By Analiz G. Schremmer, Contributing Writer
Pastors are always surrounded by people; whether they are preaching a sermon to a full church on Sunday, attending crowded prayer meetings or ministering to the hurting. Yet crowds of people don’t necessarily bring connection. And isolation can be a serious reality for the person behind the pulpit. Pastors may feel like their lives are under a microscope or like they live in a fishbowl, explained Director of Counseling Services Katie Swafford.
Pastors are humans with real flaws and imperfections and a lot of times there are people in their own churches who tear them down. “All of that can create a lonely environment because they never know who they can let their hair down with or know when they are in a safe space,” Swafford said. “A large majority of people in ministry don’t have that safe space. Unfortunately, some of them may have once thought someone was a safe place and then they had their trust betrayed. I think that’s really the largest piece of why they can feel that way.”
The constant exposure to criticism is one thing; another is the plain business of leading a congregation.
“Their social lives take a hit,” Swafford said. “If they are always pouring out when do they have time to just relax and be themselves?”
Pair all that with the expectation that pastors are Superman, always available to meet everyone’s needs with a smile, and it’s just a very difficult combination of factors for them to cope with.
Loneliness and the pastor’s wife
A pastor’s wife can experience a lot of the same emotional isolation as her husband. Besides that, she can sometimes be subjected to the discomfort of watching others criticize her spouse.
“Sometimes a pastor’s wife will attend a church business meeting and have to hear people be rude to their husband,” Swafford said. The majority of the time they have to sit there and not express pain or emotion. And church members can also be critical of the wife, too. Saying they don’t teach enough or whatever.”
How can ministers fight loneliness?
Swafford shared some steps that ministers can take to fight the lions of loneliness:
- Connect personally with God.
Preparing for sermons and Bible studies are important times with the Lord. While that time of study in scripture is important, it is also vital for ministers to remain focused on their own intimate relationship with the Lord, Swafford explained.
That’s a very outward focus and a great thing,” she said. “But sometimes that personal intimate relationship can be neglected.”
- Connect with others.
Swafford recommends that pastors and their wives seek to connect with people in a way that isn’t church-focused. “They may like to fish, hunt or golf. They can find a buddy and go on a guy’s trip or a pastor’s wife can do something similar with girlfriends. That can decrease loneliness as well as depression and anxiety because it creates a space without all of those expectations.”
She added the value of being intentional about calling those long-distance friends that might offer a safe space as well.
- Contact Texas Baptists Counseling Services and utilize the resources available.
Swafford said she is available to discuss any issues of loneliness, depression, anxiety or any other mental health issues.
“I’ve told ministers they can call me if they just need to talk for a little bit and not necessarily engage in a counseling relationship, but just need somebody to talk to,” Swafford said.
Swafford said she can help connect ministers and their spouses to retreat opportunities, books, websites, podcasts or options for treatment.
Changing the culture
Besides pastors taking steps towards their own mental and emotional wellbeing, congregations need to work to create healthy environments for their pastors.
Swafford emphasized the magnitude of the role that congregants play in the mental health of their pastors and that we need to check our own thoughts and expectations, remembering that it’s not about them serving us. It’s about them leading us in service.
For more information on Texas Baptists Counseling Services, contact Director Katie Swafford at firstname.lastname@example.org call 800.388.2005.