According to the research one of the main causes of pastoral burnout is relational isolation. That is, pastors tend not to have deep enough friendships to really share their struggles, vent, or just relax. About 70 percent of the pastors polled in a large survey said they had not one close friend. The fact that in many churches the lead pastor keeps his job by “meeting the needs” of the church membership contributes to a sense of being “on duty” whenever he is in their presence (which is much of the time). It gets tricky because the pastor probably realizes that the congregation wants to know that he is “just being himself” and “relaxing” (always in ways they would approve of). So the savvy pastor develops the skill of pretending to be relaxed for the sake of the people watching. Good grief. What a recipe for disaster. Heaven forbid he should get good at this and lose himself in the part. Actually, I think a lot of pastors do lose themselves in the part they play and that loss creates the hollow center that eventually implodes.
What I share here will not offer quick fixes; in fact some of it might seem counterintuitive. But I am convinced that these four ideas are at least part of a foundational strategy to deal with isolation
One of the isolation factors in pastoral work is the sense of taking the blame for difficulties in the church. What I have found is that by sharing leadership with others it takes some of the stress off my shoulders, allowing me to relax and let others bear the load. It sounds simple to share leadership, but it isn’t. To do it we need to first create a safe, consensus-based guidance structure. There still needs to be a lead pastor, but he shouldn’t feel that all the good ideas must come from his head. Second, we need to give up getting our own way all the time. Third, we need to share the pulpit enough to convince the church that there are other spiritual leaders available besides the lead pastor. And fourth, we need to be patient. True shepherds surface over time (often years) and most churches need to be slowly trained to trust more than one. But once shared leadership is in place it goes a long way toward reducing the feeling of isolation in the senior personnel.
Jesus said it’s a danger sign if everybody likes us all the time (Luke 6:26). That means when people gossip about us it’s OK (OK for us as the victims, not for them as the perps). This is good to know because all pastors become the topic of gossip. A good friend who had recently joined a church staff after having another career sat down with me, dejected after just a few months in full time pastoral work. He stared into his coffee for several minutes, then said, “You know, before I became a pastor, I wasn’t aware of any anger toward me by the people I knew. But now it seems there is always somebody that is disappointed or upset with me.” This is typical pastoral stress. There’s no way around it. Being gossiped about is not a sin and in fact might mean that you have said or done something that makes others change in good ways. Strange as it may sound, I have found my sense of isolation recedes when I embrace the fact that I’m a lightning rod at times. Lightning rods serve a valuable function. Jesus was gossiped about and criticized all the time. It didn’t stop him.
This may sound odd as a way of avoiding the crisis of isolation, but consider it. Pastoral work produces a “fishbowl” effect, and the nature of the work tends to attract some rather critical observers of that fishbowl. This contributes to the feeling of isolation by making the pastor retreat emotionally from well-intentioned people who want to press into his life inappropriately. So, by this suggestion I mean that we need to be selective about friendships, but in a quiet way. We must be compassionate and loving to all, but we don’t have to let everybody into our close circle. Boundaries against unhealthy people will enhance healthy relationships, which will in turn strengthen us against isolation.
Practice what you preach, and always preach grace
Isolation grows in an atmosphere where the image of spirituality is more important than the experience of grace. Gospel grace, as we know, is not the absence of moral instruction or transformation, but the presence of spiritual and emotional safety with God and His people (Jn.13:34-35; Rom.5:1). Many pastors feel isolated because “people put them on a pedestal.” This does happen. In fact it’s inevitable if there are young Christians in your congregation. But sometimes we accidentally build the pedestal we’re forced to live on by preaching moralism instead of gospel from the pulpit and giving the impression that we never actually need grace. When we insinuate that grace is only for the unsaved, those people, rather than for us as mature Christians, we inadvertently create a critical atmosphere. Tim Keller calls it the “Older Brother” syndrome (BTW: Every pastor should read Keller’s little book, Prodigal God. The implications for pastoral theology are profound.) Pastors who emphasize grace as the primary motivator for discipleship (which it is—see Romans 12:1-2), and who regularly live out that reality, bring relief to struggling Christians (Matt. 11:28-30). A gracious atmosphere reduces emotional isolation, especially for leaders.
Pastoral isolation has only one antidote—real friendship. But healthy friendship requires an atmosphere of grace, a commitment to mutuality, a thick skin, and real boundaries. Much more could be said, and has been said well in other places. But these suggestions seem foundational and accessible to all pastors no matter the size or complexity of their church.
Just a Thought,