I often say that pastors really must be called. Short of divine direction, no one in their right mind would subject themselves to the isolation and work hours that most pastors endure. Isolation seems to be particularly severe for pastors that are called to churches with a small staff and membership and/or pastors in a relatively small or rural community. While most of these pastors try to “tough it out,” they all seem to end up in the same company: The Fellowship of the Burned-Out Heart (quite different from what Tozer called The Fellowship of the Burning Heart).
So what can pastors do to prevent – or overcome – this real danger?
Believe it can be better
Remember that you’re doing what you’re doing because a Triune God called you to shepherd a community of his people. Nothing in that sentences you to loneliness and isolation – quite the opposite. It may take time and even some real change for you and your church, but God does want more for the men and women who lead his church.
Get out of the church building
Too many pastors cloister themselves in their study. Find a way to spend more time with people and less time alone. If your primary calling is to lead and minister to real people, your schedule should reflect that. Be with your flock beyond the intense counseling sessions. Be with people in your community who aren’t part of your flock. Find ways to develop meaningful relationships with other people that do the same thing you do, even if you don’t do it the same way. Attend at least one conference a year. Kinship with people who know your reality is invaluable, but it only happens if you make time for it.
Your day off should be your day off. Off doesn’t mean on-call or online; it means doing exactly what you and your family want to do with no obligations. Nothing fires me up more than when I hear pastors bragging about how many days, weeks, months they have worked without taking any time off. Get over it. There are too many pastor’s wives and children who are angry with God and the local church because a pastor doesn’t take time off or have the courage to say “no.”
When was the last time you told a church member, elder, or deacon “No?” You should try it some time; it can be liberating. It’s also okay to do it. Read 1 Corinthians 12 and remind yourself that you aren’t – and can’t be – every part of the body.
One of the godliest guys I know takes one week a year to get away from all his obligations. He goes by himself to a very inexpensive place in the mountains with the intent of doing nothing but resting. He doesn’t take his wife, kids, sermon outlines – only his fishing pole and a few books that he wants to read for pleasure (not sermon prep).
Find a mentor
Businessmen have used coaches/mentors for years. Just recently has it become acceptable for pastors to engage a mentor. If you aren’t meeting face-to-face at least monthly with someone who is further down the road in ministry and life than you, you’re putting yourself at risk for real trouble. Remember, you teach this in “discipleship”; it’s time you live it.
Find a mentee
Just as you need someone who has been a little further down the road, you need to give back to someone who hasn’t traveled as far. You usually will find that you will gain as much from this mentor relationship as your mentee.
How you respond to the threat of isolation is up to you. The point is change doesn’t happen on its own. You have to believe something better is possible and make a plan to alter the slow slide into loneliness. God has called you to do the often-exhausting work of the Kingdom, but he hasn’t called you to do it alone. Ministry has enough burdens you can’t refuse; don’t add one that God doesn’t want for you.