Ministry Isolation Part 1


Ministry is not for the faint of heart. While many people may think of ministry as sipping coffee with parishioners while engaging in an on-going peaceful quite time with the Lord, that is simply not reality. Ministers in the 21st Century are asked to do far more than just make hospital visits and conduct business meetings. More often than not, ministers today are called upon to lead their ministries like a CEO; managing people and projects, raising funds, strategizing to help move their ministries forward, seeing that none of the many spinning plates fall. And whether the minister is giving oversight to a few dozen or a few thousand people, leading in this manner can leave a leader feeling isolated. In fact, 70% of pastors do not have someone they consider a close friend (London & Wiseman, 2003, p. 264). Such isolation can lead to serious stress and even burnout from ministry altogether.

I recently did some research in my doctoral studies about ministry isolation. I am going share some of my findings in a few blogs over several weeks. These posts will explore what ministry isolation is and why it is dangerous. This is not intended to be an exhaustive presentation of every cause, effect, and solution to this topic. Rather, I hope to encourage people in ministry to be aware of these issues in hopes that they do not experience similar situations.

So what is ministry isolation? As previously indicated, ministry in the 21st Century places a high premium upon leadership. Leadership is no stranger to ministry. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint.” In other words, where there is no leader casting vision, the mission or the organization fails. In the most simple of terms, a minister must be a leader.

For the sake of exploring this topic, the terms leader and minister will be used interchangeably as the same. Furthermore, as will be clearly stated, isolation and loneliness are directly related to one another and extremely similar. Therefore, the terms isolation and loneliness can be used interchangeably as the same. Even more, ministry isolation and loneliness in leadership can be used as one in the same.

Leaders must be able to usher people into uncharted territory. This requires them to think in ways that others do not think. It requires them to make decisions that others would not make. Leaders must be at least slightly ahead of where their followers are. In his book Spiritual Leadership (1994), J. Oswald Sanders writes, “Because the leader must always be ahead of his followers, he lives with loneliness. Though he may be friendly, there are areas of life where he must walk alone” (p. 117).

Sanders’ quote brings about an important term when addressing isolation: loneliness. Isolation can cause loneliness. Many people have defined loneliness in different ways. But to explain loneliness in a way that it relates to the subject at hand, consider these words from writer Judith Shulevitz (2013) when examining psychiatrist Frieda From-Reichmann’s definition of loneliness:

The psychological definition of loneliness hasn’t changed much since Fromm-Reichmann laid it out. “Real loneliness” is not what the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard characterized as the “shut-upness” and solitariness of the civilized. Nor is “real loneliness” the happy solitude of the productive artist or the passing irritation of being cooped up with the flu while all your friends go off on some adventure. It’s not being dissatisfied with your companion of the moment – your friend or lover or even spouse – unless you chronically find yourself in that situation, in which case you may in fact be a lonely person. Fromm-Reichmann even distinguished “real loneliness” from mourning, since the well-adjusted eventually get over that, and from depression, which may be a symptom of loneliness but is rarely the cause. Loneliness, she said – and this will surprise no one – is the want of intimacy.

While some conservative evangelical Christians may not agree with the works of an openly liberal writer such as Shulevitz nor the findings of a secular psychiatrist such as Fromm-Reichmann, they should at least take note of the last four words of the previous quote: the want of intimacy. Since 70% of pastors do not have someone they consider a close friend, there is no doubt that leaders are longing for intimacy.

To further illustrate this point, whenever someone advances in leadership, it is oftentimes stated as, “They moved up in leadership.” This “upward” movement in leadership becomes isolating in that it separates leaders from others who now report to them. Though Christians stand at the opposite end of the spectrum of Friedrich Nietzche’s theological beliefs, the German philosopher understood well that life always gets harder towards the summit – the cold gets colder, the wind stronger, the burden of responsibilities heavier (Sanders, 1994, p. 117). Such is the case in a leader’s “upward” journey. As leaders are promoted, they are expected to take care of the organization’s structure and strategies. More specifically, ministers are expected to bear the individual burdens of those in their ministry. But who, then, attends to the burdens of the leader? All too often the answer is no one. Consequently leaders suffer  from loneliness, anxiety, depression, and a host of other effects that ultimately lead to a lessened effectiveness of the leader.

In summary, ministry isolation is the onset of loneliness due to the position of leadership in which a minister has been placed. Because of the responsibilities that come with their position, they feel as though no one understands who they are or what they do. It is easy, then, to see how leaders may feel isolated and eventually lonely.

Ministers and leaders, be aware of this. Check back soon for more on this topic.