Divorce. Single parenthood. Extended singlehood. Living away from home. Broken relationships. Loneliness.
None of these are surprises. None of these are ideal. All of them are our reality and bond.
All of them are (by design) normative in the body of Christ. (James Dobson’s ideals are great. But they aren’t our reality.) We are a people tied together primarily by our brokenness. The church is the only institution on the planet where everyone is on the same playing field. We are all sinners. We all admit that left to our own devices we’d screw it up so we have a desperate need for a community that can help us screw it up less. That’s our bond as believers. We need each other because we are busted.
And yet– sadly, working in a church is one of the loneliest jobs in America.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Without sounding like a 5-step program too much– here are 5 hard steps you can take to find community (and, ultimately contentment) while working on staff at any church.
Admit you aren’t perfect, can’t be perfect, and are lonely. No really. It starts with a healthy understanding of who you are and your lot in life. One of my frustrations with making pastors look like celebrities is that too many pastors start to believe that their poop doesn’t stink. (Conversely, to aspire to be a “great pastor” you have to pretend that you fell from heaven onto a community and you have no needs and you somehow embody a perfection that you really aren’t.)
You aren’t bulletproof. You need friends. You need accountability. You need people your own age in your life. Admit it.
Find people your own age. This one makes people’s head tilt 10 degrees to the side when I say it. “My youth group is like my family.” No, they aren’t. They are adolescents and you are an adult. Not only is it really unhealthy for your long-term health for you to consider the youth group your family because they graduate and go to college– it’s creepy for an adult to depend on a bunch of students to be his family. Creepy with a capital C.
Find people within 10 years of yourself. (On average) Honestly, common interests are cool but not really primary.
Note that I’m being careful to say that you don’t need to find this in your church. It’s great if it can happen there. But I’ve worked at smallish churches my whole life and I know that there might actually not be a group of adults in your age range. But every community has people your age. You might just have to do something outside of your church. Join a softball team or a golf league or something going on with people your own age and go there. (Just don’t go dancing, that leads to sex.)
It’s better when you aren’t in charge. I don’t know why… but for us the magic mojo of our finding family/community in San Diego has been that I’m not in charge. The joke has been, “we’re just the hosts.”
I think the truth is that we, as pastors, like to be in charge a little too much. We want to set the agenda. We want to be the center of attention. We want to be the expert. We love it when everyone looks to us. In short, we have a validation problem. We hide behind the persona and expectation because we like it and feed off of it.
But you will never feel like part of a community if you are walking around thinking that you are the man on the white horse who has come to save the town from itself. All you are really doing is walking around with a false view of yourself and leaving yourself on a very lonely island. (And I know too many pastors readily fired who have made themselves entirely expendable at their church by living on a very long island.)
Develop inter-dependency. A false presentation of who we really are (see above) leads us to think we don’t really need to depend on our community of friends. (And elevating our need to develop dependencies on our work. Raise your hand if you’re a work-aholic.)
It’s OK to be a pastor and have needs that you have to depend on others for. It’s OK to admit that in the safety of your community. In fact, what you will discover is that once you level the playing field and admit that you need to depend on people– you’ll actually be a seen as a much stronger leader. This goes beyond just depending on people to do stuff for you. This means that you’ll need to join and participate in being part of a family as an equal. You know, be a servant to your friends and allow them to reciprocate. Just as you need to lean on other they need to be able to lean on you.
The question being answered by every single person over and over again about you (and behind your back) as a pastor is, “Is that person for real?” When you become part of a community of people (aka– a family) that really knows you, where you can just be Adam and not Pastor Adam, then those people will help answer that question in a way you’d like it answered. “Yeah, Adam is a legit guy. He and Kristen have their struggles, but they are just like anyone else.” That’s a whole lot better than, “All I really know about him is what he’s preached. He keeps to himself.”
Relax, you’re with family. The goal is simple. You know you’ve arrived when you’re just a dude (or dudette) with a job. (And people aren’t saying, “I’m in the pastors group.“) It will hit you when you get there.
And you won’t be healthy in a community until you find a group of people who look at you as such. My goal every time our community group (our real family in San Diego) gets together is to shut up and listen. Literally, that’s what I’m telling myself over and over again as I prepare for Monday night. “Shut up Adam, no one cares.” But these people really do care about Kristen and Adam– the family that hosts us on Monday nights. That’s how I know we’ve arrived.
This is more important than any job you are doing
Everything you do as a pastor depends on your health emotionally and spiritually. If you don’t have this, stop everything! Your ministry will not succeed until it flows out of a healthy life.
The simple reality is that you need a place to just be instead of being the pastor. And I think I’ve shocked people when we sit across the table for coffee and I tell them this has to become their #1 priority.
Yes, I’ve even told people they need to stop being a pastor if they can’t make this happen.
It’s that important.