Isolation in rural ministry can, for many, become deeply burdensome. Thomas Aquinas once stated, “Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious.” As much as we may feel called to a certain church or county, without friendship and support, the joyful task of ministry can become a tiresome burden.
I have actually heard some pastors argue that you can’t have any real friends in your church, because it would compromise one’s primary relationship and call as their pastor. This idea is so prevalent in some circles, I know a few pastors who refuse to even interact with parishioners on social media like Facebook and Twitter, or even socialize with parishioners outside of church.
There are several problems with this approach to ministry.
- Jesus was anything but anti-social. The people Jesus discipled were in many ways his closest friends. He traveled with, ate with, laughed with, and cried with the disciples. Holding people at an arm’s length for our own comfort and safety doesn’t seem incarnational at all.
- Isolating ourselves socially only adds to the isolation a pastor can feel in a rural community. God has called you to be a pastor, not a hermit. If your idea of pastoring is moving to the sticks so you can avoid interacting with people, you might want to consider a new line of work.
- Refusing to make oneself vulnerable to people ultimately hampers pastoral leadership. If you want to build trust and rapport with your church (which is truly required for Christian leadership) then vulnerability is a must. This doesn’t mean that every personal problem and sin needs to be aired in a weekly sermon, but it does mean that people need to see their pastor as human.
Anti-social ministry seems anti-Gospel to me. If we (pastors) are only planning on being in a pastorate for a few years before “moving on to bigger and better things,” then we might have a tendency to not want to get “too attached,” so that goodbye’s won’t be difficult. Such a shortsighted and selfish outlook is a disservice to the Kingdom in my opinion, because it diminishes the call God has placed on our lives to minister in the present, to our present flocks.
Not only is anti-social pastoring anti-Gospel, its unhealthy. Literally.
Isolation is one of the leading causes of clergy burnout. According to a survey about social problems among clergy in the Anglican Church earlier this year, Christianity Today reported that isolation was the only “issue to be cited as a significant problem in wealthy as well as deprived communities and was more common than unemployment, homelessness and poor housing.”
The issue of clergy isolation isn’t even a “rural clergy” problem. It’s a clergy problem.
There are several reasons pastors may live in isolation:
- There may not be a like minded pastor in the area. Living on a theological island can be exhausting. Even in a city the size of Houston, when we lived there I could count the moderate Baptist churches on one hand. The same can hold true in more rural locals.
- Pastors may fear becoming vulnerable towards church members, because they’ve been wounded for doing so in the past. If a pastor feels they cannot be their true self without facing consequences (like getting judged, causing controversy, or even being fired) then pastors will self-isolate.
- Some people place pastors on moral pedestals and thereby fail to include clergy in social activities and functions.
- Leadership, in general, can be lonely at times.
- If a pastor is so busy with church work, she can’t spend time with family, the pastor can even feel isolated from the people she loves the most.
I believe that God’s design for our lives and for our ministries is that we as leaders would build healthy systems of support. Jesus definitely spent much time with others, and several places in the Gospels indicate that he was even tired of being around crowds. Jesus withdrew for periods for the purpose of solitude and renewal, but he never lived in isolation.
Here are four suggestions for how to avoid isolation in small-town ministry:
- Connect with a groups of clergy (even if they’re in a different denomination than yourself) and meet monthly for prayer and support.
- You may not become best friends with everyone in your church (and probably shouldn’t anyway), but pick a few families to get to know well, and be intentional about fellowshipping with them.
- Make friends in the community outside of church. Yes, it’s completely OK to have a life outside of church-life. You’ll find it refreshing.
- Become more protective of family time. You’ll never get it back if you give it all away, and becoming isolated from one’s spouse and kids may be the loneliest place of all.