Isolation in ordination

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In my work with clergy, pastors often lament over how difficult it is to build friendships and social support.  For many, the clerical call carries with it a sense of isolation.  M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, calls it a “crowded loneliness”–a challenge that he reflects over in a recent article with the Christian Century.

For over 30 years I’ve struggled with the question of befriending parishioners. I realize that I’m supposed to maintain healthy friendships outside of the church, and I’ve taught this for years in seminary classes. The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships.

Vocational ministry leaves little time for relationships of mutuality, so it’s only human that pastors would desire reciprocation and friendship from congregants. But this is only half the problem. Even when pastors use discipline in their relationships within the church, making these relationships ones of service, they still face pressure from congregants to be one among them, as a neighbor, partner, and friend.  Barnes continues,

When I knelt to receive the laying on of hands before I was ordained, the elders of the congregation were being led by the Holy Spirit to push me away from them. They were essentially saying, “We are setting you apart to serve us. So you can’t be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.” It wasn’t long after I stood up from the ordination prayer that I discovered this. But the elders have a hard time understanding the holy distance they created by their decision to make me their pastor.

Barnes doesn’t shy away from naming this unavoidable burden for what it is.

Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.

He goes on to describe how he’s learned to maintain friendships outside the church, mostly with other clergy members. He speaks to them on the phone weekly and is intentional about gathering with them for retreats (many pastors use Duke’s Study Leave program for just this sort of gathering). It sustains him, but it doesn’t remove the awkwardness and longing he experiences in the “crowded loneliness” of ministry. Whether congregants know it or not, this sacrifice is for their sake and good, a service of devotion and love. Israel’s priests were set apart from the people to make intercession and mediate before God for them.

Does this reflect your experience?  What ways have you found to maintain honest, supportive relationships of mutuality amidst the work of ministry?

–Tommy Grimm

(Photo by Flickr user dMad-photo/via Creative Commons)

3 thoughts on “Isolation in ordination

  1. This is accurate for many of us. What I struggle with is that it is hard to maintain friendships OUTSIDE of my congregation because it is the people within my congregation that I spend the most time with. I know it’s healthier to have friendships outside of my congregation, but that I have found that difficult.

  2. Monica, it’s great to hear a personal experience linked to this article. It’s because of the sacrifices clergy members make that many of us are able to find relationships of mutuality within churches. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Wow… I am a young Pastor in Africa, recently the pain of this Crowded Loneliness almost led me out of the Pulpit… It’s good to know that it wasn’t anything I did wrong or didn’t do that created the hostility I experience daily. Thank You Jesus for leading me to this Article. and Thanks to the writer.

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