Many Pastors Are Lonely…Must They Be?
In case you haven’t already seen it, this article in The Atlantic by Pete Wehner provides background for why 30% of pastors are actively looking to leave their ministries for something else (no subtweets here…thankfully, I am not one of those pastors). This current crisis for pastors is merely an amplification of a fact that existed before all the pandemic chaos, namely, that serving in ministry can be what Paul Tripp called a “dangerous calling.” In the following essay, I hope there is enough empathy for my fellow pastors to feel seen in this. I also hope that there is enough of a nudge to encourage us all to lean in and pursue the kinds of friendship we are all made for. As C.S. Lewis famously said, to love is to make ourselves vulnerable, and the only place outside of heaven where we can be safe from the dangers of love is hell. And yet, the alternative is an isolated life, which we know from God’s own mouth is not a good thing for anyone.
In the past few years, seven of my friends lost their positions of leadership because of ministerial, and in some cases moral, failure. All seven of them were pastors.
How can this be?
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…
But the stage is a deceitful place, because the stage can often be the loneliest space in the room. In their private lives, these seven 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 ministerial failure, is what wreaked havoc in their ministries. Ministerial failure was a 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, then it must be even truer in our current, fallen world.
For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has kept me from similar collapse. Knowing my own weakness and isolating tendencies, sometimes I marvel at how this could be true. Why them and not me? I am no better and no stronger than they. 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.
As the details became more public, it became clear that this man was not only depressed, but isolated. This was especially true in his own 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. Everyone else’s sins and imperfections were forgivable and an occasion for patience and grace, but theirs were not. The shepherds, as he came to believe, were no longer allowed to be sheep.
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.”
Over the years, I have been intentional about living my life among the people I serve. Ten of my closest friends are members of our church. Five of them have been appointed to carry my casket (if I go first), and one to preach my funeral. Each one of these ten knows the very best things about me, and also the very worst things. I am exposed before them, but not rejected by them. I am known and loved by them.
These friends have also witnessed me losing my temper, freaking out from worry, and acting in a high maintenance way. Some of them have heard me cuss a time or two…or three. And yet, because grace applies to me as well as them, and because the shepherds are in fact also among the sheep, they choose to see me not through the eyes of perfectionism or platform or pedestal, but rather through the eyes of Christ, who will one day complete the good work that he has already begun in me.
Sometimes I wonder if, in the end, it will be my weakness and not my preaching or writing or leading or vision, that God ends up using to advance his Kingdom. 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 Jesus 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,” some will say. But the idealist in me—or perhaps, better said, the realist in me—still refuses to believe this. Considering the collapse of my seven, famously isolated friends, I would rather risk transparency than risk the alternative.
For the alternative, at least to me, seems like a much greater burden to bear.