Where Can the Lonely Pastor Go? – Chris Davis

Last fall, I reached a saturation point of loneliness in ministry. I felt achingly, painfully alone. My body let me know it every time I was at church. For two months I couldn’t focus on sermon prep, though preaching has been my ministry passion since the late 90s.

Unable to function in my role, I took an emergency sabbatical and quietly planned to walk away from the pastorate.

Misery Needs Company

Loneliness is suffocating. Crushing. God declared Adam’s aloneness “not good” and created Eve for a relationship in which they could be naked and not ashamed—fully known and fully accepted. Yet since the fall we’ve covered ourselves up, such that loneliness can happen in a crowd, like dying of thirst while surrounded by water.

Moses lamented, “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me” (Num. 11:14). Elijah cried from a cave, “I only . . . am left” (1 Kings 19:10). Despite the 70 elders among the wilderness wanderers or the 7,000 who hadn’t bent the knee to Baal, both men felt such bitter isolation that they pleaded with God to take their lives.

Yet since the fall we’ve covered ourselves up, such that loneliness can happen in a crowd, like dying of thirst while surrounded by water.

Like Moses and Elijah, I’m surrounded by solid ministry friends. I attend a monthly pastors’ group with wise, compassionate brothers. I have an accountability partner. My relationship with my wife and my siblings is rich and sweet. But carrying loneliness in ministry is like carrying the grief of losing someone close to you. You can call your friend once or twice and bring up your loss occasionally to fellow church leaders, but you’re never quite sure when it’s appropriate to broach the subject. When my dad died unexpectedly four years ago, I gave space for the pain by joining a GriefShare group where I knew a few hours each week were designated for feeling this loss. So when I hit the low point of loneliness, I joined a local weekly group led by Christian therapists that was focused on being known.

Rhythms of Connection

As we told our stories and weekly updates, the leaders frequently pushed the pause button to ask what others were feeling as they heard a person share. Hearing emotional resonance (“I feel angry that he said that to you!” or “I feel so much joy that you were able to do that!”) was like binding one heart to another with needle and thread.

The connection doubled back when the facilitator asked the person who initially shared to reflect on how those emotional responses made him feel. Yet another round of heart threading happened when the other participants reflected on how they felt, knowing their words had an effect. The depth of relationship we experienced was profound.

When I asked how I could put something in place to avoid tasting this dreadful loneliness again, the facilitator encouraged me to start a similar group with other pastors.

My criterion was simple: Who is longing for connection enough to spend an hour together each week? I prayerfully asked three pastor-friends who immediately said yes, though they had their reservations about this approach. Talk about our feelings? Tell our stories? One admitted that since the meeting was over Zoom, he could bail if it got weird. But not only did nobody bail, a few weeks in there was unanimous consent we needed to meet for 90 minutes each week. The group quickly felt indispensable, fostering connection and emotional ballast none of us had experienced in a group before.

Free at Last

Our group has discovered that, for all our skill with the hearts of others, it can be difficult to unearth our own feelings, desires, motives, and hurts. The frequent questions—What are you feeling right now? What do you want? What story are you telling yourself?—are challenging to answer. Facility with language, for all its benefits in the pulpit, can prevent pastors from being truly known—both to others and to ourselves. We often have to reel each other in from preaching mode so we can recenter on our objective: to be known.

For all our skill with the hearts of others, it can be difficult to unearth our own feelings, desires, motives, and hurts.

From this place of connection with fellow pastors, God has opened up opportunities to create similar spaces within my church. I’ve met weekly with a group of dads for whom family life has become overwhelming and with a group of widows ranging from their 70s to their 90s. In each case, we acknowledge that the members are in a season of life when no one’s pursuing them. While there are always life updates to share, I ask each member to name what feeling they are experiencing in that blowup, that identification-theft nightmare, that loss of an adult son. Even though we can’t change their circumstances, they walk away knowing they’re not alone.

The most surprising outcome of this new way of interacting—which on the surface seemed therapeutic in the most suspicious sense of the word—is how it’s opened up new channels of sanctification. Shared exploration of feelings, desires, and narratives has become a gospel delivery system, making way for the crucified and risen Christ to bring deeper healing in places formerly untouched. I’ve experienced a greater wholeness of heart because we intentionally create an environment where wounded parts can be unveiled so that the guilt and shame found there can encounter the grace of Jesus Christ.

In God’s kind providence, I didn’t walk away from the pastorate. Now it’s my privilege to walk alongside others as we seek to address loneliness by prioritizing being known—in anticipation of the day when the partial gives way to the perfect and we “shall know fully, even as [we] have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

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