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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 who 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 who 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.

Sabbath

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 pastors' 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.”

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.

Get away

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.

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Dr. Thomas Norton

commented on Oct 6, 2011

A good word. Thank you, Paul.

Gaius Robinson

commented on Oct 6, 2011

Good read. Now may the Lord help me to apply it :-)

Dr. Ron Leech

commented on Oct 6, 2011

After 35 years of ministry, these points will save your marriage, and ministry. Thanks for reminding us Paul.

Russell Brownworth

commented on Oct 6, 2011

Under Loyless' heading "Get Out of the Church Building" he says: "Find a way to spend more time with people and less time alone." I sense the writer is an extrovert and assumes all ministers are. That is a rather shortsighted observation. Introverts need more "alone time" than extroverts. And, yes, there are plenty of introverted ministers. See Adam McHugh's work on "Introverts In the Church".

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 6, 2011

Speaking as an introvert pastor, I would like to defend Mr. Loyless's suggestion to "[f]ind a way to spend more time with people and less time alone." Of course, that will be easier for an extrovert; but I refuse to give myself a pass simply because of my temperament. Regardless of my temperament, I believe I have been called by God to this office; and this office is PRIMARILY about people: it is about equipping the saints for the work of ministry, and about reproducing my life in the life of others. Now, I'm not going to be able to do this quite the same way as an extrovert pastor. I do fewer visits than an extrovert pastor would, but I spend more time on each visit; and I imagine I probably do more listening than speaking than an extrovert would. It is an energy-consuming task, and I do need more "alone time" than an extrovert, which I work into my schedule. But Mr. Loyless's suggestion is valid, and not short-sighted at all. I can say from experience that it is a challenging discipline for me to be more intentional about spending time with people. But if the pastoral ministry came naturally to me, there'd be no need for me to have to depend on the Holy Spirit, there'd be no need for me to have to depend on his grace to strengthen me.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 6, 2011

I'd like to add a couple of more suggestions: 8. Remember that NT leadership is shared, not hierarchical. You are not THE leader, with other sub-leaders beneath you on an org chart; you are one among the other elders and deacons that God has called to lead a particular local congregation. So develop a close relationship with that leadership team. 9. Reject the myth of "professional distance." That may work for doctors, but it ruins the calling of the pastor. The doctor may be healthy and the patient sick; but in the church, all of us are sick. All of us are patients, needing to be healed by the Master Physician. So it's OK for you, your spouse, or your children to have friendships within the church. You don't need to look outside of your church for fellowship.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 6, 2011

Interesting interview in psychologytoday.com with Adam McHugh, the author Russell Brownworth referenced: "Q. You write in your book that you still struggle with relationships and the community aspect of church. Have you been tempted to give up and isolate yourself, and what has prevented you from doing so? A. Sometimes socializing and relationships take up so much energy, it just seems so much easier to lose myself in the stirrings of my inner world, to treat my books as my friends, and to restrict my relationships with others. I don't know if I've been tempted to isolate myself, because I just really like people, but I have been tempted to limit my relationships and not share much of myself. What keeps me going is that I believe we were made for relationship, and even that the God of the Bible is a very relational God, who pursues us and loves us. I know that in order to be a whole person, I need others, who can sometimes see things about myself more clearly than I can, and that there is something about being loved--in real, concrete relationships, loved as I truly am--that heals me." Sounds consistent with Mr. Loyless's suggestion to find a way to spend more time with people and less time alone.

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