Pastors have a dirty little secret.
I was meeting with a movie producer in Seattle who was looking into a new project. His idea was to find a creative visual way to discuss the issues of loneliness. At one point he said to me, “I thought I would ask pastors how they deal with loneliness.”
I said, “That is fantastic, because pastors are the loneliest people on the planet.”
He continued, “I meant, I was asking pastors how they dealt with loneliness in their congregations. Are you telling me that pastors are lonely?”
“Yes. I have actually never met another group of people who struggle with loneliness more than pastors.”
In the conversation that followed I learned of the producer’s perceptions of pastors, while we exchanged ideas for making a movie that would address the issues of loneliness. Issues that every human deals with, even pastors.
My wife asks me to refrain from extreme statements like ‘loneliest on the planet’. To be fair, if God lined all of us from least to most lonely, there would be pastors splattered among the continuum. Not all pastors are lonely, but many more are lonely than not.
How would you respond if you found out that your pastor struggled with loneliness? What if you knew that your spiritual leader had some of the same faith questions that you do? What would you do if you knew that your pastor has a besetting sin problem?
We desire transparency, and want to feel safe around others, but because the world we experience is neither, and we are scared to death of rejection, we begin to hide areas of our lives. We develop secrets, even pastors.
Secrets divide those around us into two groups:
- Those who we feel safe to tell
- Those who we do not feel safe to tell
The human experience craves knowing and being known by other human beings. When anyone isolates or establishes themselves above community, strangeness happens.
There is damage done when a person shares with someone who is not safe but there may be greater damage done when a person does not share at all.
Is your pastor in, or isolated from community?
When a person feels that they will not be judged or loved less for their thoughts, feelings or actions, then they are able to share in authentic ways with another person. When a person does not feel safe, even the smallest problem can be magnified in their head or heart.
A great benefit of confession is realizing we are not alone. Our pain, our struggles, our temptations and the ways we deal with hurt and pain feel unique to us, but they are not unique. Others around us look for meaning, struggle with fear and wrestle with coping mechanisms. To expect pastors, leaders, mentors or parents to be immune from these human conditions is not to allow those above us to be human.
Can a pastor safely share with others without fear of losing their job? If a CEO of a business struggles with pressure, they can get help. A business leader who gets help will become a better business leader.
When a pastor struggles they can be punished monetarily for their humanity. Perhaps a pastor needs to step away from their job and get help, but no one deserves to be shamed or prevented from true healing, or true friendship. Pastors know this: it is safe to talk about what you use to struggle with, it is risky to talk about what you currently struggle with.
What is Your Pastor’s Secret?
I don’t know your pastor, but am very aware of the pressures they are under and the limited opportunities that they have to deal with, or process their struggles. Some issues I hear from various pastors include:
- I am terribly alone (so was Elijah).
- My marriage is difficult (so was Hosea’s).
- I have secret sin (so did David).
- I struggle with my own faith (so did the disciples).
- I am frustrated with the people I am helping, and often feel used (Moses).
- I am afraid of what would happen if people really knew me.
- I am over my head (Noah).
- I am not sure what else I would do if I was not a pastor.
- I do not feel qualified for the role that I am in (Moses).
- I am envious of other churches or leaders that seem to have more success.
None of these issues disqualify your leader from ministry, but each may separate them from community. Without genuine friendship with God and others we all do stupid stuff. Most pastors don’t have one close friend to share their deepest fears with.
What Can Be Done?
While the church loves to manufacture relationships the truth is that no prescribed relationship will grow beyond being acquaintances until both parties chose, own their own, to become friends.
We cannot expect to be our pastor’s friend, nor should we be offended if we are not their confidant. We should, however, encourage and see if our pastor has a few significant relationships in their life.
Can you honestly lead others into redemptive community if you are not experiencing that yourself?
Pastors will try harder, pray more, learn more, but each of these are independent acts. If pastors were allowed, and even encouraged to spend less time with those they serve, and more time with others who understand what their unique role (even those with different denominational distinctives) then we would get a healed-up pastor with more capacity for dealing with the problems in their own faith community.
If you are a pastor:
- Do you have other pastors who know you, pray for you and encourage you?
- Have you given yourself permission to struggle? To hurt? To fail?
- Do you have someone, or a group of someones who know your dirty secrets, the difficulties in your marriage, or your personal fears?
Pastors are not immune from the human experience, they are the ones who are to go first. Leaders should be the first to step into pain, first to make mistakes, first to confess and repent, first to forgive. When this is done well, then we see communities full of people who will do likewise.
Of course we should pray, read, Sabbath, and reflect more. It would be great to grow in organizational skills, preaching abilities and recruiting volunteers. What if though, each pastor had a few other pastors that would know, love and encourage them?
I have been able to work with some amazing co-pastors, many who I have developed lifelong friendships with. It has been a commitment to a group of pastors, from my city, that do not work in my environment or faith community that has dramatically changed my life. I am not a boss or co-worker to them, I am a fellow shepherd learning to shepherd my own heart and family, as I work to help others do the same.
At some point we must stop competing with each other, and start encouraging each other. Pastors are dropping out of leadership at a rapid rate. The American church is in rapid decline and not for lack of great theology, but by lack of living out healing, transformative relationships that Jesus modeled, taught, and died to provide.
Could deep friendships heal the church? We have tried broken leadership models, isolating pastors from community by putting them above community, and it is time for that broken model to change. How about we ensure that every pastor for the next 50 years has healthy friendships and see if that change makes our communities better?
If you are a pastor, develop friendships with other pastors in your community that you can be gut-wrenchingly honest with. This will take time, but as your pray for each other and each other’s community and families, your love and friendship will grow. Friendships are not accidental, you must make them a priority.
What is your pastor’s dirty little secret? What is yours?