Loneliness and the Life of the Pastor

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Loneliness and the life of the pastor?

A lack of relationships both inside and outside the congregation may contribute to feelings of loneliness. In my interviews with pastors about their stress, this was a recurring theme. For one Southern Baptist 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) was enjoying his work as a first-time senior pastor, but was not accustomed to ever 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.

He decided to seek professional help “when I decided to check out.” I asked him if he meant resigning from his church. “I mean check out of life. I found myself sitting in the dark for three hours, staring out the window, totally dumb and decided that I was done.” His wife and kids returned home in time to find him before he used a loaded gun to end his life.

A medical doctor asked him, “Have you ever thought about killing yourself?” Hank said, “I just paused. How was I gonna answer that? I’m a pastor of a church. 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, he was referred 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 and “was afraid to say anything about it because I didn’t think they understood and I just began to bawl. I mean I just lost it because somebody finally got what I was going through.”

Hank noticed a large gap in relationships since moving from business to the ministry. As a successful businessman, “you had a certain respect.” He illustrated now as a pastor when he introduced himself, “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 that I have ever had in my life.”

What bothers Hank is “a lot of people want you, but usually it’s because…they’ve got something bad happening. 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.” Hank added, “Just having a real relationship with a friend is just almost impossible.” He even has gone so far to try and find an older pastor to mentor him, but “they’re hard to find. I found a lot of older pastors, but not that are still vibrant and going.”

The loneliness and isolation has taken its toll on the vast majority in this profession. 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, but he needs the understanding of his congregation “or I’m probably not gonna be able to make it much longer.”

Research has provided evidence that loneliness is common among clergy. In one study of ministers, Gross (1989) reported that, “feelings of isolation were closely associated with the stress dimension” (p. 30). In my study 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 (1990) found in a study of Protestant clergywomen that fifty-four percent indicated that loneliness was a problem for them. Pastors are reported to often have a lack of personal friends with accompanying feelings of loneliness and isolation (Ostrander & Henry, 1990; London & Wiseman, 2003). Miller (1988) 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)” (p. 113).

Hall (1997) cited the findings of Warner and Carter (1984) in a study of pastors and their wives in comparison to lay persons for quality of life. Pastor’s experienced significantly more loneliness than those in non-pastoral roles. The researchers interpreted the results to indicate that loneliness is caused by both burnout and diminished marital adjustment. Both of these are fueled by the excessive demands of the pastorate. Hank, in particular, noted that both he and his wife did not experience this when he was an associate, but it emerged once he assumed the leadership role of senior pastor.

Noticeable by its absence was the lack of dialogue in the midst of stress among ministerial colleagues in my study. Different participants were hesitant about sharing with others because they do not trust others when they are vulnerable. One asked, “Who do you trust?” 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?” Hence, the frustration is only compounded as clergy search for appropriate means to cope with both acute and chronic stress indigenous to their profession.

William K. Westafer

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  • Eaton, K. F., & Newlon, B. J. (1990). Characteristics of women ministers in Arizona. Counseling & Values, 34(3).
  • Gross, P. R. (1989). Stress and burnout in ministry: A multivariate approach. Lutheran Theological Journal, 23, 27-31.
  • Hall, T. (1997). The personal functioning of pastors: A review of empirical research with implications for pastors. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 24, 240-253.
  • London, H. B., Jr., & Wiseman, N. B. (2003). Pastors at greater risk: Real help for pastors from pastors who’ve been there. Ventura, California: Regal Books.
  • Miller Ostrander, D. L., Henry, C. S. (1990). 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.
  • Miller, K. A. (1988). Secrets of staying power: Overcoming the discouragements of ministry. Waco, Texas: Christianity Today, Inc.
  • Warner, J., & Carter, J. (1984). Loneliness, marital adjustment, and burnout in pastoral and lay person. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 12, 125-131.
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