The Friendless Pastor: How to address our perennial problem. by Mark Brouwer

The Friendless Pastor: How to address our perennial problem.  by Mark Brouwer

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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.

I know pastors who’ve been fired because of things they said to people they thought were friends during a time of personal openness and vulnerability. It’s like the adage that is issued as a warning when you are interviewed by a journalist: Be careful what you say, because whatever you say is “on the record.” If you are a pastor, spending time with people in your church, whatever you say is on the record.

Most states have laws against pastors having sexual relationships with people in their churches. These laws are based on the assumption that pastors cannot have an equal relationship with someone in their church. They are in an authority position, as a teacher and spiritual leader, so having a sexual relationship is seen as an abuse of power. What makes us think that these laws can make sense, while at the same time assuming that we can have peer friendships in our church?

Consider the challenges of role confusion. We all recognize the dangers of trying to “be friends” with your children. Being a parent is different from being a buddy. The roles ought not be confused. Not only are our church relationships complicated because of the spiritual leadership dynamic, they are also complicated because of different, and sometimes conflicting, roles that we play in reporting relationships. Often pastors will identify people in their church as friends who are also church board members. These board members often have the task of deciding on compensation for, and sometimes the discipline and termination of, the pastor.

Can we have a completely transparent, reciprocal relationship with someone who looks to us as their spiritual teacher and leader or who serves in the role of corporate supervisor? It’s highly unlikely.

2. We don’t really want community.

This one is harder to admit: we lack community because we don’t really value it. It’s hard work. We don’t value it enough to push through the challenges of building and maintaining it. Many of us feel like we have too many relationships already. The problem is that we have the wrong kind of relationships. We need a few relationships of mutuality and honesty. But this is hard because it requires us to invest time and energy, and we’re not always willing to do that.

But there’s something more going on: we resist genuine community because it requires us to be vulnerable. It’s hard to be vulnerable in relationships when we spend so much energy helping others with their weaknesses and meticulously hiding our own.

Over time, as pastors we get used to helping other people and uncomfortable with people helping us. We get comfortable with helping the needy. We don’t like the idea of being needy ourselves. We have a hard time being vulnerable. And it’s only out of such vulnerability that authentic relationships can be built.

As part of my healing and recovery, I got involved in a men’s group that was led by a counselor. I remember how hard it was to talk about things I was struggling with (“You’re struggling with that again?”), or things that bothered me (“That seems so petty!”). I realized how much I tend to censor myself around others, only revealing the polished “mature and spiritual” front.

This continues to be one of the greatest challenges in my life—having the courage to be honest about the things I’m confused about, struggling with, mad about, and failing at. I don’t want to look bad, and I hate feeling “needy.” I have become very invested in—and good at—only letting people see the final edited version of my thoughts and my life.

But if all you offer people is a carefully edited persona, you might have followers or fans, but you won’t have friends. This kind of vulnerability is exactly what is required to discover who your real friends are … and it’s the very kind of vulnerability that pastors tend to shy away from.

3. We associate renewal with solitude.

My wife recently completed her master’s thesis on the emotional health of pastors. Doing her research, she discovered that pastors are more likely to be introverted than the rest of the public. This only makes sense: many pastors are drawn to the profession because of the study and preparation for sermons. When introverts want to be renewed, they seek solitude and non-relational experiences. This only serves to reinforce their isolation.

The spiritual disciplines that are most often recommended to pastors—things like Bible study, prayer, meditation, silence—take them further from community, rather than into it. Of course there’s nothing wrong with these disciplines—they’re important and helpful. But if not tempered by the more community-engaged disciplines like fellowship, confession, celebration, and service, they only reinforce a dangerous tendency.

There is a fine line between healthy solitude and unhealthy isolation. I see many pastors who are emotionally and spiritually isolated, and telling them they need more solitude is like telling an anorexic person that they need to watch their diet.

Where Pastors Find Real Friends

There are four areas that we leaders need to pursue in order to get the kind of community we need.

  1. The right kind of professional support.

Many pastors are greatly helped by having someone they relate to who is gifted, trained, and tasked to help them be open and honest. A counselor, coach, or mentor. Such people can help us open up about things that we might not otherwise. Many of us need someone we can meet with on an ongoing basis to share things with, and not feel judged.

  1. The right kind of friends outside the church.

Nurturing friendships with people in our community who are not members of our churches is helpful in all kinds of ways. It helps us as leaders to get outside perspectives about how our church is perceived in the community. But it’s just as important to have someone you can relate to person-to-person, not parishioner-to-pastor.

The tricky issue here is when we are cultivating friendships with unchurched people for the purpose of evangelizing them and/or growing your church. “Evangelism friendships” or “recruitment friendships” normally do not lend themselves to authentic community, because unspoken motives are often at work. It helps to have friends with whom we have no ulterior motives.

  1. The right kind of peer group.

Pastors can make great friends for other pastors. We “get” each other. Despite different denominations or sizes of church, we are much more alike than different. It can be a great set of relationships if you can find pastors that you enjoy being with.

But let’s be honest: peer relationships with other pastors don’t always work. They can be plagued by jealousy and competitiveness. In addition, if pastors are serving churches in close proximity, it can be uncomfortable when members of your church move to theirs, or vice versa.

If we can be honest about these issues and take off the masks we’re accustomed to wearing, a peer group of pastors can be a wonderful thing.

4. Distant groups.

Let’s face it: pastors move a lot. High mobility is another factor that leads to isolation. One way to offset this is to be part of a group that gets together every few months, even if you’re living in different parts of the country.

I was a part of a group like this, and was really helped by it. It requires an investment of time and money: you block off several days at a time, and meet a few times a year, which involves travel costs.

If you don’t meet often enough, all you do when you are together is “catch up.”

But if you meet with enough frequency, and stay in touch between meetings, you can nurture and even build significant friendships.

If we could commit to some of these kinds of relationships, and remain part of each other’s lives even if we move to different parts of the country, we can have friendships for life. And what a healthful gift that is.

Mark Brouwer is pastor of Jacob’s Well Church Community in Evergreen Park, Illinois.

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