Why Do People Keep Pastors at Arm’s Length?

Ordination can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Why Do People Keep Pastors at Arm’s Length?
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Envato

I’m an Anglican priest. I wear black every day, I wear a collar, and I work in a parish. While many pastors from evangelical traditions opt out of the collar and thereby can get around “incognito,” those of us who wear clerical garb have a constant visual reminder of who we are. This is can be deeply isolating.

While I was preparing for ordination, one of my mentors warned me, “When you start wearing a collar, whether you like it or not, you will be a character in other people’s thoughts and dreams.” The truth of these words didn’t really hit me until I was on my first hospital round after being ordained. Many people stopped me to say, “Hello, Father,” or “Good morning, Father.” They didn’t know a thing about me, but by virtue of my vocation, I became a cartoonish aggregate of all their images of what a priest should be. I played a role in their thoughts, though they didn’t know my name.

I thought to myself, I’m not just Cole anymore; I am always going to be assessed based on whether or not I fit a stereotype of a pastor.

In most people’s eyes, my vocation comes before my person. Even though my clerical garb reveals this in unique ways, it’s true for most people in professional ministry, with or without a collar. Pastoral ministry is a great calling—one I am glad to answer—but it can also leave me feeling cut off from others.

Set Apart

I imagine most of my parishioners would find it odd to learn that pastoral ministry can feel so lonely. While pastors spend their fair share of time alone writing and planning, much of the time we are surrounded by people—not by nameless crowds, but by people we know well. Yet we often feel alone.

To be a pastor is to be set apart, holy, “other”—or so it seems. Whether or not this is in fact the case, it is how we are popularly perceived, and it shapes the way we are treated.

Pastors share a certain affinity with the Levitical priesthood. While the people of God as a whole are called to be “a chosen people, a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), some of us are ordained to a ministry of Word and sacrament, trusting that those to whom we minister “will share in all good things with their teacher[s]” (Gal. 6:6).

Without diminishing the differences between the polity of our churches, the scriptural injunctions for leaders in the church are demanding, calling bishops or overseers to be “above reproach” and deacons to “prove themselves blameless” (1 Tim. 3). For all leaders, God’s call demands a high standard of faithfulness because we are in some sense—for good or ill—models to the faithful, knowing that “we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). This is a serious vocation.

And that is to say nothing about the expectations others have of pastors. Many folks think we are either ultra-spiritual gurus or shysters peddling spiritual wares. Until we break down these initial stereotypes, people will engage with us in a superficial or skeptical manner. I notice people’s stares when I’m out walking with my family after work and haven’t had time to change my clothes. They must find it odd to see a priest walking around with two sons and a pregnant wife, and I can’t help but wonder if they think I am up to something scandalous.

Recently, we went to the grocery store as a family right after leaving church. My oldest son announced that he needed to pee, so I took him to the bathroom. I felt compelled to explain to everyone that I was his father, that there was nothing salacious going on. I could only guess what people were thinking in that situation, if anything at all. I left feeling anxious, exposed, and profoundly isolated.

Complicated Friendships and One-Way Relationships

This feeling of loneliness doesn’t only occur in public settings with strangers. Friendships are also complicated. Some of my best friends, especially those I knew before I entered the ministry, still look at me primarily as a friend. But for many others, the boundary between friend and pastor can be quite fuzzy.

In one of our previous churches, my wife and I started to get close to a couple. We had lots in common, and our kids were about the same age. Yet when deep marital issues between them started to surface, the couple asked me to do some marital counseling, which I did happily. But as they aired their dirty laundry in my office, I realized the kind of friendship my wife and I had hoped for wasn’t going to work out. My role had changed from friend to priest.

In situations like that, I often find myself wondering, Are you interested in being my friend or are you interested in what I can do for you as a pastor? I can be happy with either answer, but I want to be clear about what I’m getting into.

Recently a family we know from outside of our congregation moved closer to us and started looking for a church. I recommended they come visit our church for a Sunday. After we talked, I started regretting that suggestion. If they do start coming to our church, our straightforward friendship will grow complicated when I become their pastor.

Craig Barnes notes, “Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.” Our vocation separates us from our parishioners while thrusting us right into their midst.

The empathy required of pastors can take an emotional toll, further exacerbating a sense of loneliness. People are often driven to meet with a pastor because of some kind of trouble. It may be news of a spreading illness or issues cropping up at home, but seldom does someone ask to meet with me to share how well their life is going and how much they have grown in the faith. When I see a message waiting for me from a parishioner I tense up because there’s a good chance something has gone wrong.

The pastoral office does, of course, offer moments of joy as well: baptisms, confirmations, and wedding celebrations. But in my experience, people most often reach out to the pastor out of their wounded-ness. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes,

There is no question that those set aside to preside at the Eucharist have a particular responsibility for the wounded. We worship a wounded saviour. We follow as a people also wounded. Such a people cannot help but care for one another in a manner that imitates God's care for our wounds. They must, therefore, be persons who have learned to be in the presence of suffering without resorting to simplistic explanations. When all is said and done, pastoral care requires those who are to be agents of care to be people of deep humanity.

In most intimate friendships, sharing pain and loss is a two-way street: We are there for our friends in their need, and they are there for us. As pastors, we can’t risk the same vulnerability with most in our parish, and the sheer volume of need can be overwhelming. To know the burdens of a congregation, to know their suffering and loss, to know their struggles can leave me feeling cut off from them.

5 Ways to Push Back Against Ministry Loneliness

For those in ministry, loneliness comes with the territory. Though we may not be able to get rid of it entirely, here are five strategies that have proven helpful as I’ve combatted my own feelings of isolation.

1. I Turn off My Phone

Or I at least put it in another room. While smartphone addiction has been linked to loneliness generally, I have found being too connected exacerbates ministry isolation in two specific ways. First, keeping my phone on at all times can steal the intimacy from the few deep relationships I have. I relish the meaningful connections I have with my wife and kids. If I keep my phone turned on by my side whenever I’m with them, I constantly fight the temptation to check my email and dilute those precious hours of deep, in-person relationship.

Second, staying too connected on my phone cultivates shallow relationships over social media. These connections give the illusion of meaningful friendships, but I find them to be more draining than life giving.

2. I Go on Silent Retreats

This may come as a surprise, but silent retreats have been especially helpful for combatting my pastoral loneliness. Unlike leadership conferences or working retreats, silent retreats free me, without excuse, to be present before God. It isn’t natural or easy. At first the silence is uncomfortable, and I find myself constantly tempted to reach for my phone. However, after I’ve had some time to disconnect and sit quietly, my feelings of isolation dissipate, and I find myself attuned to the restorative presence of God.

When I return to my family and ministry life after a few days away for silence and prayer, it’s like someone hit reset on my mind and heart. I am able to engage with others again from a place of strength and rest.

3. I Talk to a Spiritual Director

Whether this person is officially certified or not, I find this sort of relationship essential because a spiritual director is out of the loop of my ministry and church life. Pastors can have a difficult time connecting with their peers for a few reasons. Social events connected with the church can feel like more work, and even though we know it’s unhealthy, feelings of competition often cloud attempts to connect with other local pastors. Talking with someone who is relatively removed from the challenges of everyday ministry has been liberating. I don’t have to worry about what he thinks of me or whether the things I share will change a working relationship.

4. I Make Time for Old Friends

I’m always surprised how effortless it is for me to catch up with old friends. People who have known me since college and earlier have no expectations about how I will live as a priest because our relationship started before I discovered my vocation. My oldest friends know me from when I was an awkward, pimply teenager, and that removes much of the pressure compared to relationship where I’m seen as a pastor or priest first. A shared history can be the catalyst for great conversation, especially as ministry and family life push to the side time for making new friends. Take the advice of Henry David Thoreau: “Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them.”

5. I Go for a Run

Long-distance running has also been helpful for me to combat loneliness. When I run I’m not thinking about how to be a pastor or how to relate to people. I don’t stand out because of my collar; I look like any other half-in-shape person wearing exercise gear. The mental and emotional benefits of running have been explored at length, and like silent retreats, running refreshes me so I can engage in relationships more meaningfully afterward.

Loneliness and isolation, like most of our problems, feel most overwhelming when they haven’t been properly acknowledged. They loom like a phantom, hovering in the back of our mind. Only by staring loneliness in the face was I able to start combatting it. Honesty with myself, my wife, and God has been a step toward greater wholeness. There is an element of “otherness” to the pastoral vocation that may always keep barriers between us and the people we serve, but just because something is normal doesn’t mean it’s always healthy.

I’ve found it vital to take brief, intentional steps away from places where “pastor” is my defining characteristic. By learning to be comfortable alone before God, without distraction, and cultivating the few deep relationships in my life that have stood the test of time, I am finding a healthier approach to this unique challenge of ministry.

Cole Hartin is the assistant curate at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Saint John, New Brunswick.

November

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