It can be lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.
John, Tracy, and I sat in silence. Not comfortable, reflective silence, this was very tense and uncomfortable silence. John’s elder board had reached out to me several months ago to help him figure out his future in the church. John had been a senior pastor of a mid-sized evangelical church for the past 15 years. The church was thriving, John was not. John was in crisis, and he didn’t even know it. His position in the church isolated him to believe that he had to keep it all together, figure it out on his own, and bear the burden of his congregation by himself. He was exhausted and on the brink of burn-out. About three weeks before his first appointment, John experienced a mini stroke which landed him in the hospital. This prompted the chairman of his elder board to reach out to me for support.
Breaking the awkward silence, Tracy turned and looked at John and with tears in her eyes she said, “I don’t know what to do, you’ve given your life to the ministry, and it is literally killing you.” She paused and took a deep breath, “I love you, and I want you around to see our kids graduate, to walk our daughter down the aisle, and to see your future grandkids grow up. Something needs to change!”
Tracy was right, something did need to change. Fortunately, John and Tracy were a part of a church that was starting to understand. With my recommendation, they allowed John and Tracy to take a four-month sabbatical to get things figured out. I was privileged to walk with both as they began to process the past, present, and future. After four months, John returned to the church and is thriving to this day.
So, as pastors and leaders, how do you begin to care for self-better and protect against pervasive loneliness and what should you do if you find yourself right in the middle of loneliness?
Protecting Against Loneliness
Protecting against loneliness doesn’t mean that bouts of loneliness won’t pop up from time to time, but it does mean that you are intentionally engaging in protective factors that will mitigate loneliness. In my opinion, unrecognized loneliness leads to isolation, and isolation leads to death. Pre-plan your battles and create intentional and tailored protective factors from this conversation. So, what does this look like?
First, reflect on your own life. How are you truly doing? This is significant. Why? Because if you are not assessing yourself, you could potentially and often unintentionally hurt others. When you enter into a profession where you work closely with others, you forfeit the luxury of not knowing what is going on inside of you. When you strive to be healthy (mentally and emotionally), you have a better chance of helping others become healthy.
Second, explore your theology around suffering. I know this can be an interesting topic to discuss. But your views on suffering are directly correlated to how you will view yourself in your loneliness. Is suffering a punishment? Your lot in life? Price of being a pastor? Or is suffering a catalyst for growth and change? I firmly believe that if we don’t have a comprehensive theology of suffering we will have an inadequate theology of care, both for ourselves and those we ministry to.
Third, talk with someone. “MARK!, No! If I talk with someone I might be disqualified for ministry. I can’t tell anyone how I’m doing.” If this is your response, I need you to pause for a second, take a step back and consider this. Why do you feel this way? Is it insecurity? Is it fear? Is it pride? What is it? Most likely you haven’t found the right person to talk with. Do you have a mentor? A friend (not associated with your ministry)? Or a spiritual director? If you don’t have any of these resources, it’s okay, maybe you should call a Christian counselor. You need to talk and process with someone. I would encourage you to stop buying into the lie that it is lonely at the top. It is only lonely at the top if we allow it to be.
Stuck in the Middle of Loneliness
Sometimes you can do all the “pre-planning” in the world and still find yourself stuck in the middle of loneliness. That’s okay, don’t panic or get too upset. If you stop, breathe, and re-evaluate your current situation, with some hard-work you can move out of loneliness. Here are a couple practical steps:
Step One: Admit where you are at.
Bringing where you are into the light has power. Hiding or trying to avoid the reality of your current struggle will only make it worse. When you call it out for what it truly is, it will begin to lose its power.
Step Two: Reflect on how you got here.
This may be a somewhat arduous process, BUT it is well worth the effort. Take some time to journal and reflect on how you arrived in your loneliness. Is it the current season of ministry? Is it that you’ve been through some relational trauma? Is it your own pride? Is it spiritual warfare? Whatever the reason it is important to trace back your steps so that you can avoid the same outcome next time.
Step Three: Survey your options.
This is an interesting step as it requires you to take a step back and look at your options moving forward. Do you need to take a break? Say no to some things? Re-engage with your spouse and your family? Are there maladaptive coping mechanisms that need to be released? The list could go on. Don’t allow your pride to enter into this step. Be honest, as honest as you possibly can be.
Step Four: Reflect on your identity, hope, and purpose.
In my opinion, the antithesis of loneliness is identity, hope, and purpose. Reflect on Whose you are. Dig back into the scriptures and allow for the truths of this question to wash over you. Remember the promises of who God says you are and allow that to instill hope. Once you’ve reflected (this is not a one and done process, this should be a revolving part of your spiritual discipline) on who God says you are and your hope has begun to resurface, allow yourself to ask the question what purpose arises out of my identity.
Step Five: Ask for help. This next step could be the most important, as it is your opportunity to surrender your position and your struggle and enter into a place of healing. As I stated above, it might be hard to find a “safe” person to talk with so this is where you might take a risk and reach out to a Christian counselor to start the process.
Being in ministry can, at times, be difficult as you struggle to care for others well. In my opinion, loneliness shouldn’t be one of those struggles.
We live in a world full of uncertainty. This statement is more evident now than ever. Mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual distress are running rampant in our communities—and are directly linked to this loneliness epidemic. Solutions will seem elusive if we follow any of the many rabbit trails in front of us. But if we choose to take a step back and see the bigger picture, the solution becomes clear. We must find ways to lean into, be present with, engage in, and heal our own inner narratives so we can be present for others in their struggles.
Dr. Mark Mayfield is an author, speaker, leadership coach, and professor. He has extensive experience in executive leadership as former founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers a 501c3 non-profit in Colorado Springs which serves over 20,000 appointments a year. Dr. Mayfield is an executive leadership coach, helping churches and organizations navigate the complexities of their mental and emotional health. He is also an Assistant Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at CCU. He lives in Magnolia, TX with his wife and three children.