The lonely pastor

Loneliness in ministry and how it can be eased.

Larry Yeagley, now retired, has served as a pastor and chaplain. He lives in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

Professional loneliness is a virus among ministers. Unlike the early apostles who went out two by two, most pastors work alone. When this lone ranger problem is ignored, loneliness drives some ministers to seek another profession.

Loneliness is like hunger. All of us have a healthy hunger that draws us to a meal. Ministers may study for a sermon for five or six hours, then they desire to fellowship with family or friends. This is normal. It signals that we need human contact.

Professional loneliness may be caused by unrealistic pastoral assignments, too little contact and affirmation from administrative personnel, mean-spirited treatment from parishioners, long stretches of solitary ministry, and lack of professional confidants.

Loneliness is a serious matter. Dr. James J. Lynch has shown that loneliness is the great est risk factor in premature deaths.1 His compelling research along with similar studies by other professionals shows that loneliness among pastors and their families must be addressed by church administrators if they are interested in the well-being of the church's working force.

Loneliness and lack of affirmation

I first became aware of this when I attend ed an evangelism workshop. Another minister was assigned to be my roommate. The first night we retired at midnight after sharing problems, fears, and personal dreams for ministry. The most troubling part of our late-night visit was the fact that he had already decided to leave pastoral ministry. The cumulative effects of professional loneliness had brought him to the edge of chronic depression.

Ministers often find themselves misunderstood. They have a vision for the church and creative ideas for making the vision a reality, but their ideas do not harmonize with the usual way of doing things. They get the sense that they are alone on a far-off island.

I had just finished teaching a class for ministers when a minister with 12 years of pastoral experience asked to speak to me. He couldn't talk for a few minutes because he was fighting back tears. I let him cry. After weeping, he told me about the cruelty he experienced at the hands of church members. He sought help from the director of ministers in his area, but the director brushed him aside, minimizing the problem. The minister exhibited many signs of chronic depression. I suggested to him that he would benefit from professional counseling while completing his seminary studies.

I taught a class in pastoral counseling attended by pastors who had been engaged in ministry for years before attending seminary. I showed a video on loneliness and then asked the class to share their own loneliness.

The response was immediate and emotionally moving. I was shocked at the degree of professional loneliness that surfaced.

For years I was a presenter at professional growth seminars sponsored by Ministry magazine. It was not unusual for ministers to take me aside to share their concerns about ministry. Many of them felt misunderstood, unappreciated, and overworked. It has been over a decade since I participated in those seminars, but I still receive calls from a couple of the ministers. They share their pain with me because they don't trust their leaders enough. They bear their loneliness until they can't take it any longer.

I recently read an obituary that announced the death of a hospital chaplain. I knew him well. He was familiar with my style of hospital ministry and had invited me to lunch. We talked for two hours. His style of hospital visitation was graceful and pastoral, but the head chaplain didn't think his approach to the sick was clinical enough. He was told that he need ed to be more confrontational. My friend modeled his ministry after the ministry of Jesus and saw no need to adopt a style that seemed mostly psychological. He was a gentle and caring person who modeled the spirit of Jesus in the sickroom. But every day he felt the disapproval of the head chaplain who hinted at the possibility of job termination.

Months later I met my friend at his brother's home. He had struggled so long with the loneliness of being misunderstood that depression swept over him. Physical illness plagued him and he took an early retirement. He died prematurely, perhaps to some degree because of his years of loneliness.

I know of a pastor who spent the last ten years of his ministry in a section of the United States where the total emphasis was on public evangelism. He was known as a nurturing pastor who ministered to the needs of his congregation and brought people into the church after careful preparation. When he attended day-long pastors' meetings there was no opportunity to talk about his concerns and interests, neither was there any affirmation for his style of ministry. For ten years he felt that he did not fit in. He frequently left those meetings feeling very much alone.

Without a doubt, working without affirmation and a sense of belonging over years produces and abiding sense of loneliness.

Interpersonal and communicative sources

Some churches seem especially in the grip of destructive forces. This is sometimes manifested in church board and committee meetings. Frequently when a church is at war, the pastor is caught in the crossfire. I have attended too many meetings in which I trembled inside and felt like I wanted to go off by myself and cry. During church building programs I have found myself under attack and needing to defend myself. Years of unfriendly interpersonal encounters and constantly having to defend one self is bound to create loneliness. According to James J. Lynch, such long-term experiences contribute to cardiovascular disease due to the frequent spikes in blood pressure.

Church members who have been given leadership positions for many years can view the pastor as a threat to their status. No matter what the pastor does, she or he may become the target of their jealousy.

An intern pastor called me about a local elder who insulted and humiliated him during a church business meeting. I suggested that he visit the elder with a speech something like this. "I thought you should know what my role is. I see myself as a preacher who can do a good job only as I take plenty of time for study and prayer. I believe in visiting the sick and discouraged. I am counseled by Scripture to help God's people develop their spiritual gifts. I also am committed to my marriage and family. I believe that God wants me to be a role model of a healthy, spiritual husband and father. I am asking you, as the elder of the church, to care for the administrative duties of the church. I believe you have skills and gifts in this area. I don't want to hinder you in your leadership of this church."

Several weeks went by before the young pastor could bring himself to visit the elder, but the results were surprising to him. The elder told him, "I have been unkind to you and ridden rough-shod over you. I want to apologize. I support you in your role as pastor."

The intern pastor removed himself from the power struggle. There was conflict between church members, but he refused to become a part of the triangular web. As a result, his ministry in that church was peaceful. He didn't have to defend himself, he made sure his role was understood.

Unrealistic self-expectations

A young pastor told me he was leaving pastoral ministry because he was tired of the loneliness and the rat race of meeting everyone's expectations. I asked him to try to fit all of his activities into six eight hour days. When he failed to cram it all into that time frame, I asked him to eliminate until no more than those hours were filled. He soon realized that he was his own worst enemy. He was driving himself to loneliness and depression. He made his expectations more realistic and continued to pastor churches.

Eugene Peterson wrote a book about the "unnecessary pastor." I grabbed it from the new-book shelf and read it with excitement. He believes it is unnecessary for a pastor to live up to all the expectations of the church members and administrators. He believes it is unnecessary for the pastor to live up to all of her or his self-expectations. The reason: Not all expectations are realistic or healthy, no matter who formulates them.

I attended a ministers' retreat where an evangelist outlined the schedule of a successful pastor. He had the pastor visiting and giving Bible studies every weekday all day long. Late Friday night he had the pastor gathering quotations that elucidated Bible passages to be preached the fol lowing morning. He said nothing about the pastor's recreation, family life, or devotional time. This is just one example of misguided expectations. If a pastor takes these formulas seriously, burnout and professional loneliness is bound to be the result.

What's the solution?

The cry of the lonely pastor is truly unheard, as Dr. Lynch so ably shows. The pastor must develop a sane approach to his or her work that will promote good emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The following suggestions are simply that suggestions. Every pastor's situation is different, therefore preventing professional loneliness will be different for each pastor.

Take time for yourself. Personal time must be built into the weekly schedule. This is not sermon preparation time. This is time to cross-country ski, go to an auction, exercise, tinker in your wood shop, or restore an old tractor. This is time totally unrelated to your work.

Schedule time for the family. Divorce is violent and should be prevented. Not only does it devastate husband and wife, it also has a long negative impact on children. If you doubt this, you need to read The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce? The research behind this book followed children of divorce for 25 years. The intimacy and dialogue experienced in a healthy marriage and family guards against loneliness. Pastors cannot have too much of this quality of dialogue with the ones they love and who love them.

Refuse to allow others to set your agenda. If you don't make your own sensible agenda, others will be very willing to set it for you. You are the one who can create balance. Take charge of your professional life.

Look up and outside of yourself. High stress leads to loneliness. Dr. Lynch found that watching fish swimming in an aquarium has greater potential for reducing stress than all the psychotherapy and relaxation techniques put together. A young pastor I know takes a long walk in the woods after every required promotional meeting for clergy. Taking time to smell the roses is more than a cute saying.

Define pastoral ministry for yourself. A few priorities well-defined and care fully kept protect you from being pressured by others. Let your congregation know what your priorities and time frames are. My doctor does this. His office hours are well-defined. He expects me to make an appointment. He has a protocol for handling emergencies. A pastor should do the same.

Avoid toxic conversations. People who lash out, accuse, condemn, and rage must be stopped in their tracks. They elevate your blood pressure and ultimately push you toward professional loneliness. You may have to walk away as you say, "Jim, when you are calmed down and can talk to me in a nonaccusatory manner, I will be willing to listen to your concerns." People can be energy stealers. Don't allow yourself to be their victim.

Speak up. When church members or church administrators try to set your agenda, don't just sit there and stew about it internally. Quietly state your priorities and your thoughts about their attempt to violate your philosophy of ministry. I used to grin and bear it, but I found myself being mired down in loneliness. When I spoke up, I preserved my own dignity and found that others respected me for having convictions.

Change your view of administration. If you are in an administrative position, shed the idea that you have to invent programs to drop on the shoulders of pastors. Your programs may fit only a small fraction of the pastors in your area. Instead of mandating pro grams, why not discover the gifts and visions of each pastor? Encourage them and enable them to exercise their gifts and realize their visions. My father used to say that a fellow has to work in his own overalls.

I worked with a conference president who trusted the pastors to use their gifts. He did not push programs. He affirmed us when we dreamed dreams and creatively tried to fulfill those dreams. I worked my heart out for that man. Years after I moved to another part of the country and after that conference president retired I met him in Minneapolis. He sat beside me and said, "Larry, I have been following your work over the years. I want you to know that I am very proud of your success. Keep it up." That man has been and continues to be an antidote for professional loneliness.

Seek out confidants. Decide that you will not play the role of the Lone Ranger. Join the local ministerial association and fellowship with ministers of other faiths. Arrange to do pulpit exchanges and join a colleague in conducting revival services in both parishes.

As a Seventh-day Adventist minister, I became close friends with a Church of Christ pastor. When he was having problems with his congregation or was struggling with a teenager in his home, he called and talked. We exchanged book titles. He encouraged me to write and I taught him how to conduct bereavement support groups. We enjoyed chatting about our theological views, but not once did either of us argue. We con ducted support groups together and enjoyed meals together. We staved off professional loneliness.

Keep your relationship with God fresh. Jesus experienced loneliness during His earthly ministry. He sought intimacy with the Father in the night hours, but He also prized relationships with people around Him. He relaxed in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He valued the companionship of His disciples.

Pastors would do well to keep both of these relationships in balance. When loneliness creeps into your life, have some heartfelt conversations with Jesus. He knows loneliness personally. Seek out a friend. Talk about your loneliness without shame. Discuss solutions instead of dwelling solely on loneliness. Identify the causes of your professional loneliness and calmly discuss them with the people involved in those causes. Your courage to confront the issues will alleviate your own loneliness and possibly the loneliness of your colleagues.

1 See James J Lynch, The Broken Heart (New York: Basic Books, 1977); The Language of the Heart (New York: Basic Books, 1985); A Cry Unheard (Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 2000).

2 Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000).

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Larry Yeagley, now retired, has served as a pastor and chaplain. He lives in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.

September 2001

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