EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared at Lifeway Research.
Pastors are people.
Upon first glance, that might feel like the biggest “No duh” statement you’ve ever read. But if you take a minute to reflect more deeply, some interesting thoughts may begin to surface. The reality is people treat pastors more like pastors than people who live, work and breathe on the same holistic levels as their congregations.
They eat, sleep, shower and put their pants on one leg at a time… almost every morning. Pastors enjoy all kinds of entertainment and are devoted to a variety of interesting hobbies. They parent their kids the best they can and experience the same parenting issues as everyone else. They have hopes and dreams for the future. And they wrestle with the disappointment that comes when hopes are dashed and some dreams don’t come to fruition.
For those who are married, they’re trying (and sometimes failing) to cultivate a healthy marriage while navigating the myriad challenges that attempt to threaten that health. Sometimes, they cry, complain, cuss and carry unspoken grievances over the broken areas of their lives. Like you, they pray “How long, O Lord?”
Imagine that. Pastors—they’re just like us.
A lonely place for pastors
But because people often only see their pastors as pastors instead of people, many pastors exist in a world of loneliness and isolation. To say it more succinctly, pastors don’t always get invited to the party. Thankfully, Scripture is filled with people who address this dilemma.
David laments in Psalm 142:4, “Look to the right and see: no one stands up for me; there is no refuge for me; no one cares about me” (CSB).
We read about Jesus, on the night before His death, returning from an emotional time of prayer to find His disciples sleeping – clearly oblivious to His deep distress. He asks, “Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you stay awake one hour?” (Mark 14: 37, CSB).
Leaders embody a unique role. They’re susceptible to loneliness and isolation because, in some ways, they carry a weight they cannot shoulder or share. They not only have to bear the tension that their own burdens bring but also the tensions of others’ burdens. This takes pastors to a lonely place many congregations are sadly unaware of.
A complex position
Now before I move on, let’s make sure we’re clear on a couple of things. First off, the office of pastor is a complex role because Scripture charges pastors with the care of souls. And it just so happens that some of these souls are simultaneously the ones pastors need to be friends with for the sake of their own spiritual and emotional health. Second, many pastors do a poor job of letting their people see them as a people in addition to as their pastor. Many pastors never let their people in on a deeper level.
Admittedly, one article has no power to address or repair all the implications contained in the points I just mentioned. Simple solutions do not help complex relationships. At the same time, a fresh awareness of these issues can be the catalyst to ponder and pray through them.
With that said, here are two barriers that exist between pastors and their people that will require both parties to work hard to overcome.
1. Power differential
Pastors are given a spiritual authority that can be tragically misused and abused, as we’ve seen in recent years with some high-profile public leaders. Even when pastors do not use this authority in an abusive manner, they’re still the people who stand on a platform every Sunday and proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.” Unfortunately, in the same way that employees don’t typically want to spend leisure time with their bosses, congregants can feel the same way about their pastors.
It’s helpful for congregants to remember that although their pastors do carry a unique kind of spiritual authority that God has given them for the flourishing of others, they don’t exist in the same category as their bosses. The pastor’s job is to point people to Jesus and His Word, not to give job evaluations or terminations for bad job performances. But congregations can tend to feel that way around their pastors. Sometimes for good reason, especially if pastors don’t work hard to be a non-anxious presence with their people.
2. Fear of exposure
Congregants often see their pastors as only interested in their spiritual health, with no regard for the “normal” or “mundane” aspects of their lives. But pastors need to work hard to make sure they engage in conversations with their people that don’t turn into counseling sessions ending in sackcloth and ashes. Pastors should be able to sit down with a church member and talk about baseball, vacation, gardening, movies, pets, cars, kids, food, etc. without feeling like there’s a more “spiritual” agenda that needs attending to.
In fact, we should see general life conversations as spiritual by nature. The Gospel really does have something to say about every facet of our lives—not just pain points or areas of deep thought and wrestling. A good word here is “levity.” People need to know their pastor cares about their lives on a holistic level, including the serious and not-so-serious parts.
Working toward relationship
Even when these barriers are acknowledged, the role of pastor will always contain a high potential for loneliness. It was a reality for David and for Jesus thousands of years ago. And it won’t cease to be an issue in our lifetimes. But I think we can still end on a hopeful note.
Lonely pastors, take an honest look at the ways you might be using your title to unsuspectingly keep your people at arm’s length. Maybe there are some good reasons. You’ve been hurt far too many times trying to be a person, so being a pastor feels safer. Seeking out another pastor or counselor to share your deep hurt with might be a good first step that leads to courageously stepping toward your people again as a person. It will likely not be an overnight change. But it’s worth the effort in order to process some legitimate pain.
If you’re a congregant, take an honest look at how you view your pastor. They may have a difficult, quirky, shy or awkward personality to connect with. But (and as long as they’re not harmful) remember your pastor is a person made in the image of God who has a story. Pastors have the same fundamental spiritual and emotional needs you do. Despite their busy schedules, pastors are often in lonely places.
So, take a risk. Be courageous. And invite them to the party. You might be surprised by how much they’re actually like you.