I can’t speak to whether or not the phrase “It’s lonely at the top” is true for CEOs, heads of state, and the like, although I can assume that it is. However, I do know it is true for pastors. On the one hand, the pastor is called to take on a burden that others in the church are not. Even his best friend, his wife, is protected from certain aspects of the ministry especially, though not limited to, private counseling sessions. The challenge of dealing with these challenges is immeasurably alleviated through the obvious: God is in charge. But let’s face it, it’s always good to be able to talk to someone if even just to get some feedback or an understanding listening ear, 2 luxuries the pastor often has to do without. On the other hand, the position of the pastor naturally garners respect and with respect there is a distance that many within the church choose to keep. They don’t want to hang out with their pastor because, well, what if the pastor realizes what a sinner I am? There is also the assumption that the pastor probably just isn’t that fun; great for Bible studies, a downer at parties. Whether these caricatures are true or not for each individual pastor they lend to the loneliness of the vocation.
However, pastors are often lonelier than they need to be by choice.
When I was in seminary and served on the staff of a local church’s collegiate ministry, I remember talking to a fellow Bible study leader (we called ourselves “shepherds”) who was aghast at the thought of hanging out with the people in his flock and having them get to know him. He outright said this was something he would never do. Confused and thinking I might be doing something wrong by spending so much casual time with my friends…I mean, ahem, my parishioners (cue angelic “Aaaaaaaa”), I talked to my pastor who confirmed my original thought. To paraphrase, he said, “hang out with them, wrestle them, give them wedgies” (that last part was less of a paraphrase than you’d think). Although things have changed now that I’m overseeing a full congregation rather than just collegians, I still do my best to adhere to my original plan of attack which is to get to know my flock and let them get to know me, warts and all.
So remember that your pastor carries a burden that, humanly speaking, only he can carry. Pray for him, encourage him, befriend him. And when he keeps his distance when social activities outside of ministry come up, nudge him in the right direction and invite him out to game night, the ball game, or movie night. After all, pastors are people, and they need friends too.
And, pastor, remember to bridge that gap because extending the hand of friendship is easier from the top down. Don’t be afraid to hang out with your people, but I’d hold off on the wedgie.