Why Pastors Have Few Deep Friendships

I’ve heard it so many times that I almost expect it: pastors are lonely. They often minister among people they say they love, but don’t know well. They have few deep friendships. Here are 10 reasons why we struggle with finding friends: 

  1. Someone taught us never to have close friendships in a church. Several of my seminary professors and most of my early mentors told me never to get close to church members. I’m grateful now that I didn’t listen well – but I have friends who continue to follow that advice.
  2. We’ve been hurt in the past.  I understand why my professors and mentors said what they said. They had risked being vulnerable with church members, and it cost them. Their openness led only to pain, and they don’t the next generation of leaders to experience the same.
  3. We assume this ministry is not our last one.  If we think that this church is only one stop on our ministry journey, it’s harder to develop deep friendships. Who wants to invest deeply when you know this role is a fleeting one?
  4. Many of us are introverted.  Even people who speak publicly every week can be introverted and private. I suspect church members would be surprised by how many of us are drained by events like fellowship dinners. We sometimes seclude ourselves just to get some rest.
  5. Others are uncomfortable around us.  I remember a church member whose family never invited me to dinner because they thought their dishes weren’t good enough for their pastor. That struck me as odd, not only because I’m just a normal guy, but also because most of my dinners at the time were delivered through a drive-thru window!
  6. Our spouse has been hurt. We can often handle it when our feelings are hurt, but it’s tougher when our spouse has been wounded. Protecting our spouse from hurt sometimes means avoiding deep relationships.
  7. We don’t want anyone to know us well. For pastors who admit this reason, it’s often because we don’t like who we are. We know we need to do better in our devotions. We fear others will see that we don’t always love, evangelize, or minister like we should.
  8. We get tired of people. It’s not that we don’t love people; it’s just that it feels like we’re around people all the time. Taking a break from people, though, usually means closing the door to friendships.
  9.  Some of us were raised in churches with superficial relationships. At some level, we’re all products of our upbringing. When you’re raised around surface-level Christian friendships, that kind of relationship might be all you know. 
  10. Even believers get jealous and competitive. As pastors, we fear getting too close to particular people, lest others get angry. And, even among pastors, we struggle getting to know one another because we compete against each other for members. In the end, everybody loses.

What other reasons would you add? 

34 Comments

  • David says:

    Amen thank you for this. I’m not a pastor but as a church leader I will admit that I avoid opening myself to others out of fear. Fear that I will look weaker and fear of adding my issues to someone else’s prayer life. I want to be seen as having it together and being low maintenance, even though at times I’m a hot mess inside. There’s probably a bit of pride mixed in there too! Thanks for this timely post Dr. Lawless!

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      We all struggle sometimes, David. Thanks. 

    • Paul Carter says:

      I’m not a Pastor but have been a believer for 20 more years. In my time i have found that a level of separation is unavoidable. This is not a healthy attitude as many Pastors become estranged from the flock they claim to lead. If the pastor is weak on relationships he will undoubtedly lead a superficial church that will emulate the leader. People leave churches because of lack of relationships and the pastor if he doesn’t have his finger on the pulse, will ultimately miss out on many blessing that he see’s from a distance.

  • Nolan says:

    We were just discussing this in our small group yesterday. As a church member, we sometimes assume that our pastors already have deep relationships with other pastors or leaders in the church. It’s very easy for this to happen in larger churches. We also assume that if the pastor wanted a relationship with us, then they would reach out to us. As church members we need to be more intentional about building relationships also.

  • There may be something else at work. It could well be that most folks in the church don’t think they have anything to contribute to the pastor, what with seminary and all. And what a joy they are missing .. I have had a few opportunities to minister to people in the ministry, and even 40 years later, the thrill of that stand loud & clear in my mind.

  • Eric Scholten says:

    Dr. Lawless, I would say that feeling burned by someone you once saw as a friend often moves them to another category in my mind and heart. They go into the “church member you have to watch out for” category. A lack of forgiveness and a sense of self-preservation can lead to this type of response.

  • Jim Bohrer says:

    You hit so many great points! Also, the uncertainty of relationships with members. They carry baggage and depending on what it is, you can do everything right and still become a target of misplaced anxiety. Further, the unspoken expectations of perfection carry a high price at time. Pastors can be expected to “fix” a spouse, marriage, etc… And when we call them to take biblical action steps, that is not easy. Easier to blame the messenger. Those experiences are difficult to get over, but we as pastors need to move beyond those fears into action. Thanks Chuck.

  • Steve says:

    My pastor is one of the best men I know. He knows I love him and I know he loves me. But we are not “close friends” as the world sees friendship. We are family in the truest sense of the word biblically. And different family relationships look different. Maybe our relationship is comparable to a cousin relationship. We don’t see each other or talk to each other every day, I wouldn’t be the first person he called if he were in an emergency, but we’re still family.

    I think the struggle for many pastors of moderate size churches is you’re surrounded by 100-300 people who want to be your best friend, when they need you to be. You can’t possibly live up to their expectations and needs on your own, and if you dont have a true church family to lean on and spread out the sheparding work load, you’ll get burnt out.

  • John Beene says:

    I worked with ministers my entire professional life and one thing that I’ve found again and again is that about a third are absolute saints, bright people working as hard as they can for the common good. Another third are lost, damaged people who came to the ministry looking for healing and don’t really mean any harm, but are careless and emotional messy and liable to accidentally hurt people. The last third are petty little psychopaths who aren’t capable enough to make it in the real world and are just desperate to have power over others.

    It doesn’t matter the faith, denomination, or politics, I’ve found that same breakdown everywhere. How much of pastors difficulty with friendship is just that the majority are either emotionally and spiritually broken or just the worst sort of monsters?

  • Snacktime says:

    So many of the factors you list here are at play in most people’s lives in general, and in lay as well as clergy relationships within churches. Clergy project onto parishioners every bit as much as parishioners project onto clergy! There are special flavors to clergy loneliness, and you describe them well. One way to work with loneliness is to use it as a basis for compassion for others in a similar situation. As a spiritual director for clergy, I ask directees to neither denigrate nor glorify their loneliness, but to look for what is asking for compassion, knowing that compassion is the activity of the Holy Spirit.

  • Pastor Deb says:

    I was taught in seminary that you can’t properly be both a pastor and a friend. It’s all about boundaries. That said, it does make for a lonely life. There’s not a lot of time for pastors outside of their congregations.

  • Ruby O'Dent says:

    My husband was told early on in his career that the closer a pastor is emotionally to a parishioner, the less effective s/he will be as that person’s pastor. A pastor is, after all, hired to be someone’s pastor, not someone’s friend. When my husband became a pastor, we decided it would be healthier for everyone if we were friendly with his congregation but not friends with them. We’ve made our close friendships outside of his church, belonging to several social groups organized around common interests. My husband’s also developed close friendships with the members of the ministerial association he belongs to. We knew we’d made the right decision to keep clear boundaries between our home/personal life and his congregation when a cabal formed within his last congregation and engaged in deceitful, dishonorable character assassination, projecting their own anxieties and unhealthy personality traits onto my husband, leading to the end of his employment there. The rest of the congregation allowed it to happen. The feelings of hurt, disappointment, anger, sadness, loss, and betrayal have been overwhelming. Yet, those feelings would have been ten times greater if we’d been friends with those people. Because we had close friendships outside of his church, my husband and I had people we felt we really could trust and lean on during that difficult time, and those friends did not disappoint us. After this experience, I resolved to never allow friendships to develop between us and my husband’s parishioners. There are better, healthier, and far safer places for us to have close friendships. Congregations cannot be trusted.

  • Roger Carr says:

    I agree that many pastors avoid close relationships within their congregation for the reasons you have listed. But this is not an issue specific to pastors. Of the reasons listed, 7 of them apply to anyone in the congregation. Anyone who engages in a deep friendship is taking a risk. And yes, some of those relationships can and sometimes do result in heartbreak at work, in families, and in communities. However, it is still worth the risk, for everyone.

  • Michael Wells says:

    The times in the week that people are available for building friendships are exactly the times that the pastor has to work. The (small) amount of time that the pastor has available for ‘friends’ activities, everyone else is working.

  • Steve says:

    So many of these things! I have been surprised that I had so many friends, believers and non, that seem to have disappeared when I was given the title of pastor. And while people are quick to use that title as a sign of outward respect (which I don’t seek and wouldn’t ask for), sometimes there is disrespect. Now people seem to look for problems or slights, even if they have to make them up, something I didn’t often experience before. It is a very curious and unsettling thing to have someone call you “pastor” and then proceed to berate you. There is a strange hardness toward pastors.

    I have been surprised that people say they want to know the real me – implying they feel that somehow I am being disingenuous or hiding? – but when I share my interests or invite people to share their interests with me, I get weird reactions and the whole judgment thing.

    I wish we could just clear a lot of the judgment stuff out of the way and be real and gracious with each other; to not see a pastor as an elevated person, but another person that has been called to a specific area of service and leadership. If we invite another couple over for dinner and things don’t immediately “click” that we won’t have to worry that they may leave the church.

    I wish I could share many of these posts of yours, Dr. Lawless, but feel because of my title they would be perceived as self-serving. Pastoring has brought some great joys and certainly I feel I am following God’s calling, but it has brought some deep griefs and loneliness too. Finding real, deep, friendships is hard.

  • Mark Brouwer says:

    Thanks for this article Chuck! I found it while searching for images … thank you Internet! I’m a pastor who also has done quite a lot of coaching and mentoring for other pastors, and agree with that you are saying. Not sure if you’ve seen it, but I wrote an article for Leadership Journal about this very issue a few years ago. I found it interesting to see some of the push-back in the comments … and also to note that much of the pushback came from people who were NOT pastors, or not full-time pastors. Not sure if it’s appropriate or not, but here’s the link just in case: http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2014/march-online-only/friendless-pastor.html

  • M.A. Hayward says:

    I’ve served our church as pastor for a little over 14 years. Though there are people I definitely call friends, I can’t say I have deep friendships. There aren’t people I just hang out with. I think that, in my case, I just find that relationships always come back to ministry somehow. By that I mean, even though we’re friends, I’m still expected to be “pastor,” there’s always an expectation, always a need; spoken or unspoken there are always demands. Every phone call or email is asking something of me. Maybe that’s just my perception, but I find myself spiritually and emotionally exhausted more and more, and that means I find myself wanting to spend less and less time with people because I feel like I always have to pour out. I am introverted… but I think that gets thrown out like a cop-out much of the time. I love people. I just feel like I need to protect myself from getting sucked dry, but don’t really know how, so just don’t get too close so I have room to retreat if needed. Does that make any sense?

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