The conversation took place recently. A young man told me his dad, a pastor, recently committed suicide. He talked about the pain his father experienced in ministry as well as the intense loneliness.
Though suicide is not an inevitable outcome, I do know the number of pastors experiencing loneliness is high—very high. I hurt for these pastors, and I want to help in any way I can. Perhaps my nine observations can be a starting point for a healthy discussion on this important matter.
The three most common causes of loneliness shared with me by pastors are insightful:
1. Church members do not want to get too close to a pastor. Actually, it works both ways. The pastor is seen as the spiritual leader of the church. For many, it’s hard to get close to someone who holds a perceived lofty position.
2. The pastor is accustomed to giving instead of receiving. In healthy relationships, both parties give and sacrifice. The pastor is accustomed to giving and ministering. Sometimes it’s hard to be on the receiving end.
3. The pastor is in a defensive mode. Many pastors have been burned and hurt by church members. As a consequence, they are always “on guard,” rarely able to lower their defensive shields to be in a healthy relationship.
Here are the three most common negative consequences of loneliness straight from the mouths of pastors:
1. Burnout. Healthy relationships energize people. Loneliness depletes people of energy. The lonely pastor is more likely to experience burnout than those pastors who have developed mutually healthy relationships.
2. Moral failure. Unfortunately, some pastors seek to fill the voids created by loneliness by entering into inappropriate relationships. Ministries are destroyed, and families are torn apart.
3. Depression. Some level of depression is inevitable with the lonely pastor. Some of it can be very serious.
I plead with pastors who are experiencing loneliness to take one or all of the following steps:
1. Find a confidant. Be intentional about developing a healthy relationship with someone. That person may be a pastor in another town, but don’t stop until you have found such a person.
2. Involve your spouse. Many pastors are reluctant to involve their spouses in the messy details of church life. I would hope that you view your spouse as your best friend with whom you can share the good, the bad and the ugly.
3. Get professional help. Pastors are among the last to seek professional help. Unfortunately, their loneliness can degenerate into depression, causing them to leave the ministry and even have suicidal thoughts. Please get help before it’s too late.
What insights can you offer on pastoral loneliness? What suggestions do you have for lonely pastors?
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. For the original article, visit thomranier.com.