Thoughts on The Lonely Pastor

Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor has been so helpful to me. It contains one of the best chapters I have ever read, titled “The Unbusy Pastor.” In that chapter he talks about the scandal that is the busy life. Consider this excerpt:

“The poor man,” we say. “He’s so devoted to his flock: the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.” But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront” (p. 17).

Provocative paragraphs like that are not easily forgettable. His words contained an almost perfect description of me. Is that you as well? Truth like that will make many a pastor do some proverbial pew grabbing. Peterson’s words made me think about other areas in Christian ministry in which pastors are prone to default. The application I want to highlight today is the lonely pastor. Could Eugene’s ideas about the busy pastor be applied similarly to the lonely pastor? Would I be correct to say that the word lonely is a symptom not of commitment but of the pastor’s betrayal? Or could we say, “The adjective lonely as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears the same way adulterous characterizes a wife or embezzling describes a banker?”

I think so.

In a first world culture, false pastoral significance is tied up in silly things like loneliness. The pastor will do anything we can to self-justify the significance of our work. We build our sinful martyr complexes on sandy nonsense like “Busyness and loneliness are just a part of the call into ministry.” Could lonely pastor be a scandal of equal equivalence as the busy pastor?

I have seen it countless times. Pastors get just enough accountability to make a defense of having accountability. Yet many of the same pastors who say they have accountability simultaneously confess that they lonely. Multiple pastors have confessed to me that they have few or no real friends. This is unacceptable. There is a better way.

The narrative found in Acts 20:17-38 gives us insight into Paul’s pastoral example. Read that passage of Scripture and ask yourself, “Was Paul a lonely Pastor?”

I am sure, at times, Paul experienced loneliness. When you are shipwrecked at sea I imagine Paul felt deeply alone. But was that the norm? Consider what Paul said in Philippians 2:27 about his friend Epaphroditus: “Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only him but on me also, lest I should have sorry upon sorrow.” Is Paul a man who lived as an island to himself? Paul could take a lot of things, but God spared him the sorrow of losing his friend Epaphroditus.

Paul understood the Gospel. The Gospel reconciles sinners to God and redeemed sinners to each other. Pastor friend, if you are always lonely it may be the result of a functional denial of the Gospel of Jesus. You have been saved into a family. Reject loneliness as a normal accompaniment with shepherding. You now have real brothers. Here are a few things to consider that may help you out of loneliness.

  1. Is your loneliness a fruit of the root sin of rejecting the corporate work of the Gospel?
  2. Is your loneliness tied into your functional rejection of the priesthood of all believers? “They just can’t understand.”
  3. Why don’t you have good friends? It’s not because you are introverted. It’s because of sin. Do you believe that? How can you Biblically justify having no friends?
  4. Have you considered the results of living a thousand miles wide and an inch deep in your relationships? Instead of following you as you follow Christ, your people will follow you into shallow living.
  5. How does the finished work of Christ help you to gain true friendships?
  6. Pursue friendships with your elders and deacons. You may end up actually liking them! And they you;)
  7. Remember Romans 8:1. Just a thought: break out of loneliness by talking to your elders about that verse. The Gospel is the foundation of our brotherhood and the pathway into experiencing that brotherhood.
  8. Romans 8:1 is true because Jesus was the best of friends. He is not ashamed to be called your brother and he even died for his friends. (John 15:13)

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