Addressing Loneliness and Fatigue in Ministry

Addressing Loneliness and Fatigue in Ministry

Coaching congregational staff and interviewing congregational leaders is eye opening. A recent conversation with a very capable and nurturing pastor included the following comment: “Pastoral ministry and lay ministry has a high risk of loneliness.” He also associated the loneliness with fatigue that results from the never-ending challenge of ministry. He referenced Henri Nouwen’s comment that church leaders live with a “functional atheism,” or what you might call a “functional secularism.” We in the church do the ministry of the gospel, but our own needs for friendship, spiritual nurture, and even sense of worth can go largely unattended. The grace of God we want for others can leave our own lives untouched. This pastor also noted, “When I pay attention to my rhythms, my daily patterns, my life is not as vulnerable to loneliness and fatigue.” We need the routine, the Christian traditions in our lives, and we need collegiality and friendships.

In the language of Milestones Ministry, what this pastor observed was that we need Christian shepherds. In the book Shepherd of Souls: Faith Formation through Trusted Relationships shepherding is described as “the personal care of others through caring conversations, faith-filled reflections, and prayerful engagement.”[1] We need to shepherd one another not just to “do a better job” in our public ministry but to have our own lives cared for. Of course, it is not just pastors and congregational program staff that suffer from loneliness and fatigue, but if we do not address our own challenges in daily life and faith, how can we make an authentic contribution to the challenges of others?

We see this model of shepherding in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Psalm 23, John 10, and 1 Peter 5, to name a few examples. Perhaps no better description of the shepherd of souls ministry comes from Colossians 3:12-17.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  – Colossians 3:12-17

With this as our guide, shepherding souls happens and the loneliness and fatigue we experience in ministry are impeded.

Martin Luther noted that when he had a particularly busy day, he needed to spend more time in prayer. We have many, many busy days. Let’s make sure that the urgent agendas of our days are punctuated by the essential faith practices of conversations with friends, prayer and scripture reading, service to others with a glad heart, all of it grounded in faith rituals and traditions that lead us to the deep wells of spiritual renewal through the love of God in Christ. Let us find ways to do this routinely. Let us be shepherded by others that this may be our rhythm in life, that we may be able to shepherd others with the vitality and joy of the Christian faith.

To address the ongoing challenge of loneliness and fatigue, intentional times of renewal are foundational. To forgive and be forgiven, to let the word of Christ dwell in us, to sing to the Lord, and to be thankful are all part of the divine strength given to us in the body of Christ. This is the power to overcome our discouragement and to let our joy be restored. Implicit in this way of life is to have shepherds around us to keep us on the path and to join us in lifelong faith formation. Then, through wisdom gained by experience, we, too, shepherd the souls of others so that the loneliness and fatigue we all experience will not win the day.

[1] David W. Anderson, Shepherd of Souls: Faith Formation through Trusted Relationships (Ridgeley, West Virginia: Milestones Ministry, LLC, 2018), 25.