General CBF / Pastoral Care

Pastors are lonely, and this is a big problem

By Laura Stephens-Reed

In A Path to Belonging: Overcoming Clergy Loneliness, leadership specialists Mary Kay DuChene and Mark Sundby raise the red flag that loneliness among clergy, a stress response to not having adequate levels of social connection, is epidemic. This was true before the pandemic, but our need to distance ourselves physically during the worst of Covid-19 exacerbated the problem.

This is a problem for the population at large. People who feel lonely are at a 26 percent greater risk of premature death – a threat as great as if we smoked 15 cigarettes a day – and that is particularly true for those of us who are middle-aged. But we don’t talk about our loneliness because shame is attached.

Our culture encourages rugged individualism. “I should be able to do it all myself and be content by myself.” But that’s not how God made us. Our biology is designed to nudge us toward the company of others for safety’s sake. Our theology as Christians turns us toward our neighbors for mutual care. We need each other.

Laypeople might not know this, but many pastors struggle with loneliness. This might seem strange since our work is so people-centered. We are a member of yet isolated from our congregations. There are certain boundaries we must implement to be good ministers. We often must move away from our support systems to find ministry positions. We tend to work long hours, hours unlike other professionals, that make it tough to develop relationships outside of our vocational lives.

Hopefully it’s helpful for pastors to be reminded that we are not alone in our experiences, even when we feel lonely. But ministers need more than just this knowledge to counteract the effects of isolation. As pastors, we must make conscious efforts to build our teams. Here is a way to think about doing this, with framing from Matt Bloom of the Flourishing in Ministry study at Notre Dame. Thinking of our lives as taking place in a theater, here is what all pastors need:

Time on the front stage. This is your work in front of the audience, where you are fully inhabiting the role of clergyperson. Most pastors spend more than enough time on the front stage. Bear in mind that the more authentic you can be in this space, the less lonely and more resilient you will be. Having a pastoral relations committee can help with this. If you have a team with whom you can let down your guard and ask for help as needed, you won’t feel so much like a solo performer. Building trust with staff, lay leaders and church folks at large can also make an impact.

Time backstage. Everyone needs colleagues behind the scenes with whom they can vent and learn and with whom they can find mutual support. Backstage is the space where you can regularly convene with a peer group of fellow clergy, recruit a mentor to influence your leadership or have contact with a coach, therapist and/or spiritual director. Think of these people as the “churchy” version of director, producer, makeup artist, costume designer, tech crew or anyone else who might help an actor be ready for the front stage.

Time offstage. Don’t be a method actor, in which you are in your clergy role 100 percent of the time. You need time when you take off the clergy robe altogether. In these spaces, find people with whom you can be seen and valued for your true self. This might include down time with your spouse, family or ride-or-die friends. It might mean finding hobbies that tap into a different part of your personality and gifts and connect you with people who don’t even know you’re a pastor. This is often the area that pastors struggle with the most, both because ministers identify so fully with their professional roles and are so consumed by work that it is hard to leave the theater.

Congregations can help their ministers get time backstage and offstage. Hold those calls and texts that aren’t emergencies until regular office hours. Be generous with paid vacation, then celebrate your pastors for taking that time away. Encourage your minister to seek out opportunities to be with other clergy. There are multiple programs out there – many of them fully funded by grants – that bring pastors together for retreats as well as ongoing support. Acknowledge that your leader needs time to be in non-churchy spaces too. Some pastors that I know have joined the community orchestra or a roller derby team, and this has meant marking certain time as off-limits for church meetings.

If pastors, with their congregations cheering them on, can build a team that has some members who show up onstage, backstage and offstage, we can overcome the three kinds of loneliness that DuChene and Sundby identify:

  • Individual loneliness, in which we feel different and separate from everyone else around us.
  • Relational loneliness, in which we don’t feel like we have networks we can call upon.
  • Collective loneliness, in which we don’t feel connected to groups that could have meaning for our lives.

Pastors: Who is on your team, whether onstage, backstage, or offstage? Where do you need to recruit more support? What is the very first, smallest step in that direction? Churches: What is one change you might make to support your pastor’s efforts to be backstage and offstage? What education will the congregation need for that change to hold?

Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama

3 thoughts on “Pastors are lonely, and this is a big problem

  1. Coming from an involved lay leader, this article should be read and followed by all laypeople. This article is so very truthful concerning pastors that lay leaders do not think about unless they are closely involved in the leadership with their pastor. and know what they go through. on a daily 24/7 basic, because they are called upon for every situation, especially in small churches. We need to pray and support our pastors in anyway possible, we need to become a team member. Amen

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