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ISOLATED

A PARADOX OF LIFE IN THE MINISTRY

by Tina Strutt

The pulpit pedestal isolates. It tends to elevate us to a place we could never maintain and still be ourselves. There is the sense that if we struggle we are weak, and who wants to follow a weak leader?
It was an idle Thursday afternoon when my phone rang. On the other end, there was silence at first, then sudden gut-wrenching sobs. “I can’t do this anymore! I’m done! I’m giving up the church! I’m no longer putting my family through this! It’s not worth it!” As the BC District co-ordinator for PAOC credential holder counselling, I often receive calls from pastors and their family members seeking counselling referrals, but this one grabbed my heart. What had brought this pastor to this point in his ministry? What did he face that day before making such a desperate call? As I listened a little further and prodded a bit deeper, I found that although the “trigger” for the flood of emotions and desperation was a small criticism from a “helpful” parishioner, the incredible load he was carrying was simply unbearable. An overwhelming workload, family issues, church expectations, volatile staffing issues, personal struggles, loneliness, relationship issues … and the list went on. “Who is your support system? “Whom do you talk to?” I asked. He replied, “Nobody. Nobody understands what I do. I can’t be real with what I’m dealing with. What would people think if they knew I was struggling? I’m supposed to be the one they look to. Being a pastor means learning to live in isolation.”

Over the last eight years, both as the district co-ordinator of counselling and as a professor at a Christian college, I have noticed a trend towards isolation in ministry. The Free Dictionary gives us the following definition: “Isolate: To set apart or cut off from others; to place in quarantine; to render free of external influence.”1

As ministers, probably the last thing we feel is “cut off from others.” We’re with people ALL THE TIME! Yet, when we think of the above example, many of us can relate in some way. So how can we be with people constantly, yet have that sense of isolation?

What are some things that contribute to this trend towards isolation? First of all, there is a tendency to what many of us call the “pulpit pedestal.” For some of us, this is simply our congregation pushing us onto that pedestal every week while we scramble and fight for them to let us down. Many of us do not want to accept such an appointment with its insurmountable expectations of perfection. We want to be REAL. If we are completely honest, some of us may actually enjoy that feeling of power and influence. We like being the CEO. For others, it’s a role we assume. We are expected to be “set apart” and to lead by example, so we disconnect our personal selves from our ministerial role. People see us as having it all together, someone who doesn’t struggle and has all the right answers, perfect children, a flawless marriage, and never any problems in their lives. If we do, they assume we know exactly how to handle it in order to bring our lives into perfect balance once again.

I remember this topic coming up a few years back while chatting with a student. She was graduating and getting ready for full-time ministry, but her whole concern centred around the fact that she still struggled with insecurity issues in her life. She loved the Lord, was incredibly gifted, and desired to serve and lead, BUT she didn’t have it all together. Therefore, in her mind she was not “fit” for ministry! This really disheartened me, especially knowing that she was not alone in this thinking. Where did she get this idea that she had to be perfect to serve Jesus and His church?

The pulpit pedestal isolates. It tends to elevate us to a place we could never maintain and still be ourselves. There is the sense that if we struggle we are weak, and who wants to follow a weak leader? The pedestal also cuts us off from truly connecting with people since our church members see us as someone who has it all together, and they can’t relate to that. We all struggle. Our church members could gain so much more from us if we were to “un-isolate” ourselves, making our external influence even more tangible.

Several years ago, my husband and I were watching an online sermon from a pastor in Atlanta, GA. He was doing a series called “The Pastor is a Real Person Too.” How refreshing! He blasted the pulpit pedestal out of the water and, in doing so, presented himself in greater depth, opening the door to a deeper relationship with the people in his church. Ultimately, he demonstrated his realness and the need for Jesus Christ to work in his life daily as he sought to lead his church by example.

Another aspect that we allow to isolate us concerns our own pain and struggles. As I’ve counselled many current and future ministers, I have noticed there seems to be a tendency to keep our pain and struggles to ourselves. Some of us have bought into the belief system that pastors can’t have problems. Many of us seem to think that we are the only ones struggling in specific areas. I believe this is one of Satan’s greatest distractions to strip our confidence and leave us feeling isolated in our struggles. “Whom can I talk to? Who would possibly understand? People would be so disgusted if they knew!” Yet this stuffing of our issues deep down within us causes a festering and a slow ticking time bomb (not to mention the coincident health issues), leaving us in a vulnerable state like the pastor at the beginning of this article.

However, I love how Scripture tells us about the treasure we have in jars of clay2 so that Christ’s work can be seen in us. Each of our clay jars has a different shape, size and condition. Some of them have fractures and some have huge chunks missing, consistent with our life stories. If Christ is the treasure in those jars, then despite the condition of our jar, He shines through the damage of our lives to show how He has worked and is still working on us. It’s because of the cracks and the missing chunks that His work in our lives can be seen as a testimony to others. This brings a sense of humanness that people can relate to. Brennan Manning puts it this way: “In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.”3
Last spring, my husband and I gave an interactive talk in a college chapel about lust and pornography. We all know this is an issue in our culture, both Christian and secular, yet it is an issue that isolates—one we dare not share with others if we happen to struggle with it. It’s not a “nice” topic or one we like to talk about in Christian circles. Yet the healing this candid one-hour session brought to students was amazing! There was now freedom … to talk about their struggles, to openly repent and pray for deliverance, to understand their problems, to find a support system for their problem, and free to tap into the resources they needed to make changes in their lives.

Please don’t misinterpret me as saying, “Just tell your parishioners whatever is on your mind— censor nothing.” Many clergy have struggled with being real and have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, causing dissension and hurt in our churches. We need to be highly tuned in to the appropriateness of what we share, and when and with whom we share it.

Isolation busting requires finding a safe place to be yourself. This is not the same as believing that you can let your hair down with just anyone. Yes, we want to be ourselves, but there are some things in our lives that require a few close confidants who are willing to support and help us process through the struggles we may be having. Many of our districts have cluster groups for our pastors; these are intended to provide spiritual, personal and career support. If you have an opportunity to be part of one of these groups, it can be a wonderful benefit to your personal, spiritual and ministry life. Some of you may find “me time” with family, in a hobby, golfing or hunting with old friends. Simply getting out of town for a change of scenery can also refresh the spirit. As a PK, I observed my father doing this quite consistently. Days off meant getting out of town, connecting and investing in deep friendships, and having a place to be himself and be refreshed.

Many districts are now offering their credential holders access to free counselling. Working with this program in the BC & Yukon District has been so encouraging. In the past, counselling has been perceived as something for weak people, for people who had lots of overwhelming issues, or even (in some circles) something that Christians shouldn’t need. Over time, it seems that counselling is beginning to be perceived as something preventive rather than reactive. “ It’s a benefit I can tap into to enrich my life, my marriage, my family.” How many pastors would call and say, “My spouse and I just want to get a ‘checkup’ on our marriage” or “I’m feeling a little weighed down by church issues and I’d like to talk them through with someone”? There’s a choice. I could stay isolated and try to deal with things on my own, but I’d rather make my life and ministry much more effective by considering counselling.

This sense of isolation is not just found within the lives of ministers. The people who sit in our pews also have that tendency. Why? When asked why they feel isolated, some of the responses were: “I’m divorced.” “The church doesn’t like that.” “I have a mental health issue that is private.” “I take medication.” “The pastor said I don’t trust God enough.” “I was in jail. If people knew, I wouldn’t fit here.” “I’m a single mom.” “My husband has affairs, but I can’t let anyone know that.” There is a tendency to keep ourselves in quarantine for fear of not being accepted—or worse, being ostracized. So our issues are our little secret, but essentially they keep us from engaging in deeper relationship with the church and truly feeling comfortable being ourselves with others.

It’s even more important for us as clergy to “un-isolate” ourselves so that we enable our congregations to do the same—to pull ourselves out of quarantine, to build relationships and begin to understand the deep needs within ourselves and others.

Do you feel isolated? What is contributing to those feelings for you? Being in the ministry is a rich calling, and it has many wonderful and fulfilling elements. However, isolation can confine us. It can also hinder our passion and giftings from impacting and enriching the lives of those around us. What steps can you take to come out of quarantine?

ENDNOTES

1 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/isolate.2 2 Corinthians 4:73 Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: "The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging" (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002).
TINA STRUTT, MA, RCC—is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an ordained minister with the PAOC. She lives in Sudbury, ON, where her husband, Carl, is the lead pastor of Glad Tidings TABERNACLE. They have three children: Ben, Caleigh and Sophie.
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