Pastors who Suffer from Relational Anorexia

relational anorexiaIn my research for my latest 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 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’s Safe People lists 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.

  1. Do you tend to only be a giver in most of your relationships?
  2. Do others usually approach you only when they want something from you rather than to simply spend time with you?
  3. Do you find it difficult to open up to others?
  4. Do you most often choose to be alone to deal with your problems?
  5. Do you feel that only God really knows and loves you?
  6. 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.

In my next blog entry I will suggest qualities to look for in such a safe person.

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

[2] REV.org, “Steve Arterburn Interview: Open Season,” August 2007. http://rev.org/protected/Article.aspx?ID=2519.

[3] Focus on the Family, “Pastoral Ministries 2009 Survey” (of over two thousand ministers), http://www.parsonage.org/images/pdf/2009PMSurvey.pdf, 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. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?q=printme&id=3284

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

[6] Adapted from ibid.

For more Help and Resources for Depressed Pastors and their wives, visit Pastor Stone’s main site.

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