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Loneliness and the Pastor

By William K. Westafer

A lack of relationships inside and outside one’s congregation may contribute to feelings of loneliness for clergy. In my interviews with pastors about their stress, this was a recurring theme. For one minister in particular, it was a contributing factor in his near decision to “check out of life.” The following is part of his battle with loneliness.

Hank (pseudonym) enjoyed his work as a first-time senior pastor, but he was not accustomed to being able to separate his professional life from his personal self. The loneliness was overwhelming. Even though his church was growing and he was leading the construction of an addition to the church facilities, he suffered from extreme anxiety and depression.

“When I decided to check out,” he said, is when he decided to seek professional help. I asked him if he meant resigning from his church. He replied, “No. I mean check out of life. I found myself sitting in the dark for 3 hours, staring out the window, totally numb, and decided I was done.” That evening Hank held a loaded revolver in his hand. The pressures of leading a church and his overwhelming loneliness had driven him to the brink. In a bittersweet revelation, Hank said his wife and kids returned home before he used the gun to end his life.

When he visited a medical doctor, the doctor asked, “Have you ever thought about killing yourself?”

Hank said, “I just paused. How was I going to answer that? I’m a pastor of a successful church. I have all the answers. How do I answer that?”

After diagnosing Hank as “highly depressed” and prescribing medications, the doctor referred him to a psychiatrist.

Hank attended a conference just a few months prior to our interview and heard a fellow pastor recount “a crash in his life.” It was an epiphany for Hank since the speaker began to describe for the first time what he had experienced. Hank expressed his reservations about saying anything to anyone “because I didn’t think they understood and I just began to bawl. I just lost it because somebody finally got what I was going through,” he recalled.

The primary contributor to Hank’s loneliness was the large gap Hank noticed in relationships since moving from his own business to the ministry. As a successful businessman, he acknowledged that he garnered respect. Before entering the ministry, he lived in a gated community. He could afford to buy new cars every year or two. He won free trips from his company for reaching sales goals. He had freedom over his schedule and could be involved in community endeavors or coach sports teams.

Then he answered the call to ministry. He illustrated that when he introduced himself as a pastor, “Voop! (he motioned with his hand) there’s a wall that goes up and it is very hard to find real relationships. This has got to be one of the loneliest jobs I have ever had.”

What bothered Hank was “a lot of people want you, but usually it’s because something bad is happening.” Hank forlornly stated, “It’s never about ‘what can we do with you or help you or for you?’ It’s always in need of and it’s always with a problem.” That wore on Hank. He added, “Having a real relationship with a friend is just almost impossible.”

It can be a burden when people only need clergy when they are in crises and then ignore them for social situations. Many times a pastor feels the pressure to be on even when he or she mixes socially with congregants. People may make comments about not being able to drink or smoke or curse or tell inappropriate stories because “the preacher is here.” Like Hank, many pastors feel they are just on call for their congregation; and, hence, people neither considered nor pursue a social relationship with them.

Relationships with other pastors may not always be feasible. Some clergy only wish to talk shop when with other pastors. Some preachers do not wish to be transparent with their colleagues for fear of being used in a sermon illustration or as a tidbit of gossip. Many are hesitant about sharing with people in the congregation or their ministerial colleagues. They do not trust others when they make themselves vulnerable. A significant number of clients seen by Hank’s counselor are pastors. That irritated Hank. “Why can we not trust each other and talk about it?” he asked.

Hank even went so far as to try and find an older pastor to mentor him. “They are hard to find. I found a lot of older pastors, but not those still vibrant and going.” Hence, the frustration is only compounded as clergy search for appropriate means to cope with both acute and chronic stress indigenous to their profession.

Loneliness and isolation have taken their toll on the vast majority in the ministry. Hank’s disappointment at not being able to find a seasoned colleague to serve as a competent mentor is a testament to some of the unfavorable consequences of serving in such a demanding vocation without the proper survival techniques.

He characterized the irony of his situation, “I mean, I was running like crazy. Everybody else burns out, but I don’t burn out. And to see me here right now and to hear things that are coming out of my mouth would never happen to me.”

No one in the church except his staff had a clue about his struggle. He admitted he needed the understanding of his congregation, “or I’m probably not going to be able to make it much longer,” he confessed.

Research has provided evidence that loneliness is common among clergy. In one study of ministers, Gross reports, “feelings of isolation were closely associated with the stress dimension.”1 In my interviews, one pastor failed to develop relationships within the congregation, and it proved an impediment to a longer stay. Another made a conscious decision to handle things alone and his tenure lasted only a year.

Eaton and Newlon found in a study of Protestant clergywomen that 54 percent indicated that loneliness was a problem for them.2 Pastors are reported to often have a lack of personal friends with accompanying feelings of loneliness and isolation.3 Miller explained that there is “a tension felt by every minister: the tension between being a pastor (filling the role, performing) and being a person(relating to people as I am within, apart from what role I take or work I do).”4

Hall cites the findings of Warner and Carter in a study of pastors and their wives in comparison to laypersons for quality of life.5 Pastors experienced significantly more loneliness than those in nonpastoral roles. The researchers interpreted the results to indicate that both burnout and diminished marital adjustment cause loneliness. The excessive demands of the pastorate fuel both of these. Hank, in particular, noted that both he and his wife did not experience this when he was an associate. But the dynamic changed once he assumed the role of senior pastor.

So how can clergy improve their feelings of loneliness?

First, it is imperative for pastors to develop relationships inside the congregation. Developing positive ministry relationships among members will many times enable a friend to shield a pastor and run interference for him or her. I have learned from personal experience that a layperson committed to me as a pastor and friend can often protect me better than I can defend myself.

Second, pastors need to explore relationships in their neighborhood or community that are safe. A relationship with a member of the opposite sex is probably not a consideration in most cases. However, a buddy with whom a minister can relax and just be himself goes a long way toward improving the quality of life. Pastors can nurture relationships such as this by joining a sports team or league. I have played in adult soccer leagues, played tennis, and enjoyed rounds of golf. Pastors can also develop these extra-church relationships through pursuing various hobbies. For example, some pastors enjoy car clubs or riding motorcycles. You cannot expect to do church 24/7/365 and survive.

Third, pastors need to make time for just their spouse and children. Separate family from church responsibilities. Draw boundaries. Your family will appreciate it, and you will experience fulfillment in your work, not to mention increased respect at home.

Fourth, be willing to seek professional help. Waiting until you are sitting in a dark room with a loaded revolver is too late. Pastors often shy from a therapist or counselor because of the stigma attached to it. Hank freely admitted to the same. A therapist has training to help you deal with your feelings. A therapist is able to help you recover your emotional equilibrium. A therapist can provide a safe place to vent your frustrations and someone with whom you can be brutally honest.

Not long after my initial interview with Hank, we had a follow-up meeting. I wanted to see how he was faring with his medications and coping strategies. He shared that he was making progress. However, he was not utilizing all the coping strategies I had suggested. He made some excuses that he just did not have the time.

About a year later, I ran into a mutual friend and asked how Hank was doing.

“He’s out of the ministry.”

“What?” I exclaimed in shock. “What happened?”

“He had an affair.”

William K. Westafer, Ed.D., senior pastor, First Baptist Church, Cowpens, South Carolina

REFERENCES

1. P.R. Gross, “Stress and Burnout in Ministry: A Multivariate Approach,” Lutheran Theological Journal 23 (1989):30.

2. Kristine F. Eaton and Betty J. Newlon, “Characteristics of Women Ministers in Arizona,” Counseling and Values 34, no. 3 (April 1990): 201–04

3. Diane L. Ostrander and Carolyn S. Henry, “Toward Understanding Stress in Ministers’ Families: An Application of the Double ABCX Model” (paper presented at the meeting of the National Council on Family Relations, Seattle, 1990). H.B. London, Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, Pastors at Greater Risk: Real Help for Pastors From Pastors Who’ve Been There (Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2003).

4. Kevin A. Miller, Secrets of Staying Power: Overcoming the Discouragements of Ministry (Copublished by Downers Grove, Illinois: Christianity Today, Inc. and Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1988), 113.

5. Todd W. Hall, “The Personal Functioning of Pastors: A Review of Empirical Research With Implications for Pastors,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 25 (Summer 1997): 240–253, citing Janelle Warner and John D. Carter, “Loneliness, Marital Adjustment, and Burnout in Pastoral and Lay Person,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 12 (1984): 125–131.

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