Episode 12: Loneliness In Pastoral Ministry

Today in the studio we have Bryan, Brett, and our special guests, Pastor Jim Shemaria from Celebration Bible Church and Pastor Cameron Townley from Rush Creek Bible Church, both in West Michigan.

In this episode, we’ll be discussing how easy it is for pastors to experience isolation and loneliness, even in a role that embodies the opposite of that.

Working Hard Yet Risking Loneliness

It’s common for pastors to spend their days dedicated to their congregation, yet still experiencing isolation and loneliness.

By nature, pastoral vocation is different. It’s a unique task, although there are certainly other people in similar jobs, like teachers and professors. These people are not necessarily producing things, but facilitating relationships and growth.

Being a pastor is largely different from other careers because, in the job, there’s not necessarily something that’s measurable and tangible. This position can sometimes be really tough for others to relate to.

For pastors, meeting a new person and trying to explain what you do can be overwhelming. There’s so much to unpack. There are so many different things that happen every week in the life of a pastor. Because of this, there’s often a gap between everyone else’s regular experience in the world and the weekly experiences of a pastor. This, in itself, can sometimes create feelings of loneliness.

In addition, people also react to the knowledge that someone is a pastor in unique ways. Oftentimes, we may not share that we’re a pastor right away because of this. When people meet a pastor, there’s a wall that gets thrown up on their end in a lot of cases, and that wall ends up creating a barrier that sometimes contributes to that loneliness. This can happen not just with people we don’t know, but also with people in our own church.

Jim and Cameron’s Churches

Cameron is the lead pastor at Rush Creek Church in Byron Center, MI. He’s been at Rush Creek for about 10 years and has served as the associate pastor for 6 years before stepping up as lead pastor in 2019.

Jim has been the pastor of Celebration Bible Church since 2008, and the senior pastor since 2013. Jim loves his congregation and the opportunity to have grown with them for many years.

Defining “Meaningful Relationships”

We asked Jim and Cameron what it means to have meaningful relationships, and here’s what they said.

Jim: “Meaningful relationships are people who know each other well enough where I can use a single word that contains lots of baggage that I don’t have to unpack every time. For example, when people I don’t know ask “what do you do?”, there is so much to explain. That ability to use language (both verbal and non-verbal) in ways that are intimate generally characterizes a meaningful relationship.”

Cameron: “I often think about the fact that even when I preach, there are so many times that I might feel like I constantly have to clarify. When I can just give an illustration and people know my heart and can focus on what I really mean, that’s huge.”

For Jim and Cameron, meaningful relationships mean that there’s an underlying current of understanding. Time spent together. Emotional investment.

Even in hard times, when walking with a family through grief (like the loss of a loved one), sharing those experiences is so meaningful.

A vital aspect to meaningful relationships is simply time together. It’s something that you can’t rush. But when we spend hours together, that builds meaningful relationships.

Reciprocation in Relationships

It’s important for pastors to be there for their congregation. But are these relationships reciprocal? Here are Jim and Cameron’s thoughts about reciprocation when pastors are going through a hard crisis or challenge.

Jim: “As much as I want it to be, I’m the type of person where, if I’m going through a hard experience, I’m not really interested in gathering the largest group of people around me. I’m more interested in one or two people who I’ve already opened myself up to. That’s not the moment when I want to open up to a lot of people.

It’s not that I don’t want that from all of my congregation, but for me it’s really about those few close relationships that I’m willing to open those doors to.”

Cameron: “I think so. I think something unique is the context in which I serve. Rush Creek is a medium-sized church and so sometimes, sadly, there are far more people who have me as a pastor, and in turn I can’t have the kind of relationship with them that they assume they have with me. So when I’m going through a season, it’s more specifically the staff at Rush Creek and a few close friends/elders – a much smaller group.”

“Do Introverts Deal with Isolation More Than Extroverts Do?”

Is it the role of pastor, or the type of person that creates the issue of isolation?

Jim: “Honestly, those labels are much too simple. But, yes, there is a personality nature to it. A way for me to get energy after a rough Sunday is to get on my bike and ride for two hours by myself. I’ll come back feeling refreshed after that time alone. For other people, there’s nothing worse that they could imagine.

So yes, personality can play into it, or at least with how you deal with it.

But ultimately, I think it’s more of a role thing than a personality thing. Cam and I experience the same things, but our personalities might determine where we go from there or how we respond.”

“What Other/Bigger Issues Do You Experience Besides Loneliness?”

In the Grand Rapids area, there’s a unique path. Because we’re surrounded by other GGF churches that are geographically near, these pastors are able to get together regularly, which is a huge blessing when it comes to the issue of pastor loneliness.

One other issue that Jim and Cameron mention experiencing, however, is the reality of having to be guarded with congregants. Often, congregants are the ones putting pastors on pedestals, and this makes it hard for pastors to feel like they can open up.

Generational Challenges

In older generations, it wasn’t acceptable to be transparent from the pulpit. That transparency issue may be a big piece of the loneliness issue. There are things you might want to say but feel like you can’t say in front of the congregation.

As we watch pastors have moral failures, it gets even more difficult to be transparent. While it’s pretty easy to be transparent about failures from 15 years ago, it’s harder to say to one of your congregants that you messed up yesterday and swore at your kid.

That’s the difficult aspect of being transparent that may really contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

The Concentric Circle of Relationships

Like Jesus had, there’s something to having this circle of relationships, where some people are very close to you and others are more casual friendships. The difficulty is that some people think they’re in a closer circle than you might put them into.

So, how do pastors keep some integrity in that process? How do you build those kinds of friendships and experiences?

Well, we need to recognize that a good relationship is always going to take time and intentionality. It’s something you have to commit to. Meaningful things always take time and effort.

To build friendships and meaningful relationships – within a congregation, with fellow pastors, whatever – you have to be willing to commit to the process of becoming friends with someone and being vulnerable.

The Risks of Not Cultivating Deep Relationships

A lot of pastors burn out because of this problem. They don’t have people they can confide in. But what other risks (besides burnout) come with not cultivating deep relationships?

Cameron: “Pride. If I didn’t have men speaking into my life and surrounding me, it would be really easy for me to just think that I’m great and only see how much my congregation loves me. I need people to speak truth into my life and let me know that I’m not ‘all that’.”

Jim: “The Biblical importance of community. It’s very difficult to find any example in Scripture in which someone is applauded for not living in Christian community. That’s part of how God created humans to work. By not doing that work of building relationships, you isolate yourself and you’re not able to be fully human as God intended you to be – never mind not being a good pastor.”

Cameron: “Before sin even entered the world, God saw Adam and said, ‘it is not good that man should be alone’. Even beyond the marriage relationship, that human-to-human relationship is vital. It’s fundamental to what it means to be human.”

In the age of digital connections, we see loneliness skyrocketing. So why would it be any different for pastors? Loneliness is increasing everywhere, and maybe even more so for pastors.

How to Encourage a Lonely Pastor

Next, we asked Jim and Cameron for some ideas about how to encourage a pastor who’s experiencing loneliness.

Jim: “I would encourage them to find a friend. Find a fellow comrade who is doing pastoral work in the nearest geographical church to them. You could connect with someone digitally (Zoom, Facetime, etc.), but there is no replacement for a face-to-face conversation over a cup of coffee.

Any relationship takes work, and this is no different, but commit to that work and that process. Commit to being present in someone’s life.

Connecting with someone else in ministry gives a shared experience. And being nearby is important, because your community is also part of your identity.”

Cameron: “It might depend on what’s mostly contributing to their sense of loneliness. Married loneliness, friend-level loneliness, ministry loneliness…

Overall, being willing to pursue relationships with people in churches who might not necessarily agree with us 100% theologically. Certainly we want to agree on those primary doctrines. But for secondary and tertiary doctrines, what’s more important? Being right, or being in relationship? Those are good conversations to have, but not always the purpose of the relationship.”

“What Do Our Church Leaders Need to Know About the Issue of Loneliness in Church Leadership?”

When it comes to what church leaders need to know, a great place to start is to simply remember that “pastors are people, too”. Board members need to recognize that their pastor is just like them. It might even be that your pastor is less spiritually mature than other board members. Pastors are people, and they need encouragement and friendship just like everyone else.

“Is the Pastor Responsible for Cultivating the Culture in the Church?”

Jim and Cameron share that the pastor is absolutely responsible. One of the biggest ways that pastors can do this is by having their office door unlocked. Be accessible. Be part of the congregation. Do the things they do. Be interested in the things they’re interested in.

Book & resource recommendations

Jim: “Eugene Peterson! All of his works, but specifically, The Contemplative Pastor. In this book, he talks about how he wants to be an ‘un-busy’ pastor. He wants to have time to know people and be known.”

Cam: “Things that help me slow down and remind me that it’s not all up to me. Books about rest and sabbath. Things that remind us to slow down and make some margin so we can be more intentional about relationships. John Mark Comer – The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry is a great one to start.”

In this episode:

00:00 – Introduction
00:35 – Meet our guests, Jim Shemaria and Cameron Townley
2:08 – Working hard yet risking loneliness
6:58 – Jim and Cameron’s churches
8:43 – Defining “meaningful relationships”
12:55 – Reciprocation in relationships
17:13 – Introverts and extroverts
19:18 – Are there bigger issues than loneliness?
21:55 – Generational challenges
26:30 – The concentric circle of relationships
28:42 – The risks of not cultivating deep relationships
33:55 – How to encourage a lonely pastor
39:30 – What do our church leaders need to know about this issue?
42:15 – Is the pastor responsible for cultivating this culture?
45:45 – Recommended resources
49:16 – Closing thoughts


Resources Mentioned:

John Mark Comer – The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

Eugene Peterson – The Contemplative Pastor

More Resources

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