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 to terms with the limitations of those relationships.
People in the church are always looking to us to be their spiritual leaders and teachers, and this is a hat we can never take off. Because we have this responsibility, we will of necessity censor ourselves from sharing certain frustrations or concerns. Lingering in the back of our mind is the awareness that if we say something offensive or hurtful to this person, or express our frustrations about the church too candidly, it might impact their connection to our church, or it might come back to hurt our leadership.