By Chad Thacker
It’s 8 a.m. Monday. Blue- and white-collar Joes and Janes hustle to offices and places of labor. Meanwhile, many pastors will spend the next 12 hours wrapped in stillness and isolation. Having climbed an arduous set of steps on the way to the pulpit just 24 hours earlier, the pastor now sits on a “day off” alone, peering down from solitude.
Isolation, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, kills. And pastors, by virtue of their very vocations, face a higher-than-average level of isolation. They work with people, but they often give without receiving in relationships. And if we long to end the epidemic of isolation facing our pastors, the walls of isolation must crumble and fall first.
When Christianity Today interviewed a widow bereaved by her late husband-pastor’s suicide, she said, “Pastors don’t feel they have space in which to share their struggles with their peers or congregants.”
The cruelest form of punishment humanity devised comes in the form of solitary confinement. Neurobiologists have confirmed scientifically what Christians know from Scripture: God created humans for connection—including the body of Christ. God gifted His children by giving us one another. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer admonished in Life Together, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer Click To Tweet
At least, it can be. Yet, as Lifeway Research reports, only one-third of retired pastors have a close friend to meet with, and such meetings happen only on average of about once a month. A full one-fourth of the pastors surveyed have said they had no one with whom to connect.
That reality alone should send us searching for our car keys in hopes of going out and connecting today with our pastor. The feelings of isolation started long before they blew out the candles on the retirement cake.
A Dallas minister recently said, “I have a group of pastors I meet with every two weeks, but I’m lucky, because I live in a large metroplex. I know other pastors who live in more rural areas who do not have the same opportunities to meet with other pastors.”
He considers himself “lucky” meeting with other pastors every two weeks. Imagine fasting from nourishment for 13 days. Pastors develop this type of relational anorexia over time, consuming crumbs for weeks and then gorging themselves in rare times of meeting with other shepherds. Their bodies and minds accept spiritual and communal malnourishment as normal.
Yet congregation members and specifically elders, deacons, and other leaders, can stay close enough to their pastors to cultivate friendships. Barna research indicates that at best, half of those in church feel like their pastor is a friend. And of those friendships, the pastor initiated. While pastors rarely voice the frustration over this reality, imagine the lived experience of others rarely seeking you out.
Friend vs. Mentor
In meeting with pastors over years, when asked whether they would have a friend or a mentor, overwhelmingly pastors said they would prefer a friend. Mentors, while important, come “with expectations and goals.” Friends, on the other hand, come with “fewer expectations and the ability for authenticity.”Mentors, while important, come “with expectations and goals.” Friends, on the other hand, come with “fewer expectations and the ability for authenticity.” Click To Tweet
Like most humans, pastors value the ability simply to sit with others. So how can a churchgoer befriend their pastor? Here are some suggestions:
- Practice the ministry of presence. That is, learn to value silence until your pastor determines the environment safe. Remember, earning proximity and friendship will take time as they learn to trust you.
- Assess how your age might influence your perspective. Younger pastors commonly seek out and find themselves sought out by older members in their congregations. An older saint might consider whether the pastor perceives him or her as a friend or a mentor.
- Ask yourself: When we converse, do I offer unsolicited advice? When people offer a prescription of wisdom before completing a proper assessment of the relationship, the chance of an overdose heightens and reinforces the belief that you care more about your opinion than the pastor who’s leading you. Do you share about your life and struggles and ask questions, allowing vulnerability in both directions? True friendship, never one-sided and always a risky proposition, takes mutual investment and proper expectations.
Expectations vs. Reality
Proportional anger and frustration mark the distance between expectations individuals hold and their lived reality. Common to the American culture, lofty expectations for ourselves and others shape our worldviews.
Examination of congregations highlights two major attitudes toward pastors. One set imposes impossibly high standards and the other, nonchalant indifference. Congregants tend to place pastors on a pedestal that most would demolish if given the opportunity. And as a result of unreasonably high esteem and expectations set on our leaders, our churches erode.The grace we desire and receive from God new each morning must extend to our shepherds as well. — @ChadThacker Click To Tweet
Is there a high calling on the life of the pastor? Absolutely. Is the calling perfection? Absolutely not. The grace we desire and receive from God new each morning must extend to our shepherds as well. Acknowledging the real tension which exists in the calling of pastors will require church members honing our skills in holding proper perspective, accountability, and expectations.
The Myth of the Superhero
Many pastors, as they commute to the church, habitually mask-up to superhero status to transform into the false image the church members conjured. “I feel like I have to live a lie the moment I step on campus,” one pastor said. This pastor constantly monitors the situation to see if he observes all the stated and unstated rules of the church, all the while knowing he needs the gospel just as desperately as the rest of humanity.
By acknowledging our pastors’ humanity, we do not dismiss sin. We do, however, recognize the need for connection to allow the Holy Spirit to conform our pastors more and more into the image of the Son.
Become a Friend
For the sake of the gospel, befriend your pastor; embrace seriously the calling of friend.
In a 2010 TED talk viewed more than 52 million times, researcher and storyteller Brené Brown stirred up the conversation about vulnerability. Her premise? “Connection is why, we as humans, are here, and to connect, vulnerability in human relationship is non-negotiable.”
If our pastors, forced into hiding, have no outlets in which they can safely share their own struggles and joys, they won’t connect. And as a result, they will remain in isolation, lacking something necessary for health and well-being.
Cultivating friendship with your pastor requires understanding their experience. Someone—likely multiple people—has used their weaknesses to shame them. Don’t try to “fix” them. Let their professional biblical counselor offer their qualified insights. Let God, the author and perfector of our faith, do that. Rest in your simplistic, but distinct calling as one who cares.
How do you cultivate a friendship with anyone? Invite them to dinner with no agenda other than to consume delicious calories and share belly-filled laughs. Seek them out. Participate with them in an activity that breathes life into their life. Hold them accountable when they hurt you and others. Walk with them in such a way that the Spirit changes them more into the image of Christ, and always draw near.
If 11 a.m. Sunday stands as the most segregated hour of the week, 8 a.m. on Monday for pastors is the loneliest. Together, we can end this epidemic of isolation.
Chad is a salesman/entrepreneur and a student at Dallas Theological Seminary who enjoys tacos and deep conversations.