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Home > 2014 > March Online Only > The Friendless Pastor

It's ironic that pastors, who talk the most about the need for community, experience it the least. Our days and nights are filled with calls, meetings, and interactions with people. But despite lots of people contact, we have few trusted peers. We have too many relationships and too few friends.

Many pastors don't recognize their isolation. On the contrary, many struggle with relationship overload and feel more of a need to be by themselves when they have discretionary time. But at the same time, their experience of genuine community is limited.

I've been a pastor for almost 20 years, a recovery counselor for five years, and for the past five years have led pastor coaching groups in three states. I know that pastors, myself included, have an alarming tendency to be emotionally and spiritually isolated. For me, it wasn't until I hit the proverbial wall, struggling with burnout and addiction, that I realized how isolated I was. I had gotten really good at relating to people with warmth but not honest transparency. Sometimes there are things we can't share with people in our churches. But it went beyond that. I didn't have any real friends outside of my church either, so I wound up not sharing my struggles with anybody. What I needed was genuine community.

Isolated leaders are a danger to themselves and their churches. I've identified five specific dangers:

1. Isolated leaders are more susceptible to feelings of sadness and loneliness. Friends bring joy and energy.

2. Isolated leaders are more susceptible to anxiety and stress. When our world consists entirely of church relationships and when there is conflict or anxiety in that relational system, our stress gets multiplied. Having a friend outside of that system helps us keep perspective and lowers our anxiety.

3. Isolated leaders are more susceptible to discouragement. Without the chance to talk about our frustrations and discouragements, we lose a sense of context. Sharing these with people in the church is often unwise and unhelpful, so we keep them to ourselves.

4. Isolated leaders are more susceptible to temptation. Isolation is a key factor in vulnerability to addiction and any kind of sinful habit. Friends offer accountability and support.

5. Isolated leaders are more susceptible to doing stupid things. We tend to over-react or make decisions without thinking things through. Sometimes friends can help us by asking, "Are you sure you want to do that?"

Why We Are Isolated

If it's so obvious that meaningful community is important for church leaders, why is it so rare? I believe there are three reasons.

1. We mistakenly assume our relational needs can be met by people in our church.

When I ask about friendships, most pastors I coach will talk about the people in their church that they get along with the best. For years that was my answer too. I worked to cultivate friendships with men in the church. I thought these friendships were healthy and helpful—and to a large extent they were. But I hadn't come ...

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From Issue:March (Online-Only), March Online Only 2014 | Posted: March 24, 2014

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June 18, 2014  11:55am

One simple solution: don't be a pastor who gives into the vasectomy-mentality and have a big clan of kiddos. Friend problem solved. Of course you might not have the deep peer communication but you'll have little trove of treasure better than any friends.

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Tim Aagard

April 23, 2014  10:22am

Part 2 Mutuality is severely warped. In 2 Cor. 11 & 12 Paul’s says 5 times or more that pay by those you serve is a “burden”. More accurately it “numbs” God’s people. Responsiveness to God’s supernatural relationships is gone. In 1 Cor. 9 after verse 15 on ministry free of charge he says that this is what gives him the power to be all things to all people or reach more. Please look it up. 1 John 1:7 says when believers walk in the light as God is in the light we have fellowship (koinonia) partnership, deep heart connection with one another. If you think you can’t have that with those around you, there is darkness in your life. Please hear God’s voice in the scriptures calling you to His light. Please “throw off the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles so you can run the race marked out for you.”

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Tim Aagard

April 23, 2014  10:20am

Part 1 Mark - Thank you for your heartfelt response. I feel as you do a deep compassion for men in the system who are without deep heart connections. Your solution deepens the corruption of the household of faith. Don’t you see the blatant contradiction of truth? I must have failed to show you how this aloofness is tied in with the false assumptions of the system and directly nullify the commands of God for His people. I realize you are deeply invested in this tradition, but God’s word is more powerful than traditions of men. It can shred it for you as it did for me. What God has instead is far greater. You can’t see it by pragmatism; only by faith. “…to cultivate peer friendships where they can be totally transparent…” The key interruption of any believer being a peer heart connection is the hired leader system. It brings in the non-peer status of those paid. It ushers in a pedestalized, perpetual dependency relationship. It brings in the employee - employer dynamic.

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Mark Brouwer

April 19, 2014  4:57pm

There are some interesting comments here. Thanks everyone for your thoughts. I don't know if it's wise to get into too much of a back and forth about specifics. There are some commenters who are pointing out the fault of our current system of professional clergy -- I think someone used the term "hireling." The focus of my work and my purpose in writing the article is to help struggling pastors within the system ... and I feel a lot of compassion because there are many pastors who are really lacking in genuine fellowship, accountability, and support. I'm wanting to encourage them to take it upon themselves to cultivate peer friendships where they can be totally transparent -- even about the frustrations and foibles they are encountering in the church. Maybe there's a good followup to this article, which would be: "What needs to be changed about the system." I don't feel qualified to write that one.

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J R Hines

April 07, 2014  9:40am

Let me give you a less ‘clinical’ or Biblical reason for lack of friendships: My Dad was a pastor with a very strong passion for shepherding his congregation. However, he and my Mom kept a distinct distance between themselves and the congregants. They would gladly accept extra-church invitations to social events and meals. We spent a great deal of time church members’ homes. But we never had people come to our house because we did not want to be percieved as having ‘favorites’. We also knew that there were prople who, if invited to a gathering at our house, might say things like: “They sure spend a lot of money on books”. Or: “I can’t afford a new couch like the Pastor has”. My Dad gave according to Acts 20:35 by being willing to visit people in hospital when they called him at 11:30PM - and to stay until morning. Dad's friends were the fellow pastors (of all denominations) in our city and the pastors in our denomination’s region. Most of all, my Dad's best friends were his family.

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