What to Do When Church Leadership Feels Lonely?
Published by Calvin Seminary
Nobody warned me that ministry could be lonely. If they had, I probably wouldn’t have believed them anyway. 40 years later, I believe that loneliness is part and parcel of the experience of being ordained into ministry. It’s not advertised that way: seminaries and churches don’t encourage folks to discern a call into ministry because it’s a great opportunity to experience loneliness! Hardly. Often, when pastors are asked about their call into ministry, they speak of their love of people, and their desire to make a difference in people’s lives. My former colleague, Norm Thomasma, frequently noted that pastoral ministry is a place of relational congestion, but elusive intimacy.
Loneliness is not unique to ministry. All kinds of people are lonely. There are people who have limited family and small social circles. There are many who have moved into new communities and experience the reality of being disconnected outsiders. It’s not as though pastors are the only ones who experience loneliness. Loneliness is an equal opportunity sadness that finds its way into countless hearts and lives. Those in ministry must respect the truth of that.
But there is a loneliness in ministry which is utterly unique. Beyond factors such as moving into different communities and starting from scratch, being geographically distant from family and friends, and even being separated by long distances from the next church of one’s denomination, there is an isolation produced by ordination which is real. It is lifelong.
Ordination means that a person has been set apart. There is something “other” about those who are ordained into ministry. Oh, we pastors are still human. We are still flawed and frail. We are still part of the Church. We are members. But we are and never will be members in the same way that everyone else is a member. Ordination marks us with a specialness, and that specialness is both wonderfully uplifting and a weight to carry. For example, we are called to live in communities as if we are permanent residents. But being set apart in ordination, includes the reality of impermanence. Our belonging to a community will always be a peculiar kind of belonging. Right or wrong, it is what it is.
How do pastors navigate the dynamics of friendship within a church community? “Beware of those who meet you with gifts at the train,” was the warning we received years ago. Folks sometimes want to be friends with you because of your position, not because of who you are as a person. The role pastors fill includes the need to be mindful of boundaries, of conflicts of interest, and of the challenges that arise when parishioners or community members need you to be their pastor, not their social friend.
So there is a loneliness that is produced by ordination. It’s a loneliness that impacts social relationships. It’s a loneliness that is compounded by a schedule which runs counter to the schedule of everyone else. A pastor’s schedule intensifies toward the weekend; a parishioner’s schedule winds down. Personal opinions are readily permitted for members; personal opinions carry the weight of ordination for pastors. And all of this holds true in lesser, but still powerful, ways for spouses.
It is the reality of loneliness which makes the need for relationships with peers so essential for pastors and their spouses. Similarly, significant others who “get” the experience and dynamics of ordination-induced loneliness are utterly essential for pastors. Lone ranger pastors are typically headed for trouble down the road. Thriving together is the way it works best.
Loneliness is simply part of the reality of being ordained into ministry. Living with the wonder of ordination, as well as the challenge, requires humility, patience, fortitude and humor. In other words, dealing with our own peculiar situation as pastors requires precisely the kinds of qualities which are needed to navigate pastoral ministry in general. Humility, patience, fortitude and humor go a long way in ministering to loneliness. So do good peers. They’re all necessary, and they’re all good gifts from God.
Cecil Van Niejenhuis
Pastor/Congregational Consultant for Pastor-Church Relations Office (CRCNA)
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