for Jesus.

    1. Good insight. Sunday morning has become an event, not church. In many cases it is nearly an idol for those responsible for producing it. It even tends to isolate members from one another.

  5. Wow. So good ralph. One thing that has helped me to stay sane is meeting with fellow pastors who i have formed a bond of brotherhood with over the years. We have laughed, cried and rejoiced together. No one else knows the fiery darts quite like they do.

  6. It is priceless to have fellowship with others who are in a similar role and can relate to the trappings unique to the role.

  7. True,isolation can be real.By virtue of the fact that your through pattern is different from others,is.
    The people, needs ,challenges etc.
    Growth, outreach etc.I have found sense in
    :*inviting individuals so we share
    *putting energy in small groups, (Home cells), where many times I found credible individuals

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A recent trip to Orlando found me in my favorite restaurant—the one with the golden arches.

While stuffing my face with a Sausage McMuffin, I hummed to the piped-in music. Connecting the sounds with the auditorium where I spoke the day before took a while.

The “Aha, these people are bringing Jesus into McDonalds” soon faded into “but no one is paying attention to it.” I laud the attempt but feel frustrated that so much of what we try to do on an institutional level falls on stony ground.

A few days later, my wife pulled me into one of her favorite art supply and crafts stores. There we found a couple of people softly singing to the music as it wafted over our shipping carts. But if those folks knew the words, they were already in the family. These efforts at cultural influence are admirable but do not result in evangelism.

Our political actions intended to impose our morality on those Paul called “outsiders” don’t do much good either.

Then there are church signs. You wonder who these people are talking to when they proudly announce “Welcome Home” to those passing by at 60 miles per hour.

Down the road from my house, a church building (as opposed to an actual church) declares “No perfect people allowed” as if a sign is going to change a life. They recently moved an inch toward motivating their people toward evangelism with “An invitation can change a life.” But can it? And if it can, wouldn’t it be better to spend time with a non-believer than to invite them into a setting where most everything seems unfamiliar and perhaps threatening?

The granddaddy of them all has to be “Church Shopping – We’re open on Sundays.” At least the McDonalds folks were trying to take something of the gospel to people other than those who might be tempted to move from one congregation to another.

We need to do better than this if we intend to fulfill the Great Commission and the personal responsibility to “do the work of an evangelist.” Maybe something like “having favor with the neighbors” resulting in “the Lord added daily to their number” might work.” What do you think?

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Would you consider yourself a security guard, a hoarder or an equipper?

You can describe most church leaders in one of these terms. We each feel the call to shepherd the flock God assigned us, but we do that in unique ways.

Much depends on our spiritual gifts, our community and even the availability of resources like money or accessible meeting space. Yet each is driven by a very different driver: our personal view of our task.

The motivation for personal security belongs to us, but what about congregational security?

Is it your role to protect your church from loss? Perhaps you serve in a community where young people escape to a city for better job opportunities. Or you may have been assigned to a long-standing congregation of mostly retired folks. The reasons abound. However, leading as a protector of the status quo is a liability. It nearly always results in the loss of that which you attempt to protect.

No one wants to be called a hoarder. Yet, many of us hoard people, money, land and other resources.

For some, this addition orientation is selfish at its root—“if my church grows fast, I’ll assume a measure of fame.” The hoarders among us mainly act from a desire to build the kingdom and fulfill the great commission. Hoarding can result from positive motivation. The problem, of course, is that addition always bows to multiplication. The task is to make disciples who go rather than collect spectators who stay tied to us.

Ultimately, the equipper best plays their small role in Jesus’ grand drama.

We are called to behave toward our members as the Egyptian midwives to Moses, Aaron and their generational cohort. The drama in Exodus features two women who would have overseen a considerable cadre of midwives. Their decision to spare Hebrew children set the stage for the actual exit from slavery. They not only spared Moses, but by the time he killed the Egyptian slavedriver, there were a host of male Hebrews in his peer cohort. These would be the fathers and grandfathers he would eventually lead to the border of the promised land.

You and I are called to be spiritual midwives equipping our people to give birth in their personal mission fields.

Try to play it safe as a security guard, and you lose the opportunity to participate. God is at work among significantly older people and in shrinking communities. You and I need to equip whoever is before us for their small part in the kingdom. Tying our members to ourselves feels like Moses had he tried to free enslaved people only to build an empire within the realm of Egypt. Such a thing may have even worked politically, but it would have never served God’s purpose of liberation and a nation free to bless the world.

So, security guard, hoarder or equipper—where do you derive your motivation?

Reaction? You can tell us what you thought about this article in the comments box below.


1 thought on “Security Guard, Hoarder or Equipper?”

  1. Im the equipper! I get them moving on their way! However, I am the hoarder. I like to keep people forever, I like to serve too! I love teaching or facilitating in church. I find peace in serving. I once stayed a facillator for 8 years in my home based church. I out grew it but didnt want to leave. It became my home away from home. I guess Im a little of each.

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