Are clergy lonelier than other folks?
It’s worth reading:
A Facebook group to which I belong held a discussion of loneliness among senior pastors.
People commented that pastors tend to have few friends with whom they can relax and be themselves.
Clergy said they need to be guarded about what they say and wary of being judged on superficials, such as their attire. They said their work is so all-consuming that they rarely have time for friendships outside the congregation.
It isn’t just senior pastors, participants said, but all clergy, and indeed most organizational leaders. Hierarchical leadership leaves them cut off from sustaining friendships, even cut off from their families.
My immediate contribution to the discussion was to say this:
— The No. 1 need is to have a life outside church — a life filled with nonchurch activities and nonchurch friends, where the pastor can be just a guy or gal. If the pastor has a family, life outside church should put family first. Children need a parent, not a role model standing in a pulpit.
— Second is to have healthy boundaries, where church work ends and rest of life begins. Fuzzy boundaries lead to loneliness.
— Third is to have realistic expectations of church members. To them, the pastor is never out of role. True intimacy with church members tends to be problematic.
Loneliness takes a serious toll. It can lead to sadness and depression. It can lead to boundary problems, acting out and inappropriate behavior. It can sap the pastor’s energy and self-confidence.
Some laity impose isolation as a way to keep clergy under control, which is also a way to keep God small and nonthreatening. One pastor told me, “Many laypeople are unwilling to treat their leaders as human beings who need a compliment or kind comment from time to time.”
Another told me, “I turned down a call to a small-town parish once because the chairperson of the calling committee said, ‘We always know what’s going on in the rectory.”’
Most constituents, I think, contribute to the loneliness unwittingly by making comments that treat their pastor as a curiosity and by not including the pastor in certain activities.
Politicians learn to exploit such behavior — although they still get into boundary troubles — and celebrities ride it to the bank. Clergy occupy a strange middle ground: needing to be political but not possessing the politician’s thick skin; serving as a local celebrity but not equipped to manage the spotlight.
As church staffs shrink and church institutions provide less collegiality to clergy, the pastor’s loneliness seems likely to worsen. Dealing with that loneliness should be a primary task for both congregations and their denominations.
Nervous clergy might be malleable, but the Gospel is better served when clergy feel able to preach boldly, to tend to all constituents and not just the powerful, and to lead with godly vision, not paycheck anxiety.
Clergy who have full lives, including friendships, downtime and acceptance (of both their personalities and their flaws), will be more likely to connect with their constituents’ lives.
Isolated clergy tend to get too institutional because institution is the one place they feel safe and competent.
It’s unclear why, as clergy report, denominations have stopped working to promote collegiality among clergy. Maybe denominational leaders are themselves too lonely to imagine better. But they should take the lead in breaking down their mutual isolation.