Pastors Who Lack Close Friends: 5 Reasons Why

Barna Research discovered that 61% of pastors are lonely and have few close friends. The loneliest people in churches are often pastors. Why is this so?

One depressed person stands lonely, apart from the group

The experts say that five key factors inhibit pastors from developing close friendships.

  • lack of formative modeling: in families of origin some weren’t close to their parents and/or their parents never modeling for them how to create intimate relationships.
  • some pastors developed a loner tendency: they’d rather be alone.
  • personality: some personalties can unintentionally push people away.
  • wounds from the past can compel some to put up walls with others.
  • fear of sharing loneliness with others: some pastors think that if people knew they struggled, hurt, or had problems, it might lessen the respect they would give and therefore hinder that pastor’s leadership effectiveness.

Number five can be very powerful. Certainly we shouldn’t publicly display all our dirty laundry, or we would diminish our influence. But actually I’ve found that when I have appropriately shared my struggles with others, most people endear themselves to me and respect me even more.

I’ll never forget a story I heard Bill Hybels share years ago in a conference. The specific details are hazy, but the impact on me remains.

On one of his study breaks he told about a Sunday night visit to a small church. After the sermon, the pastor stood before his flock and in tears shared a heartbreak he had experienced from his son. He said he felt like a failure and wasn’t sure what to do. He then closed the service. Spontaneously the people rushed to the front and surrounded him, hugged him, and wept with him. Bill then used a term to describe the scene: “the circle of brokenness.” As he drew thousands of us into this story, with misty eyes I realized that every pastor yearns for that kind of acceptance.

If fear of rejection, looking less like a pastor, or worry that you might diminish your influence keeps you from inviting safe people in, realize the danger in which you can put yourself. Without safe people, ministry can overwhelm us.

A psychologist friend of mine once explained that isolation can set up a pastor on a slippery slope toward sexual compromise. In isolation, Satan can exploit his vulnerability. He can then begin to compromise and live a secret sexual life that may ultimately lead to ministry and/or marriage failure. My friend reminded me that sin grows easiest in the darkness.

So, if you are a pastor, don’t minimize the importance of friends in the ministry and in your church. Push through your loneliness and find some friends.

What other factors have you seen that can create loneliness in pastors?

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What NOT to Say to Someone in Pain

Several years ago at a physical therapy appointment I was getting some kinks worked out of my back. As the therapist torqued my left leg into a pretzel, she told me about a friend who recently got news about a life threatening medical condition. As my therapist shared, she felt unsure about what to say to her friend facing such sadness. Even though I’ve been in ministry over 35 years, the right thing to say to a person in pain still eludes me. What should we say to someone like her friend? Or better yet, what should we not say?

young desperate man suffering with hands on head in deep depression, pain , emotional disorder, grief and desperation concept isolated on black background with grunge studio lighting in black and white

Since our youngest was diagnosed with a brain tumor 28 years ago (and is now doing well), what people have said to us through the years has run the gamut from perfect to really bad. Most people really want to encourage when we hurt, but often they say exactly what you don’t need to hear.

Here’s a few statements to NEVER say to someone in pain, no matter what kind of pain.

  • Every thing will be all right. God’s in control. (Yes, God is control, but everything may not turn out all right.)
  • Just have more faith and you will be fine. (Platitude.)
  • God told me that you’d be healed/your problem will go away. (Why did he tell you and not me?)
  • Could there possibly be some sin in your life? (Sounds like one of Job’s friends.)
  • My (aunt, uncle, grandmother, etc.) faced the same thing and they were healed. (I’m not your aunt, uncle, grandmother, etc.)
  • Well, I’m facing such and such…and then this person prattles on and on about himself or herself, seemingly oblivious to our pain. (You really didn’t hear me, did you?)
  • Just let us know what we can do. (Often this really means nothing or else they would have gotten specific on the spot.)

Words carry great power. The book of Proverbs tells us they have the power of life or death and that a well-placed word is very valuable. This verse is a great one.

Prov. 25.11 The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver.

I’d love to hear words that you’ve heard or said that were like gold in times of pain.

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Pastors Afflicted with Relational Anorexia

In my research for my second book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I discovered that pastors are often the loneliest people in the church, second perhaps only to their wives. I learned some sobering insight from several sources. In this post I unpack the concept of relational anorexia for pastors.

Eraser deleting the word Anorexia

Here are some of the sobering facts about pastors and their relationships.

  • I interviewed Dr. Michael Ross, Executive Director of The Pastors Institute, who has worked with several thousand pastors in various capacities. He told me that the number one problem pastors face is isolation.
  • Gary Kinnaman author and former mega-church pastor and Alfred Ellis, author and founder-director of Leaders that Last, an organization for ministers, wrote, “Most people in full-time ministry do not have close personal friendships and consequently are alarmingly lonely and dangerously vulnerable.”[1]
  • Well known author, Steve Arterburn has observed that “the men in the church who are least likely to have friend connections are pastors.”[2]
  • Focus on the Family discovered that nearly 42% do not have any accountability partner with whom they meet.[3]
  • And the Alban Institute, an ecumenical organization that serves thousands of congregations through research and publishing, has learned that pastors tend to seek help from others only when they are in crisis, “rather than allowing these resources to sustain and nourish them consistently.”[4]

In other words, we don’t seek out safe people to help us process ongoing ministry issues until they escalate into major crises. Even then, many pastors suffer alone.

We’ve probably all preached that God created us for deep relationship with others. But just as anorexia (the word actually means “no appetite”) can cause a person literally to feel no hunger even though he is starving, relational anorexia can keep us from feeling our inner hunger for deep relationships. Henry Cloud and John’s Townsend describe in their book Safe People these indicators that we might have relational anorexia.

  • I am uncomfortable with people and relaxed when alone.
  • I don’t get “lonely,” whatever people mean by that.
  • I spend time with people out of obligation, or for functional reasons (tennis partner, commuting to work, etc.).
  • My fantasies of vacation always involve my doing something fun by myself.[5]

The authors also posed several questions that may indicate major hindrances to healthy relationships. I’ve paraphrased them here.

  • Do you tend to only be a giver in most of your relationships?
  • Do others usually approach you only when they want something from you rather than to simply spend time with you?
  • Do you find it difficult to open up to others?
  • Do you most often choose to be alone to deal with your problems?
  • Do you feel that only God really knows and loves you?
  • Are intimate, two-way conversations with others rare?[6]

So, what should we do if we suffer from relational anorexia? I recommend that every pastor have at least one safe person in his (or her) life with whom they can be honest and with whom they can process their pain.

Who’s your safe friend? In this post I list qualities to look for in a safe friend.

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[1] Gary Kinnaman and Alfred Ellis, Leaders that Last (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 10.

[2], “Steve Arterburn Interview: Open Season,” August 2007.

[3] Focus on the Family, “Pastoral Ministries 2009 Survey” (of over two thousand ministers),, 8.

[4] Michael Jinkins, The Alban Institute, Congregations, “Great Expectation, Sobering Realities: Findings From a New Study on Clergy Burnout,” Number 3, May/June 2002.

[5] Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Safe People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 129.

[6] Adapted from ibid.


3 Simple Questions that Can Make or Break Leadership Effectiveness

Sometimes leaders can view their role only encompassing the big-picture, long-term, and strategic kind of stuff. I’ve learned, however, that how I treat simple one-on-one encounters with others may impact my leadership and my church in greater ways than my big-picture stuff. I suggest silently asking yourself these three questions when you’re with another person at your church or organization.

Business people standing with question mark on boards

3 Key Questions that Can Make or Break Leadership Effectiveness

  • If I were in this person’s shoes, would he or she feel loved by me?
  • What does this person need from me now and how can I meet it?
  • What is God doing in this person’s life and how does He want me to help?

Perhaps these questions are ways to live out the maxim, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

What are some other subtle leadership insights you’ve learned that affect leadership effectiveness?

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What this Leader Learned about Life from 10 Kindergarteners

Several years ago I visited the pre-school that my church ran. It included a kindergarten class. The morning I peeked in I noticed that all 10 kids were sitting in a circle holding hands. Their teacher, Autumn, invited me in to join them in their morning prayer. Delighted to do so, I sat between two dainty girls, one with long curly blond hair, the other with glasses and a patch over one eye. As the children prayed, God reminded me about some important life lessons.

Kindergarten sign with icons

Autumn prayed first and then each child prayed around the circle, one after the other. Out of their tiny voices came these prayers.

Thank you Jesus.

I pray for my tadpoles.

Jesus, please help my fish. I have two fish and the fins of one fish are coming off and the other one has spots.

I pray for my grandmother who has cancer.

Jesus, I pray that my puppies will live and that my parents will let me keep one.

And then this one really touched my heart.

Jesus, my mom is off tomorrow. I really want to spend time with her. I know she is busy, but please let her spend time with me.

In five minutes after listening to 10 six-year-olds, God reminded me of these simple life lessons.

  • When we pray, God looks not at the eloquence of our words, but at the honesty of our hearts.
  • No subject is off limits when we pray.
  • Kids want time with their parents more than anything else.
  • I must never allow a busy schedule to trump such significant moments as holding the hands of six-year-olds while they pray.
  • I wish I had more of the simple faith of a child.

Today, look for opportunities for God to teach you about what’s truly significant, even from a child.

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