Here’s a riddle for you. What is surrounded on all sides, but still stands painfully alone? The answer: the clergy. Surrounded by parishioners, their calendars crowded with hospital visits and meetings and church events, many pastors find themselves standing in a desperately lonely place. “There is a fair amount of loneliness in this job even though you are surrounded by people,” says Rev. Don Orange, pastor of Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Greeley, Colorado. “The loneliness is not that you don’t have friends. But with many of your friends, it is not appropriate to talk about your work as a pastor.”
That loneliness caught up with Rev. John Terpstra, pastor of Immanuel CRC in Fort Collins, Colorado. After 25 years in ministry, Terpstra says he began to experience a gnawing emptiness. “It wasn’t really burnout. I hadn’t lost my sense of calling,” Terpstra says. “But I was lonely.”
Terpstra had always had many friends, but he realized what he needed was a clergy confidant. “Who could I talk about with some of the difficult situations?” asks Terpstra. As a solo pastor working alone for many years, Terpstra said he felt like the lone ranger mentality had crept up on him. “In the ministry, you are giving a lot, but I wasn’t receiving in terms of having another human being who understood me personally and knew my story. I hadn’t realized that was important. It is important,” Terpstra says. “You need to do ministry in community because there are a lot of demands on you, and you need places to safely say things. There are things you can’t share with your spouse or elder group. That is a very normal experience.”
“Pastors are no different than anyone else,” says Rev. Mark Vermaire, pastor of Crossroads Christian Reformed Church in San Marcos, California. “We were created by God to live in community.” Vermaire says he discovered that he needed friends who didn’t view him in his pastor role. “We need someone in our lives who accepts us completely, unconditionally, loving us for ourselves and not for our position as pastor.”
Barriers to Friendship
Developing those safe, open and caring relationships can be tough for pastors. Frequent moves can impact the development of close friendships. “Some pastors move several times in their lives so that their friendships always have a shadow of temporariness about them,” Vermaire says. Others live in rural areas removed from other pastors.
Yet even pastors who serve on staff teams in larger churches need to be deliberate about developing supportive relationships, says Rev. Tom Bomhof, who co-pastors Fleetwood Christian Reformed Church in Surrey, B.C. Bomhof is part of a team ministry that allows him frequent interaction and sharing with another pastor. Still, Bomhof sought out places to connect more deeply with colleagues in ministry. “As pastors, we don’t always know where we can talk and who we can talk things over with,” Bomhof says.
It is not that pastors cannot – or should not – have friends in their churches, but sharing in those friendships can be complicated. “In those kinds of friendships, when it comes to the pastor’s role, I am your friend but also your pastor,” explains Orange. “There are things that I could share with my pastor friends that I could not say to my other friends.”
Being afraid to show one’s vulnerability can also be a barrier to building healthy relationships as a pastor. “The obstacle for me was that I had to get over that fear,” says Terpstra, whose dad was a pastor, too. That childhood experience shaped a perception that pastors need to be strong and bear their burdens alone. “My own father did not share his vulnerabilities with me. He would just keep going, moving through difficult situations.” Like his dad, Terpstra tried to go it alone. “I wanted to appear that I had my life under control. I think I had the sense that I was maybe the only one experiencing difficulties, and perhaps I felt I shouldn’t have these challenges.”
Eventually, though, isolation takes its toll. “Why are there such a large number of pastors who end up leaving the ministry?” asks Terpstra. “Look at the numbers of pastors in their fifties whose lives are imploding. They bail out or go looking for another job. They feel they can’t make it in this career for another decade.”
In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month. In a recent New York Times’ article, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,”* Paul Vitello confirms that being a pastor puts one at risk for physical and mental illness. “The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans,” Vitello writes. “In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
Vitello cites a recent internal survey by the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) in America that found that more than two thirds of ELC pastors reported being overweight, 64 percent had high blood pressure and 13 percent were taking medications for depression. Also cited by Vitello is a 2005 survey of Presbyterian clergy that showed that—compared to three decade ago—four times as many pastors today leave the ministry within their first five years of service.
Peer Groups: The Antidote for Loneliness
At just the time that Terpstra found himself becoming discouraged, he got a call from a colleague who was looking to form a peer group. Terpstra quickly latched on to the idea and helped submit a proposal to the Christian Reformed Church’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program. Terpstra and his peers were successful in getting a grant, and they soon began meeting. “For the first time in my life I had pastoral friendships where I could be encouraged and encourage others,” Terpstra says.
What Terpstra discovered in his peer group was that he was not alone. “What we found was that each of us was experiencing profound challenges in our personal lives. We were able to support each other through these. We can all testify that we are all a lot healthier today because we had a place to go with our issues.”
Bomhof’s asserts that the Christian Reformed denomination’s willingness to fund peer groups for pastors is crucial in motivating pastors to get involved. “Without the impetus and funding from SPE, I don’t know that this would happen as much. Receiving a grant for a peer group shows that there is support from our denomination. It is a real motivator. It creates the expectation that this is what pastors should be doing because it is good for their mental and spiritual health.”
Hiding Behind the Books
In his peer group, Orange says he discovered solace and safety—a place where he could admit to weariness and frustration. “There was a willingness to be open and honest about life and the calling that we are all living out in different but similar ways,” Orange says. “Nobody understands the continued pressure of sermon preparation more than other pastors. It’s the affinity of our occupation. When you say you are weary, they know what you are talking about.”
While Orange advocates strongly for peer groups, he warns that some groups just create more work for pastors. “Ministers often hide behind our books and tasks and turn peer groups into just another meeting. Tasks are OK as a way of getting together, but the real goal of a peer group should be focused on interaction and honesty with each other.”
Orange’s group purposely did not set out to study a topic or read a particular book. “We focused on just hanging out together and talking about what our lives and ministries were like. Where are your struggles? We wanted to get beyond talking about how many people show up at our churches,” Orange says.
With a very loose structure, Orange’s group flourished. The relationships nurtured continue now—and extended beyond the life of the peer group. “The neat thing about our experience was the tenor of our group. Everybody stepped up to the plate and started sharing.”
Make it a Priority
Bomhof encourages new pastors to make peer groups a priority early on. “The tyranny of the urgent is always there,” he says. “There is all this work to do. Carving out times for relationships can be hard. But I would say, don’t ignore this. This is the one thing that you really need to try.”
For Terpstra, joining a peer group represented a turning point in his career. “Now I am at a very different place than I was five years ago. I credit learning to do ministry in relationship with others for that,” he says.
“I can read a book on my own at home,” says Orange. “I can go to a lecture. But what I really want is to know and to be known.” Peer groups are the answer. “Isn’t that what everyone’s heart is crying out for?” Orange asks.