Don Follis: Pastors find it easy to put on masks
Though I have spent more than three-and-a-half decades in the ministry, I still occasionally think back to the first month of my campus ministry at the University of Illinois and remember what a longtime pastor told me. A nice 60-something pastor I met said, "Most pastors really have very few friends, son. By choosing the ministry, you have picked a good but lonely vocation."
Well, I'm a people person. People energize me. You can imagine my bewilderment when this friendly, experienced pastor said that serving in the ministry is lonely work.
Now that I counsel pastors, often I meet ministers who indeed are quite lonely, even though often they might be deeply enmeshed in relationships with people.
Pastors have wondered aloud to me, "Who are my real friends?"
"Who will be with me to the end, through thick and thin?" Even a young 30-year-old pastor asked me, "Where can I just be myself?"
These are some of the questions asked by J.R. Briggs in a new book entitled "Fail — Finding hope and grace in the midst of ministry failure" (InterVarsity Press 2014). In his discussions with pastors Briggs has discovered that pastors often say their loneliest point in the ministry is "right now."
My experience tells me three main factors lead to pastoral loneliness.
Astoundingly high expectations of what it means to be a pastor tops the list. Preaching and counseling and leading and mentoring and marrying and burying and figuring out what the best curriculum for the Sunday School teachers can all contribute to a long list with high expectations. As one pastor said to me, "I feel like I am always on."
Fear of confession is a second factor that worries pastors and contributes to loneliness. One pastor said, "Maybe it is pride or fear. Maybe both. But it keeps me in hiding."
A third cause is that our friends, often those who serve in church work with us, can wound us deeply. Briggs writes, "We want to process the most precious part of ourselves with the trusted friends who are trying to be helpful. But sometimes they can cause more pain by way of inaccurate theology, myopic perspective, trite responses and five-dollar answers to our million-dollar questions. Can we share how we are really feeling?"
Pastors who share their feelings of loneliness with me often combine them with two half-truths: Nobody is feeling what I am feeling, and when I'm finally a good enough pastor I will be worthy of love and respect. One pastor told me, "This is probably crazy, but I preach God's unconditional love to my flock and yet I live by a strict religious conditional arrangement to which I aspire but never reach."
The elements leading to loneliness often get pastors quickly reaching for their masks. Fear is a great driver for us to create and securely fasten our masks. In his book "Fail," Briggs contends, "Masks are nothing more than emotional armor seducing us to believe we can remain unscathed."
Here are some of the masks that I most encounter: "I'm the strong one." This mask keeps a pastor at the center of people's world. Years ago a counselor said to me, "You are not the savior, Don. They already have one. Quit putting yourself at the center of their spiritual world."
Then there's the "I'm theologically educated" mask. Seminary training can lead pastors to think they have some mastery of biblical languages and are thus prepared for any situation. How ridiculous is that? No pastor, ever, is the source of all the answers. I've counseled pastors to please remove that mask along with the "I'm spiritually mature" mask while they are at it. It relieves them of having to try so hard.
How about the "I'm just like everyone else" mask? Some pastors so want to be liked they go to great lengths to show people they are not as irrelevant or out of touch as others might think. Why? Because it's tempting to bow to the idol of people pleasing and self-glorification.
Just this week I met with a pastor wearing the "I'm super busy" mask. Frankly, being so busy is an effective tool to keep people at arm's length. Wearing this mask allows a person to remain at a safe relational and emotional distance.
Pastors can use their schedules to hold people at bay which contributes to their loneliness. Briggs writes, "Not only do our calendars go unchecked and unchallenged, so does our motivation. ... Busyness glosses over wounds."
One of the pastors I just met with has the "See how vulnerable I am" mask as part of his attire. I couldn't seem to get to the core issue. He talked about vulnerability without ever being vulnerable. In veiled ways he seemed to be using his so-called vulnerability to mask how he was really doing.
I know that I, too, reach for my masks, especially when I feel judged by others or when, say, I feel I am absolutely clueless. But if I step back, try to identify my underlying emotions and brokenness, and invite God's loving kindness to have the seat of honor, perspective comes and confusion diminishes. Often I discover that God's mercy is right on the doorstep, just waiting to be invited in.
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.