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4 Strategies to Shrink Deep Loneliness of Clergy Leadership

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Seven out of 10.

Yes, that’s right. Seven out of 10 pastors say they have no close friends, according to an Alban Institute study from around 2002.

I’ve been sharing this statistic in clergy gatherings and coaching over the last 17 years in my work at Pinnacle Leadership Associates – with a surprising response that’s no longer surprising: a clear lack of surprise.

Little has changed over nearly two decades since that study was published. When clergy hear this statistic about clergy loneliness, many of them respond with a “yes, we knew that” kind of response.

So, research and anecdotal evidence suggest a stark truth: Clergy live with a deep loneliness.

The factors forming the loneliness demon are legion. Ministers recognize that:

  • Pastoral relationships require some level of boundary to remain pastoral.
  • Friendships with those select few in the church can turn south given the right circumstances.
  • While you become friends with some in the church, you must remain willing to step out of the friendship role into the pastoral role when they need a pastor.
  • They are temporary in the network of church relationships, given a new call or appointment could come anytime.
  • Leadership itself requires a small degree of separation from those one is leading.
  • High people-demands of pastoral ministry leave little emotional energy for relationship development outside of church, especially if one even slightly trends toward introversion.
  • Pastoral schedules, with many evening meetings and weekend work, interfere with social opportunities.
  • The public nature of pastoral ministry means many people inside and outside of one’s congregation are curious about you, but rarely for personal relationship reasons.

Though not an exhaustive list, these are some of the dynamics contributing to the relational disconnect clergy experience when they are passive about personal relational connection.

So, given the inherent challenges, we want to challenge clergy to make relational connection a priority. Here are four strategies for shrinking the deep loneliness of clergy:

1. Recognize it’s not just you.

Loneliness is rampant here in our advanced, technologically savvy society, regardless of vocation.

Numerous researchers are giving themselves to investigating the factors contributing to rising rates of loneliness in such an “advanced” social environment.

Affluence? Technology? Busyness? Yes, to all of these, plus some.

Though the dynamics of pastoral ministry complicate social connections, everyone is finding relational engagement fairly challenging in our current environmental mix.

2. Accept the relational challenges inherent in the pastoral role.

Unfortunately, some clergy allow the challenges we are describing to turn them bitter, cynical and generally unhappy.

Though the minority, some interpret these challenges as a mild form of persecution or as exceptionally onerous, blaming their call to ministry for their personal loneliness.

These clergy need a wake-up call. Blaming someone or something outside oneself for one’s troubles is the fast track to personal misery.

These pastors and church staff persons need to remember personal contentment is everyone’s individual responsibility.

A far better response is to accept the challenging dynamics inherent in the role, growing creative and adaptive, finding one’s way to a satisfying outcome.

If one cannot get there, ask for help from others (colleagues, coaches, denominational ministers, therapists). If one still cannot get there, maybe a vocational change will help.

3. Accept and cultivate the relational connection opportunities available to you with those who share your journey.

Every profession (if we can include vocational ministry in this category) has its culture, slang and humor.

When clergy get together and relax, they are hilarious. Being with them in training events, coaching groups and denominational gatherings is big fun. When they relax, watch out.

Over time, I’ve seen clergy connect with other clergy to form enduring friendships enriching them over time.

During the introduction portion of a recent training event, one pastor introduced another pastor as her mother. They are not biological relatives, yet one mentored the other in ministry until they became like kin.

When with one another, clergy don’t have to explain what it’s like. They can simply be together with others who know and share the journey.

4. Make relational connection part of your ministry, given ministry is a calling that involves your entire life.

Yes, this clergy life is a calling. Yes, the schedule is bizarre at times. Yes, there are inherent limitations while also inherent blessings.

So, in this vocational journey, when we believe relational connection is important, let’s go ahead and prioritize what’s important. Consider making relational connecting one of your priorities for this year.

I predict your creative energy will rise, leading you to a variety of relational connection opportunities that you could not predict from where you are now.

When we make a commitment to pursue priorities, our generative resources tend to gather around those priorities, leading us to progress.

So, rather than me writing an article on “The Top 10 Ways to Make Friends, Even Though You Are a Minister,” I’m suggesting a deeper approach: Make relational connecting a priority, committing to cultivating this part of your life for a year (or more).

Then pray, trust God and start noticing the doors opening. Be ready to walk over the threshold, following the guidance you are given.

May we be good stewards of this one precious life God has given us, even while serving as vocational ministers.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle Leadership Associates’ blog. It is used with permission.

Mark Tidsworth

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.