Leaders and Loneliness

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In the past two years, five of my friends who are pastors lost their ministries because of moral failure.

Five.

Most of these pastors were also well known and celebrated beyond their local contexts. From the outside, it seemed they were at their peak pastorally and relationally. How could it be otherwise? Their books sold like hotcakes, they had speaking engagements galore, and their adoring congregations devoured their words like honey. Surrounded by such acclaim, the one thing they couldn’t possibly be…

…is lonely.

But the stage is a deceitful place, because the stage can often be the loneliest space in the room. In their private lives, these five pastors were isolated relationally. Somewhere along the way, they substituted friendship with counterfeit versions of community, as evidenced by their growing throng of online likes, followers and fans. But in reality, thousands of fans and followers are a very poor substitute for a handful of healthy, transparent, accountable, and loyal friends. Their isolation, not their moral failure, is what wrecked their ministries. Moral failure was the symptom, but isolation was the underlying disease.

“It is not good,” the Lord God said, “for man to be alone.”

If this was true in Paradise, it must also be true—even more so—in our current, fallen world.

For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has protected me from moral collapse. Knowing my own weakness and isolating tendencies, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…”

Maybe this is why Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I relate to this advice because…

Being a pastor is hard.

Once in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:

God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.

The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large, influential church. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.

Some of those ‘demons,’ it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high.

As the details became more public, it became clear that this man was not only depressed, but isolated. This was especially true in his church.

He had plenty of adoring fans.

But he had few, if any, actual friends.

In his suicide note, he said that he felt trapped. He was depressed, but he couldn’t tell anyone because he thought that it would ruin his ministry. He had come to believe that pastors weren’t allowed to be weak. Nor were they allowed to be human, like everybody else.

I am one who, like this pastor, has experienced anxiety and depression. Impacted by his tragic story and also the transparency of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, I have chosen to be more open with my congregants about my afflictions. And guess what? They embrace and identify with me more when I do this, not less. “Today, Scott, when you told us about your affliction” one church member said, “today is the day that you became my pastor.”

Sometimes I wonder if, in the end, it will be my weakness and not my preaching or writing or vision, that God ends up using to advance his Kingdom. Because of this, I also wonder if we pastors ought to become less concerned about building an image and accumulating followers, fans, and ‘likes,’ and instead focus our energy on cultivating a few healthy, transparent, accountable, and loyal friendships. Jesus had his twelve, and also his three. If he needed this kind of community, how could we ever think that we do not?

I know that many pastors say it’s impossible to let your guard down with the members of your church. “It’s too risky,” we say. But the idealist in me—or perhaps, better said, the realist in me—refuses to believe this. Considering the collapse of my five, famously isolated friends, I would rather risk transparency than risk the alternative.

For the alternative, at least to me, is a much greater burden to bear.

 


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8 responses to “Leaders and Loneliness”

  1. Steve says:

    To the author. I am sure you mean well and your heart is undoubtedly in the right place. What I am writing is not meant as an attack on you personally, and I confess it is probably written with some degree (or a lot of degree?) of jealousy, for which I have to repent.

    Still, when you write, “I know that many pastors say it’s impossible to let your guard down with the members of your church. “It’s too risky,” we say. But the idealist in me—or perhaps, better said, the realist in me—refuses to believe this. Considering the collapse of my five, famously isolated friends, I would rather risk transparency than risk the alternative…..”

    Honestly, if I hear one more BIG CHURCH pastor opine and go on about how lonely ministry is, I’m going to scream. Really? How many people are on your staff? How many underlings are there, thinking you’re the best thing since sliced bread, and ready to do whatever ministry tasks you don’t want to do? How many subscribe to your podcasts, and come to your conferences, and hang on your every word? How big is your church budget? How worried are you that it’s all going to fall apart and be for nothing?

    God, I know to ask that sounds horrible. But maybe the reason so many of the rest of us pastors have trouble with transparency is that OUR JOBS HANG ON THE LINE if this little, fewer than a hundred people, church doesn’t “make it.” How can I “be transparent” with my people, with my small group, or with men in the church around me when, if I were to be brutally honest, what I’d scream would be, “I am overwhelmed, there are more needs here than one man can possibly meet, and as hard as I’m trying, as many people leave as stay (and usually those who leave go to the siren song of the big, cool, happening church AND the ones who leave are usually the ones you’ve poured the most time into and wept the most tears with and for). Yet still they turn and go, usually without a word, but sometimes by telling everyone else but you.” How do I tell them that my wife believes I am called to ministry — but wishes I wasn’t? How do I say that, for all the hope I have as their pastor, I am also afraid that this church is going to “fail,” because there’s just not enough money to keep the building open and pay the pastor and for him to provide for his family? Try telling them that you love the church, but sometimes can’t stand the business and the circus of trying to keep the church running.

    Try being “real and transparent” about all of that and see how far it gets you. And yes, I know big churches have their challenges and pastors at big churches have their struggles. But how often have you walked into your congregation, people who are looking to you, and have you felt like screaming in the middle of the room that your’e drowning — and yet no one seems to notice nor care. And if you did try to share all of that….they wouldn’t really understand at all. I’m sorry, God I am, but it’s one thing to say from the pulpit, “Yes, I struggle with anxiety and depression,” but it’s another thing entirely to be that kind of soul-level transparent with people in your congregation when the congregation is barely hanging on. Because, at the end of the day, as much as church members SAY they want their pastor to be transparent, the ugly truth is that they only want him to be transparent to a certain point. And more specifically, they only want him to have struggles to a certain point.

    • Heather says:

      Steve, my heart aches for you. No matter the size of your congregation or staff or church, it sounds like you are saying the same thing as Scott, that you are struggling and lonely and want to be heard and want to be allowed to be human and that you want to be able to lean on others in genuineness and transparency, to have others lift you up like you lift them up. Sometimes, the loneliness place to be is in the middle of a crowd. I will say a prayer for you. Don’t be afraid to be human, to be in need, to be weak. People react best to others when someone shows that they are human, too. (Although, prideful “Pharisee-type” people will not react well, because they are all about rules and image, not about heart and compassion. And that’s their problem, not yours.)

      We just got a new pastor a few years ago. And I don’t really like his style. He is all about teaching, about talking AT us about how we should live and what we should do and how we should view things his way. I feel no heart connection with him, no sense that we are all in this together and can lift each other up. Instead I feel like we are his project, like he is enthralled with the challenge of turning us all into “little hims.” Our last pastor was a heart person, he was vulnerable and open and shared his hurts and struggles and fears. He brought Christianity to a real, human, raw level. I connected with him. I wanted to hear what he had to say because he wasn’t just talking at us, he was coming alongside us on this journey through life and letting us come alongside him.

      Incidentally, we just learned that one of my favorite head pastors here – our Caring Ministries pastor – had his own “moral failure” this past year, a few years after being under this new pastor. He was under the other pastor for over a decade and never strayed. But a few years under this new one, and he did. It broke my heart. And it made me wonder what was going wrong on the leadership board. Why did none of the other pastors or our new head pastor sense that this was going on? How could they miss such a huge shift in someone’s heart? Here was the pastor who cared for everyone else, but no one was there to care for him, to sense that he was falling. How did that happen? I can only imagine that this new pastor never took the time to really connect and be real with the other pastors and to encourage accountability and relationship. My guess is that he talks at them, too, instead of with them. That he’s more concerned with head things than heart things. And that keeping a “professional distance” from the people he needs and the ones who need him have led to some pretty lonely people and staff.

      We have been toying with the idea of leaving this church for years (I’d already be gone if my kids didn’t have friends there) because I feel like I am starving spiritually, like my heart is starving. And if we did leave, we wouldn’t tell him. We would just quietly slip out. Because he doesn’t seem teachable or humble to me. He seems like someone who would rather instruct me about how wrong I am and how right he is. And so instead of leaving, I sit out where the TVs are for the over-flow crowd and I read a book or put my headphones on and listen to Christian music while he gives his sermon. I don’t want to hear anything from him because it always make me angry. I don’t need more to hear more about how brilliant he is and how he has all the answers. I need someone to come alongside and be human with me and walk with me through the hard times. I need to feel part of the community, not treated like a project or a student. I could only hope to find a church where the pastor was transparent with us, humble and needy and real and raw. Human, just like the rest of us.

      So thank you, Scott, for being that kind of pastor, willing to let your congregation into your heart and life, instead of setting yourself above them or acting like you can handle it all without their love and support. Pastors are not called to be super-human, they are called to lead and guide and teach other humans. And the best way to do that is to be human yourself, to show them how real humans do it. I would much rather hear advice and wisdom from someone who’s been through the hard times and talks about it from his own experience and who is real with us than from someone who has all the “right answers” and “pat answers” and who is talking AT us. My own loneliness and isolation when dealing with hard stuff that no one else seems to want to talk about led me to write my own transparent blogs (one of them is http://www.lovehealme.blogspot.com). I strongly believe that honesty and transparency will reach more people than “confident, instructional teaching while keeping a professional distance” ever could.

      God bless you, Steve and Scott. The burdens are heavy, but you are not alone (unless you allow yourself to be).

  2. Carol Taylor says:

    From one who suffers clinical depression frequently, pastors sharing their same infliction & how they handle it through their relationship with God would always be appreciated.

  3. LP says:

    Speaking from the pew. We can see our pastors drowning. But they say they are not. It is pride.
    Speak the truth. We know it anyway. If we give you a hard time, walk away, we don’t deserve you.
    But give us a chance. God works through us too.

  4. […] Leaders and Loneliness I agree with this assessment. I’d only add that in the falls I’ve witnessed, the pastors and leaders chose isolation, resisting fellowship and accountability. It wasn’t people who pulled away from them; they pushed people away. […]

  5. Charles Hooper, Jr says:

    Scott, thanks for your yet-again honesty which is so refreshing. I have been in pastoral ministry for 29 years and have seen many of my fellow pastor friends get crushed with expectations, burnout, and isolation. Thankfully, I have a few men who are in my life and they are life-savers. I seek to be “with and for” other pastors through gospel oriented leadership coaching. Keep on being authentic so Jesus shines through! Charles

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