Isolation and Loneliness – the Danger Zone for Pastors

“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

question-friendsWe are all familiar with the typical questions pastors get asked – “How big is your church? What’s your annual budget? How many services do you have?” But there is one question that pastors rarely get asked: “How many true friends do you have?”

Do I hear crickets?

In a culture that encourages a very individualistic approach to life, many people feel a general sense of loneliness every day. That general sense of loneliness is exponentially heightened in the life of the ministry family. In Chapter 5 of his book Pastors at Risk, Dr. Chuck Wickman talks about the impact of isolation and loneliness on the pastor and his family. Pastors often feel a deep sense of isolation from others – an inability to connect in significant relationships that bring balance and health. This is due, at least in part, to the distance between pastor and parishioner that often defines the role. Add to that the care-giving functions of pastoral ministry, and the pastor can be left depleted and unavailable emotionally.

There are times when the isolation that we experience is of our own doing. We allow the pastoral persona to become all that people see of us. We fear that connecting too much or being too real will lead to hurt or doubt. Unfortunately, this can, and does, take its toll. The path of isolation and loneliness winds its way to dark places, where health, spiritual vitality and emotional integrity can be compromised. It is also true that some of us will use this as an opportunity to be “on our own” and unaccountable for our time. This is a dangerous place to be.

Recently, I came across some research linking social isolation with poor health outcomes including depression, heart disease, sleep problems and other disorders. But it has never been clear what it is exactly about being alone that may be so harmful. In a study published by Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers reported that “…it’s not just living alone, but having actual feelings of loneliness and isolation that matters.” (How Feeling Lonely Can Shorten Your Life, TIME, 6/19/12)

Pastors, and their spouses, often deal with:

  • feelings of abandonment, rejection and the deep sense that no one understands them, or the expectations placed on them
  • the sense of “overload” that can make having significant relationships a chore and therefore easy to avoid
  • difficulty with transparency – you might blow your cover and you will be shown the door
  • feelings of martyrdom – the sense that you alone carry the burden of ministry

lonelinessThere is another component to this as well. Most pastors do not have a pastor that THEY can call on, adding additional stress to the growing list of dangers (Pastors at Risk, p 51)

My own story of crashing and burning is one where, in a deep sense of isolation, I could not risk sharing my guilt, shame and fears – which eventually led to a very public and disgraceful exit from ministry.

What can be done? 

First, pastors need to be reminded that, in addition to being a leader, they are human. They are also a part of the Body of Christ, and need to be connected in significant relationships to others. Having the title of pastor doesn’t come with its own supply of “anti-loneliness” pills. Like any other person in your congregation, you need others in the journey of following Christ. So, it is vital that you:

Acknowledge the need -“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Why? Wasn’t God enough? If you will let me wax theological for a moment – God Himself is not solitary, but is in eternal relationship. Love, which the Scriptures tell us God is, can only happen in relationship. We were built for relationships. While there are some things that only a relationship with God Himself can supply, He has determined that there are things that He wants us to experience in connection with others like us. We need to “flesh out” the love that we have in relationship with God. You need friends!    

Don’t hide! If nothing else, reach out to other pastors who share the same need. It will take effort, but the benefits are worth it. Find those pastor or ministry leader friends who won’t posture, but are genuinely interested in being there for you – and you for them. And, contrary to popular opinion, it is OK to connect with people in your congregation and build friendships. Accept invitations to ball games and dinner parties. Putting yourself in those situations will give the Holy Spirit opportunity to lead you to those who can become a “Jonathan” to you (1 Samuel 18:1).

Share your heart, not just your head One of the most significant shifts in the way I relate to my wife, that has carried over to other relationships, has been to talk about how I am feeling at any given moment – not just what I am thinking. This is an issue for men who are pastors and leaders. We are far too often in our heads: ideas, visions, concepts, principles, etc. Remember that it is the “feelings” of isolation, identified in the research above, that have the negative impact on our lives. In addition to asking, ”What are you thinking right now,” my wife will ask me what I am feeling. This gives me permission to connect to the current state of my heart. In those significant relationships, sharing our hearts – including the loneliness and weakness we feel – can open the door to spiritual health.

Refuse the shallows Recently, Mike Foster wrote about a new way to view what we have called “accountability” groups. He uses the term “advocacy” to describe the role of key people in our lives who walk the path with us. They are advocates, on God’s behalf, of grace.

 Radical grace is the core engine for any healthy relationship. You cannot have true transparency or confession without it. I encourage people to make verbal commitments to each other and clearly state that they will stand by one another through the best AND the worst.

Most people live with the fear of rejection and allow this fear to dictate how honest they will be with others. In advocacy, we are constantly demonstrating that this relationship is a safe place. Through our response to one another’s failures, our own deep confession, and reminding each other that we are in this for the long haul, we implement radical grace. (

friends In general, I am encouraged that the emerging generation of leaders seems to be able to embrace the need for connection to a greater degree than many in my generation. Having learned this lesson the hard way, I have found great joy, comfort and encouragement in the company of great friends who walk with me on this journey.

Who is walking with you?

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