The Lonely Pastor: 6 Ways to Dig Out

Loneliness is a deep ache in our soul and it doesn’t necessarily imply that we are physically alone. Some of the loneliest people in the world are surrounded by people. Even so, their deep ache of loneliness persists. If you’re a lonely pastor (or anyone from that matter) take heart from these thoughts.

Loneliness can make us feel…

  • isolated
  • sad
  • exhausted
  • unmotivated
  • unloved
  • even useless.

Pastors are no exception. Although our “job” is people and we’re around them all the time, we can be some of the loneliest people in the church. I once read that the man with the fewest male friends in the church is often the senior pastor.

So what can we do when loneliness overwhelms our soul? I don’t offer a neat prescription, but I’ve learned a few things that that have helped me.

  1. Admit it. When you feel lonely, tell somebody. First tell yourself. Then tell the Lord. And when appropriate, tell somebody else. Neuroscientists have discovered that admitting our negative emotions (labeling them) can actually lessen the strength of those emotions.
  2. Guard against ruminating over it. It’s natural to feel lonely sometimes. But if we mull over it for long periods of time the Enemy can turn it into depression, self-loathing, and self-pity. Rumination over negative experiences more deeply activates the emotional centers of our brains exacerbating the emotion and causing us to lose objectivity.
  3. However, the Lord may want to teach you something. Ask Him what lesson He wants you to learn through your loneliness.
  4. Read uplifting Scriptures and listen to uplifting music.
  5. Go and do something productive. Serve someone that won’t benefit your ministry. Smile at everyone you meet. Compliment the cashier at the grocery store. Take your son or daughter on a date. Invite someone in the church to lunch with you. When we do something productive the neurotransmitter dopamine increases in our brain and dopamine increases motivation and improves mood.
  6. Don’t do anything dumb. If you are married be careful about close relationships with someone of the opposite sex. Sharing your pain with someone of the opposite sex can lessen your inhibitions and unintentionally draw you into sexual activity that you will regret.

What has helped you move through loneliness?


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What Every Leader Needs: Silence and Solitude

In my last blog post I suggested that the cure to our noisy, frenzied, busy world lies in practicing silence and solitude. I shared some quotes and key Scriptures that relate to these spiritual disciplines. In this post I suggest reasons why we should practice silence and solitude and some ways to begin to build that practice into your life.

In essence, silence and solitude are tools God uses to restore our souls by breaking engagements with the world. This discipline is really more of a state of heart than a place. Granted, it does include away-ness from others, but as you mature you can actually be in a huge crowd and experience the rejuvenating power of solitude. It can create the ability to carry around with you your own portable sanctuary, sacred place, place of rest, connection to God even in a loud, distracting world.On the other hand you can become a hermit and never experience the power of solitude.

Before I give you my suggestions, read this funny story.

A monk newly initiated into his order was told that he’d have to spend the initial 20 years of training in complete silence. He was told that he would only be allowed to say two words every three years. After 3 years of studiously keeping this vow he was summoned before the Abbot and asked if he had anything to say, in two words or less. He replied, “Food bad.” Three more years went by when he was again summoned before the Abbot. “Well, do you have anything to say now,” the monk was asked. “Bed hard,” was the answer. After three more years the Abbot found our friend and asked him if he’d like to speak. “I quit!” said the monk. “Well, I’m not surprised,” said his Abbot. “You’ve done nothing but complain since you arrived.” (source unknown)

Now, the practical benefits of practicing silence and solitude and tips for building it into your life.

Practical benefits of practicing silence and solitude

1. It breaks the power of hurry.

It breaks the adrenalin addiction, the “have to do” mentality of life. Willard explains it this way. The person who is capable of doing nothing might be capable of refraining from doing the wrong thing. And then perhaps he or she would be better able to do the right thing.[1]

2. It brings spiritual renewal.

Francis de Sales said (1500’s), “There is no clock, no matter how good it may be, that doesn’t need resetting and rewinding twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In addition, at least once a year it must be taken apart to remove the dirt clogging it, straighten out bent parts, and repair those worn out. In like manner, every morning and evening a man who really takes care of he heart must rewind it for God’s service . . . . Moreover, he must often reflect on his condition in order to reform and improve it. Finally, at least once a year he must take it apart and examine every piece in detail, that is every affection and passion, in order to repair whatever defects there may be.[2]

3. It reminds us that life will still go on without us

It interrupts the cycle of constantly having to manage things and be in control. It breaks us from a sense of being indispensable.

4. It clears the storm of life and mind for wise decision making and planning.

Jesus illustrates this in Luke 6:12-13 before he chose his disciples. “And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.”

5. It creates inner space to hear the voice of God.

After Elijah’s power encounter on Mt Carmel with the Baal worshippers he fled because he heard that Queen Jezebel had a price on his head. He hid in a cave and whined to God. God told him to step outside the cave and cover his face because he was about to speak to him. A storm and wind and earthquake and fire appeared, but God was not in any of those. Rather, God spoke in a whisper. 1Kings 19.2…And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

6. It helps us disconnect from the world and deeply connect to our soul.

Henry Nouwen said, “In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding.” Scaffolding is the stuff we use to keep ourselves propped up, friends, family, TV, radio, books, job, technology, work, achievement, our bank account, etc.[3]

7. It helps us control our tongue

If frees us from the tyranny we hold over others with our words. When we are silent, it is much more difficult to manipulate and control the people and circumstances around us. Words are the weapons we lay down when we practice silence. We give up our insistence of being heard and obeyed.

8. It helps us with the other disciplines

It enhances the other disciplines.


Practical tips to incorporate silence and solitude into your life.

1. Plan for it.

2. Find a quiet place.

3. Be considerate of those who will be affected.

4. Zip it

James 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

5. Expect some apprehension.

Our busy world often hinders us from looking within, so don’t quit if deep things in your soul begin to surface

6. Length?

Walk before run.

7. Realize that this discipline comes more easily to some.

I recommend a great book to understand your particular spiritual pathway. It’s a book called Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.

What do you find most difficult about silence and solitude?


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[1]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 359.

[2] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 94.

[3]ibid,p. 92

How to Break the Power of Hurry

We live in a world that bombards us with incessant visual stimuli and noise. It’s easy to become addicted to that noise without realizing it. We often turn the radio on in the car when we drive. We leave the TV on, even though we aren’t watching it. And our cell phones are seldom silenced. Not only do we live in a noisy world, but we live in a busy one as well. Our time saving devices (cell phones, computers, faster internet connections) relentlessly remind us that we should get more done in less time so that we have more time to get even more done. As a result we are addicted not only to noise, but to hurry. John Ortberg says that, “Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.”[1] So, what do we do?

Ortberg also writes about an article that appeared in a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, a few years ago about Tattoo the basset hound.

Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off for a drive with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

Motorcycle officer Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it, “the basset hound picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could.” He chased the car to a stop, and Tattoo was rescued, but not before the dog had reached a speed of 20-25 miles per hour, rolling over several times.

He then observes that often we live like Tattoo, “our days mark by picking them up and putting them down as fast as we can.”

Hurry, noise, and incessant busyness are enemies of a healthy spiritual life. I can attest to that in my life. It easily sneaks up on you. But God does not want us to conform to a superficial lifestyle marked by incessant noise and busyness. The Apostle Paul wrote these familiar words.

Rom. 12.2 (NIV) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

I believe the cure for this malady lies in two related spiritual disciplines: silence and solitude. In this blog I quote some famous people who wrote about these disciplines and list some key Bible verses on the subject. I hope this blog will stir your thoughts about building this practice into your life.

In my next blog I will list ways that silence and solitude can help us become better leaders and Christians and I suggest a simple plan that can help incorporate silence and solitude into your life, if you’ve not yet done so.

But first, some simple definitions.

Solitude: The practice of temporarily being absent from other people (in isolation or anonymity) and other things so that you can be present with God.

Silence: The practice of voluntarily and temporarily abstaining from speaking so that certain spiritual goals might be sought.

Powerful quotes on silence and solitude:

Henri Nowen: “Without (silence and solittude) it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.”[2] “It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words.”? (The Way of the Heart)

Dallas Willard: “… this one (silence and solitude) is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops.”[3]

Pascal: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room.”[4]

Austin Phelps (a pastor in the1800s): “It has been said that no great work in literature or in science was ever wrought by a man who did not love solitude. We may lay it down as an elemental principle of religion, that no large growth in holiness was ever gained by one who did not take time to be often long alone with God.”[5]

Significant Scriptures on silence and solitude:

Eccl. 3:7 there is. . . a time to be silent …

Eccl. 5: 2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

Psa. 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God…

Mark 1:35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Luke 5:16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Mark 6:31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

How has silence and solitude helped you become a better leader?

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[1] John Ortberg, The Life Youve Always Wanted, p. 84.

[2]Devotional Classics, p. 95.

[3]Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 161.

[4]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 358.

[5] Whitney, The Spiritual Disciplines, p. 194.

4 Ways Pastors can Refill their Depleted Souls

Have you ever felt depleted? As a pastor I have. Recently I heard the president of Heritage College and Seminary located near Toronto give an uplifting talk about how pastors can refill their depleted souls. He spoke at a monthly gathering of pastors and Christian business leaders in London, Ontario, where I serve as a pastor. With permission, I share his insights below.

Rick based his thoughts on this passage in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus Himself got away from the crowds.

35   Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,  37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38   Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”  39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (Mark 1.35-39)

Here are four ways Rick suggested that can refill a depleted soul.

  1. Disengage from ministry demands.
    • This passage said that Jesus did just that. Although fully God, Jesus was also fully human and got tired just like you and I get. The Scripture says that Jesus went to a desolate place. In other words, he removed himself from the hustle and bustle of ministry life. He separated himself from the crowds.
    • Question to ponder: Do you take a day off  when you truly disengage? Or, do you keep yourself tethered to your cell phone or your email ‘just in case’ someone needs you?
  2. Seek communion with God.
    • Notice that Jesus didn’t just get away from doing something (direct people ministry). But he disengaged so that He could engage more fully with His Father. We not only need to rest our bodies from the demands ministry places on us, but we need to fill our souls with spiritual nourishment.
    • Question to ponder: Do you regularly engage with God’s Word simply to fill your soul? Or, do bible reading, reflection, and contemplation have an end game to give you material for your sermons?
  3. Build supportive friendships.
    • Rick noted that in other places in the Gospels Jesus often took aside his disciples when He withdrew from the crowds. Disengaging does not mean that every day off we spend in solitude. Occasionally that’s a good idea. But God uses friends to fill our souls as well. In this post I list several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
    • Question to ponder: How many close friends do you have with whom you feel safe to share your joys and sorrows?
  4. Focus on your God-given calling.
    • Sometimes we pastors have bad weeks, really bad ones. People criticize us. Crises interfere with our study time. Offerings come in really low. When that has happened to me, I’ve taken great comfort and received renewed energy when I recall my call to ministry. I remind myself that then God calls us to vocational ministry, he provides everything we need. One simple practice has helped me do this. Two to three times a month when I plan my upcoming week, I review my personal mission statement and values. This simple practice reminds me to remember my calling when I experience a bad week. In this post I explain a process to help you refine your mission and personal values.
    • Question to ponder: When was the last time you recalled your call to ministry?

Rick concluded his talk by noting that although we intuitively understand how to refuel ourselves, we often don’t do it. He challenged us to ask why we don’t. He suggested that these five issues often keep us from consistently refueling.

  1. We need to be needed too much.
  2. We undervalue our communion with God.
  3. We overvalue what we can accomplish.
  4. We confuse many relationships with deep relationships.
  5. We can’t stand to disappoint people.

That simple talk that day reinforced my commitment to regularly refuel my soul.

What would add to either list?

If you want to follow Rick you can read his blog posts here.

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3 Ways Stress is Actually Good for You

I’ve often written about stress, here, here, and here. Most of my writing about it has focused on the detrimental effects upon our body, leadership, and brain. However, I’m now reading an eye opening book by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonical, The Upside of Stress, Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. I highly recommend it. She also presented a TED talk on the subject that millions have watched. You can watch it here. In this post I summarize three ways stress is actually good for you.

pastors under stress

First, a caveat. Prolonged stress is NOT good for us. When our body remains on high alert for long periods of time research has discovered many bad effects result including dampened immunity, digestive problems, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, impaired brain functioning (especially memory), and sleep impairment.

On the other hand, God wired our bodies to produce a stress response to keep us from being eaten by wild tigers in the Serengeti. Fortunately, he also gave us brains so that we could grow and make our lives safer and more comfortable. So, such a response that He created in us to keep us safe isn’t needed in that same way today, at least for most of us in the west.

At the core of rethinking stress lies a concept McGonical calls mindsets. The term is self explanatory. It simply means the beliefs that shape how we view things. The key to making stress work on our behalf lies in changing our mindsets. If we view periodic stress as beneficial, it actually transforms how the body responds to it. She gives several interesting studies that show how changing our mindsets toward it benefits us. Changing this mindset increases the production of a neurotransmitter called DHEA which helps mitigate the negative effects of the stress hormone, cortisol (among other positive benefits). In fact, studies show that having a positive mindset on aging can add an average of nearly eight years to your life.

Here are the three benefits.

  1. It gives us more energy to rise to the challenges we face in life. As a pastor I speak every Sunday when I give a 30-40  minute sermon. My stress response system revs up right before I speak. This process actually dumps fat and sugar in to my bloodstream that gives me fuel. The processes in my brain speed up resulting in better focus and concentration. My motivation increases as chemicals get released in my brain and bloodstream. My body uses energy more efficiently. I’m more prepared for the challenge at hand, to bring what I hope is a God inspired talk to encourage others in their relationship with Christ. McGonical calls this the ‘excite and delight’ side of stress.
  2. It motivates us toward greater social connection. When I read about this benefit, my first thought was, “When we get stressed we tend to pull back to protect ourselves.” That is the case for some. But again, changing our mindset is key. When the stress response activates, it actually releases oxytocin, also called the trust hormone. Oxytocin helps us build bonds with others. A hug can release it. A mom breastfeeding her baby causes the baby’s brain to release it. Oxytocin gives us a greater sense of empathy toward others. This part of the stress response is called the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We might even call this what Scripture describes as community. We need each other, especially in times of difficulty.
  3. It can actually help us grow and learn. McGonical writes that this benefit occurs when we are in the recovery phase, when we return to a non-stress baseline. The various stress hormones and neurotransmitters actually help us recover from it as much as they help us rise to challenges. For several hours after a stress induced experience our body slowly returns to what is called homeostasis, when our body’s chemicals come back into normal balance. In doing do, the brain learns from the experience. After such an experience we often replay it in our minds or even talk to a friend about it. That process helps cement learnings in our minds so that we know how to better handle similar stressful experiences in the future.

So, stress definitely carries an upside, but the key is mindset. I believe Paul had mindset in mind when he wrote these words.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil 4.8)

What are your initial thoughts about the benefits of stress?

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