The results are in. And overwhelming. Loneliness will kill you.
“Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” reported Douglas Nemecek, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna.
The above is just one of many studies that has come to the same conclusion. (Just Google “the destructive effects of loneliness.”) Mother Teresa said that loneliness is the hunger of the age.
The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty -- it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God. (Mother Teresa, A Simple Path: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/139677-the-greatest-disease-in-the-west-today-is-not-tb)
Those of us who live in Singapore and other urban cities know that this is not just a “disease in the West.” This is bad news for many of us. It is especially bad news for those of us who are vocational pastors, those of us who serve “full time” as shepherds of churches.
The Loneliness Of Pastors
Different people struggle with loneliness for various reasons. Pastors are lonely for a number of reasons. Here are some of them.
1. Pastors are privileged to hear the intimate details of the struggles of their church members. Indeed, some people may feel more free to share their struggles with a caring pastor than go to a counselling professional. So pastors hear all sorts of painful stories and these will begin to weigh on their hearts. The stories may provoke despair, anger, lust, grief... in the pastor. And he or she must be disciplined and not show any inappropriate emotional reaction. Often there is a deep sense of helplessness as the pastor feels that he/she can't give any real help to the person who has come with his/her struggles. But who does the pastor go to with his/her emotional baggage?
If they are married, many pastors will unload on their spouses. Often this is of real help. But not all spouses are trained to handle the things their pastor-spouses share, and they may end up very burdened themselves or affected dysfunctionally in some way. Then there are the pastors who are single --- never married, or widowed/divorced. They have no spouses to share their concerns with. Therefore pastors need a support system outside of their spouses even if they are married. Indeed spouses of pastors need their own emotional and spiritual support network.
It doesn't help that many pastors serve as the only pastor of their flock. If the church is big enough to have a multiple staff team, there is the possibility that the pastoral team itself goes beyond just working together but also provide emotional and spiritual support to each other. But this does not always happen. And many churches have only one pastor and this exacerbates his/her loneliness. As Larry Yeagley notes:
“Professional loneliness is a virus among ministers. Unlike the early apostles who went out two by two, most pastors work alone. When this lone ranger problem is ignored, loneliness drives some ministers to seek another profession. . .
“Professional loneliness may be caused by unrealistic pastoral assignments, too little contact and affirmation from administrative personnel, mean-spirited treatment from parishioners, long stretches of solitary ministry, and lack of professional confidants.
“Loneliness is a serious matter. Dr James J Lynch has shown that loneliness is the greatest risk factor in premature deaths.” (https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2001/09/the-lonely-pastor.html)
2. There is an unrealistic expectation that pastors have spiritual resources that enable them to function superhumanly. I recall there was once when I was pastoring a church when I was rebuked by a church member who said I didn't smile enough when I was in front of the congregation. She said that if I was truly filled with the joy of the Lord I would be showing a happy face at all times. I didn't think of it then but I should have reminded her that even Jesus (truly God, truly human), admitted that “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…” (Mt 26: 38a) or that He wept at the grave of His good friend Lazarus.
When my first wife passed away from cancer, I tried to tell some church leaders that my energy levels were not normal as I was still in grief. I asked for some understanding that my productivity would be less than usual. One of the leaders told me that I shouldn't bring this up. He said that if a CEO of a major company were to share that he/she was fatigued because of grief, it would affect the morale of the company. I wanted to say that I was no CEO. I was a pastor but I was first and foremost a brother in Christ, a brother in grief, a human being. This happened a long time ago. I like to think we live in more enlightened times.
There is some validity in members’ expectation that their leaders, including their pastors, should lead by example and that includes modelling a healthy and mature spiritual life. But all must remember the humanity of the pastor, that to be Christian is not to be superhuman, but to be truly human. All followers of Jesus are on their way to that full maturity which will come only when we see Jesus face to face (1 Jn 3:1 – 2). If we understand that pastors are truly human then we must accept that there will be times when they will struggle with feelings of being overwhelmed. Even the apostle Paul had his moments.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. (2 Cor 1:8)
So yes, there will be times when a pastor wants to share his pain and struggles but if the church refuses to allow the pastor to do so, after awhile, the pastor stops trying and retreats into loneliness.
A Way Forward
Pastors are lonely and loneliness is destructive. That means if we are concerned for the healthy functioning and growth of our churches, we must be serious about how we help our pastors in their struggles with loneliness. Indeed, the biblical call to bear one another's burdens (Gal 6: 2) must surely include the need to walk with our pastor-friends as they face the crippling effects of loneliness. But what can we do?
1. We must start with clear biblical thinking about the issues. In the new covenant, all of God's people belong to the priesthood of believers. All are called and all are anointed to serve the King. Some of us are called to serve as pastors but that is a role within the body of Christ. Pastors are not qualitatively different from those who serve in other capacities. In any thinking about pastors or about any other role in the family of God, we must remember their humanity. Like all of us, pastors are created for community. It is true that the role of the pastor lends itself to loneliness and therefore we must ensure that they experience the community they need. God has said clearly that it is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18) and that includes pastors. Pastors must be encouraged to find community and helped to do so.
2. We also need to look at doable structures of community for pastors. I have proposed a model where three people meet two hours once a month over a meal. We can imagine the disciples, Peter, James, and John spending time with Jesus. Such groups work if the members of the group are committed to meet up regularly and are committed to be honest and transparent in their sharing. It may be helpful to have the members of the group coming from different churches or even from different denominations to help the group members get a wider perspective of the issues they are facing. Of course pastors themselves must understand their need for community and do what they must to find that.
Pastors are lonely and loneliness is destructive. That means if we are concerned for the healthy functioning and growth of our churches, we must be serious about how we help our pastors in their struggles with loneliness.
In a recent retreat for pastors and church leaders, we asked how often they met with a Christian friend to talk about personal issues. This was the result of that survey:
The sample is not very big and it represents only one denomination. Still the results are sobering and show that many pastors and church leaders meet up with a Christian friend to talk about life, once a month or less, and some not at all. I suspect the statistics would not be too different for other denominations. The loneliness of our pastors could be a time bomb waiting to explode. At the very least, it is preventing our pastors, and therefore our churches, from being at their best. We are long overdue to address this issue.
Rev Dr Tan Soo Inn is a director of Graceworks (www.graceworks.com.sg), a ministry he runs together with Bernice, his wife. He is particularly passionate about connecting the Word of God to the realities of daily life.