by Jill Fierge
Loneliness has been described by John Milton in Tetrachordonas as the “first thing which God’s eye named not good.” God designed us to want and need community. Yet more people report feeling lonely today than ever. John Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W. W. Norton & Co., 2009), has been studying loneliness for more than 20 years. He reports studies in the 1970’s and 1980’s show 11%-20% of Americans indicated they regularly or frequently felt lonely. In 2010, a national study found the numbers now closer to 40%-45%. In an ever-increasingly connected world, people feel more alone. Regrettably pastors are on the top end of these statistics and pastors’ wives are above the national norm at 54%. Loneliness in pastoring may have well reached epidemic proportions, but both pastoral couples and those wishing to help pastors and their spouses can take steps to stop this trend.
First, recognize loneliness for what it is: a tool of the devil. His sole purpose is to steal, kill, and destroy. He does this by isolating the pastoral family and playing mind games. A constant barrage of lies is hurled at the pastor: no one appreciates what you do; you are forgotten; you have no friends; everyone else has their own problems: they don’t have time for you. To combat these lies, systematically confront these statements with Scripture and prayer. Recognize Satan’s tactics and refuse to allow him to influence your thoughts. Take every thought captive by replacing each lie with a truth. You are a child of God. God always rewards faithfulness. He knows the way you take and you will come out as pure gold.
Second, take time to rest and refresh. Times of mental and physical exhaustion will most likely be when one is most vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Simply put, when the body is exhausted it is hard to think rationally. The harvest is great and the time is short, and pastors feel this urgency. Often they continue to go, go, go when they may be better served to rest, rest, rest. It is okay to take a day off. Shut off the cell phone and take the family out of town for the day. Recognize the church will be there when you return, but for now you are taking a mental and physical break. Sometimes just the reconnecting with family is enough to recharge and eradicate the feelings of aloneness.
Third, intentionally reach out to other ministry couples. Schedule an evening to get together once a month. Set ground rules: no talking about individual church problems or concerns during this time. This is a time to laugh together and strengthen the friendship bonds that have less to do with being fellow pastors and more to do with being fellow Christians. If the pastoral family can feel they are valued for who they are rather than just for what they do, they may be more likely to call their friends during lonely times because they realize they don’t have to report on how their church is doing.
Pastors have natural connections to other ministers within a district by virtue of their occupation. Sometimes the spouse may not feel this connection, especially if he/she is unable to attend many district functions due to work obligations or family responsibilities. The pastor can do his/her spouse a great service by intentionally cultivating a friendship with another ministry couple in which he/she believes the spouse would have a connection with the other minister’s spouse. The pastor knows his/her spouse’s personality, help him/her make those connections with another pastoral couple. When the spouse is able to form a bond with that one close friend, it can make all the difference in alleviating his/her loneliness as well.
Fourth, purposefully seek out an older, more experienced ministry couple to mentor the pastor and spouse. It is likely this more seasoned couple has weathered the storms of loneliness in their own ministry. They will have invaluable advice and be a confidential sounding board. Too often ministry couples may feel the older couple does not have time for them or they are being a nuisance. However, by allowing the experienced elders to minister to the pastor and spouse, they are helping them feel needed as well. Loneliness can strike the older couple or the new church planter; but by working together, real companionship is forged and neither couple feels lonely.
Finally, what can someone do to help the pastor and family so they don’t have to battle loneliness? Frequent contact is invaluable. A text to let them know you are praying for them, an email, or a card in the mail goes a long way. Visit them! Drop by for service and take them out to eat. If you are in a position, help the church planter financially attend a refreshing conference or offer your home as an inexpensive get-away for a few days. The bottom line is intentionally making the pastor and his family feel valued will be something they can reflect on when those times of loneliness come. Additionally, the frequent contact allows you to notice times when the pastor or spouse may be especially vulnerable to loneliness.
Loneliness for pastors and their families may be an epidemic, but there is an antidote. When the pastor takes decisive steps to prevent the lonely mindset and other ministry couples come alongside to reassure, pastors and their families can be emotionally healthy and spiritually equipped to effectively lead revival churches.