Bruce Cockburn's song "The Strong One," which describes how hard it is to be "the one who gathers everybody's tears," took on new meaning for me awhile back.
I'd been pleased to have a good friend in the congregation. His wife and children got on well with my family. We conversed freely and laughed easily with one another.
Then, suddenly, he cut me off, at first without explanation. Eventually he told my wife, "I don't want to go to church anymore. It's so awkward being friends with a pastor."
My role as pastor made him feel guilty, not good enough. My role precluded our friendship.
Later, my wife and I went to an evening concert with two friends from our congregation. Due to a stressful day, I was already on edge. Unfortunately, I lost my cool and snapped at my wife. Our friends, sitting beside us, overheard. I spent the evening seething in embarrassed silence.
One of our friends confronted me afterwards: "That was disturbing. As a pastor, you should know better." While I was wrong to blow up, I was miffed at the rebuke and wondered if I, a pastor, couldn't have the luxury of being fallible, even among friends. I found myself in a bind: I was too good for the first friend and not good enough for the second.
Are All Pastors Friendless?
Since my theology minimizes clergy-lay distinctions, I didn't expect pastoring to make me thin on friends. But I began asking other pastors: "Are you lonely?" "Do you have friends?" "What do you do for personal support?" All indicated they had problems.
-Upon leaving a seven-year pastorate, one pastor said he felt free to have friendships for the first time in years.
-A nationally known pastor lamented, "I have friends across the country and indeed around the world, but none in my own community. I can't afford to."
-A part-time pastor of a new church spoke of his happy involvement with a local theater group. But church members resented this, believing all his energy should go into the congregation.
-Still another pastor wrote me: "In the ministry you're everyone's friend--sort of--but no one's friend really. It seems that pastors either forgo friendships or seek them outside the parish (in so far as time permits)."
I have yet to meet a pastor who isn't lonely.
Join the Lonely Crowd
But is pastoring solely responsible for loneliness? I think not. Loneliness isn't peculiar to pastors. My friend Brian D. Dufton, a psychologist, observed other factors in my condition (and that of many other pastors).
First, males generally have more problems forming friendships. Second, I've spent much time in ivory tower communities (universities and seminaries) where I was surrounded by other eclectic introverts (like me), but in the parish, it's more difficult to find such like-minded souls. Third, since I'm still building a career, I tend to be work oriented, which, according to Dufton, is "inimical to relationship growth."
Furthermore, loneliness is widespread, not just among pastors.
In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen notes, "Loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists speak about it as the most frequently expressed complaint and the root not only of an increasing number of suicides but also of alcoholism, drug use, [and] different psychosomatic symptoms."