Ministry can be lonely, even under normal conditions. But add in a pandemic and it can multiply!

Many clergy are now working harder than ever, yet, with fewer connections with people that bring them joy and companionship.  Clergy and church leaders are now experiencing a new level of loneliness that is threatening to leave their souls parched, their relationships strained and their attitude irritable.

If you are a pastor or church leader that is feeling the effects of loneliness, I encourage you to read on. Loneliness is a tricky thing. It is not like you have it or you don’t. Being around people isn’t even necessarily its cure. Even during a busy season of life, loneliness can lurk. The key is understanding and identifying the various dimensions of the complexity of loneliness.

In the book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, we can learn about three different dimensions or layers of loneliness. In which layer do you find yourself today?

  1. Intimate (or emotional) loneliness: This inner layer is where there is a longing for a close confidante or intimate partner, sharing a deep mutual bond and trust. This may include a spouse or soul mate, immediate family members or devoted friends. This layer is difficult to preserve because these relationships take the most time and energy to sustain a fulfilling connection.
  2. Relational (or social) loneliness:  The middle layer holds a longing for quality friendships and social support. While there may be less interactions with people at this level, they are our collection of friends, neighbors and extended family that offer support. Often, they are the ones that have shared traditions or experiences with us. People migrate in and out of this layer at different stages of life.
  3. Collective loneliness: In the outer layer there is a hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests. These are people we attend church with, belong to clubs or organizations with, serve in our community with or  know through work relationships. Because these connections require face-to-face time, it takes the greatest effort to stay connected to people in this layer.

These three layers of loneliness reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need to thrive. When we lack in any one of these dimensions, we feel lonely. To work through the feelings of loneliness, it’s helpful to identify which of these areas we are feeling then actively look for ways to strengthen that dimensions. Therefore, it is not necessarily important for us to have lots of friends or connections. Instead, we should work on spending our time making quality connections in the key areas that will most significantly dissolve our feelings of loneliness.

It is also important to recognize that one of the challenges of loneliness is the cycle it creates. As shame and anxiety sets in it discourages people from reaching out for help or joining groups that can bring connections. Overtime, this kind of vicious cycle can lead to convincing ourselves that we are unworthy, unlovable, and that we don’t need to be around other people. Making it even more important that we identify what triggers our own loneliness and find ways to create sustainable relationships.

To learn more about loneliness in ministry, click at this link to view a webinar hosted by the Missouri United Methodist Foundation on the topic of Dealing with Loneliness in Ministry.