The Isolated Pastor

One of the great paradoxes of our age is that while we’ve never been more connected to one another on social media, we’ve also never felt more alone.

More than a third of Americans over 45 report being lonely. Feelings of isolation are especially acute with tweens, teens, and young adults. Despite having hundreds of friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter, many of us are feeling cut off from the world and the communities we care about. We lack authentic companionship, we feel isolated, and we often think that no one could understand the challenges we face.

Isolation is at an epidemic level, and it’s beginning to take its toll.

Recent medical studies indicate that loneliness and social isolation can lead to raised levels of stress hormones, disrupted sleep, abnormal immune responses, and accelerated cognitive decline. A Harvard Business Review essay from 2017 cites a study that suggests the effects of social isolation on one’s lifespan is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So severe is the problem that in 2018 then Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the UK’s first Loneliness Minister.

Clergy are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. Think about solo pastors – even the term sounds isolating, doesn’t it? And yet, more than half of the churches in America are led by solo pastors. Bi-vocational ministers can feel equally isolated, pulled between two spheres of work and community but not fully experiencing a sense of belonging in either. Even clergy in large, multi-pastor churches can feel siloed in their work and disconnected from colleagues and congregants.

Ministry can end up feeling like an invitation to free-climb the 1000-yard vertical rock face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan without the use of ropes or other safety devices. Unless you have the skill and nerve of Alex Honnold, it’s highly dangerous and not advised.

Loneliness and social isolation are one of the primary reasons why nearly 30% of all clergy have seriously considered leaving the ministry in the past 12 months. Beyond that, loneliness and social isolation have other effects on pastors, from depression and resentment to addiction and affairs.

Knowing how to work ourselves out of this situation requires knowing how we got here in the first place. One of the causes of pastor isolation is what I call John Wayne spirituality. In Americana, John Wayne is the celebrated icon of rugged individualism, the autonomous protagonist who can do it all on their own. Similar notions have seeped into Christian theology, especially in the form of the hero-pastor that my colleague Jennifer Maxell so powerfully describes. We need to reject rugged individualism for what it is: a bankrupt form of leadership that is far more American than it is biblical.

Another cause of pastor isolation is the fear of vulnerability. Either because we are afraid of emotional exposure or want to maintain an I-have-it-all-together public image, we seldom risk opening up and inviting others in. We hide behind our degrees, our pulpits, our social media personas. Yet, embracing vulnerability is essential to who we are as humans and as pastors. As Bréne Brown puts it, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.”

Adding to the problem, somewhere along the line we have come to confuse solitude with isolation. Moments of solitude are essential for healthy spirituality. Solitude can be transformative, centering, and restful. Not so with isolation. When we are isolated by choice or circumstance, we are made into an island – that’s literally what insulatus, the latin word for isolation, means. Isolation cuts us off from reality, truth, self-knowledge, compassion, and community. Ministry requires moments of solitude (Jesus often seeks solitude in the Gospels) but it was never intended to be done in isolation.

The calling to pastoral ministry is a calling to embrace dependence, vulnerability, and connectivity. These are both a lifeline and a responsibility. They are things we receive from God as a gift but that we must also intentionally cultivate. Please hear me: I am NOT saying that you shouldn’t feel lonely or that you just need to get over it. Loneliness and social isolation are real, and their effects are significant. If you are feeling this way, you are not alone. I and my colleagues see you. We are here for you – no agenda, no strings attached. More than to equip you with cutting-edge ministry skills or theological knowledge, we exist to connect you to one another in ways that shatter the isolation and loneliness that haunts us all.

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