By Jonathan Hayashi
Preparation for church ministry can be extensive, but too often pastors are unprepared for the isolation and loneliness that comes with ministry.
A 2021 study from Lifeway Research found that although fewer than 1 in 6 pastors say conflict drove them from the pastorate, many pastors have experienced conflict in the church. Most pastors (69%) say they dealt with some type of conflict in their last church, and most (80%) expect to confront it in their current church in the future. Fewer pastors experienced conflict over doctrinal differences (12%) or politics (8%) than personal attacks (39%), proposed changes (39%), lay leaders (38%), or expectations about the pastor’s role (28%) or leadership style (27%).
I knew ministry would be tough, but there aren’t words to describe the piercing wound a pastor experiences when church members share they’re leaving the church. And nobody told me how painful it would be when people I trust betray our friendship.Church conflict is inevitable, but the even greater hurt comes from failure to bring reconciliation and resolution to that conflict. — @jonathanhayash Click To Tweet
But this happens far too often when leaders ignore conflict and avoid conflict resolution. In an effort to overlook an offense, pastors can drive themselves into lonelier and lonelier places. Church conflict is inevitable, but the even greater hurt comes from failure to bring reconciliation and resolution to that conflict.
In Lifeway Research’s 2022 Greatest Needs of Pastors study, around 7 in 10 pastors noted that they are struggling to develop friendships and have fellowship with others. Going alone seemingly increases efficiency but it more often further hinders the spiritual growth of church members and increases the loneliness of the pastor.
Leaders face doubt and feel isolated from others. The weight of ministry secludes leaders from others, leaving them on the dark road of loneliness. The more involved one becomes in ministry, the more often they will have to carry the weight of someone else’s story in trusted confidentiality.
Undoubtedly, leaders will face loneliness as they navigate their own needs and the needs of their churches amid conflicts. Here are six ways you can battle loneliness in ministry.
1. Recognize loneliness doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
It would be a myth to believe healthy churches don’t have conflict and mature leaders can simply shrug away the discouragement of loneliness. But God isn’t the author of chaos. He’s the provider who leads his people to peace.Healthy churches can have conflict and mature leaders can't simply shrug away the discouragement of loneliness. Click To Tweet
“What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and wage war. You do not have because you do not ask,” (James 4:1-2, CSB).
2. Look to Christ amid your loneliness.
We’re part of a greater story where the victory has already been won through the purchased blood of our precious Savior.
“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross,” (Philippians 2:8, CSB).
3. Expect your suffering to increase your empathy.
As you experience the effects of loneliness on your own life, God allows you to grow in love and patience for those around you who are suffering from loneliness and depression.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin,” (Hebrews 4:15, CSB).Most pastors (69%) say they dealt with some type of conflict in their last church, and most (80%) expect to confront it in their current church in the future. Click To Tweet
4. Accept the school of tribulation.
God uses the trials we face to grow us in Him. As A.W. Tozer puts it in his book The Root of Righteousness, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.”
“Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8, CSB).
5. Invest in a few deep relationships.
Believing a pastor cannot have friends in their church is a dangerous myth too many pastors believe. While many pastors avoid having friends in their own congregation, too many also don’t form close relationships with other pastors in their area, according to a Lifeway Research study.
Ministry is lonely even as you minister to many people in the flock. Pastors are constantly pouring into the lives of others and so often receive little in return. Few will become lifetime friends. Ask God for deep friendships as you lead in ministry, and trust Him to be your nearest companion.Ask God for deep friendships as you lead in ministry, and trust Him to be your nearest companion. — @jonathanhayash Click To Tweet
“One with many friends may be harmed, but there is a friend who stays closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24, CSB).
6. Practice steadiness and patience.
True spiritual maturity isn’t based on education or age. Spiritual maturity comes from steadiness and patience in the midst of conflict. The level of one’s maturity is displayed when they don’t get their way. That’s when you see their true nature.
“Brothers and sisters, don’t be childish in your thinking, but be infants in regard to evil and adult in your thinking” (1 Corinthians 14:20, CSB).
Jonathan has a BA in Pastoral Ministry, an MA in Congregational Leadership, and a DEdMin of Biblical Counseling. He presently serves on the Executive Committee at Southwest Baptist University and on the Board of Trustees at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jonathan is the author of Ordinary Radicals: A Return to Christ-Centered Discipleship and Making Lemonade: Turning Past Failures into Gospel Opportunities. He and his wife, Kennedi, have four children: Kaede, Seiji, Anna, and Ren.