Pastors Combatting Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation

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!

Catch the video at https://youtu.be/RRp55ui73LA

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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
    Thanks.

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