I’m meeting with some clergy in West Virginia Presbytery about clergy health. Below is one of the exercises I will be sharing with them. You might adapt it and consider it for yourself and your friends.
An Examination of Loneliness
Do you ever wonder why being a pastor is such a lonely calling? Numerous people surround you. Many of those people both like and admire you. You have the privilege of being present at some of the tenderest and intimate moments in people’s lives. You experience great satisfaction in being able to contribute to people’s lives. Still, you experience significant moments of loneliness.
The source of loneliness for different pastors will vary in intensity and cause. It is difficult to explain to outsiders, but most pastors know loneliness. For many pastors, it is just a dull ache, but occasionally that loneliness has a toxic effect that needs to be guarded against. Look at your own life and choose at least four reasons from the list below as prime sources for your own experience of loneliness—there may be more.
- I am entrusted with painful secrets of members for which there are no easy answers, but I cannot share these secrets with anyone else.
- Society’s image of success requires paying too much attention to people’s immediate desires and not enough to their profound needs.
- I feel guilty that I cannot meet my family’s needs and the multiple expectations of the congregation—many of which are quite legitimate on both sides.
- If a conflict arises between me and a prominent member of the church, my governing board is reluctant to intervene and expects me to cope on my own.
- I work 60 to 70 hours each week trying to meet the needs of the congregation but I hear more complaints than appreciation for my efforts.
- It is hard to stay in touch with the vision of God’s call in my life when I am overwhelmed by the often petty and certainly tedious daily grind of pastoral life.
- I know many people but I don’t have many really good friends—good friendship requires more time than I have available given the demands of the church.
- The Gospel calls me to boldness, but I feel restrained by fear of discord in the congregation.
- The public images of religious hypocrisies and embarrassing church scandals makes me embarrassed to tell others what I do. How can I take pride in my profession?
- I grieve over the losses I see in a congregation because of death, tragedy, or conflict. Few people understand the pain I feel in such situations.
While all of these causes may be relevant to some degree, which four would be most significant for you?
Toxic Effect of Loneliness
Below is a list of several negative responses that can occur as clergy experience the challenges of ministry. Choose three areas where loneliness and isolation might exacerbate the negative impact in a pastor’s life.
- Loss of energy
- Obesity, diabetes, and other health problems
- Rise in number of heart attacks
- Family tensions involving children
- Marital discord and divorce
- Sexual misconduct
- Interest in pornography
- Inappropriate use of websites
- Resistance to seeking spiritual or emotional counseling
- Low emotional tolerance that leads to conflict
- Conflict between pastor and congregation
- Conflict between clergy and his/her denomination
- Attracted by bizarre theological ideas and groups
- Decrease in skills in pastoral care to congregation
- Lower quality of sermons and liturgy
- Loss of joy in pastorate
- Leaving the pastoral ministry
- Other ________________
How might healthy colleagueship with other clergy ameliorate the impact of the problem?
WHEN YOU PRACTICE SERVANT MINISTRY, IT IS NOT ONLY LONELY AT THE TOP BUT LONELY AT THE BOTTOM.