Loneliness is a growing problem in the United States and in other Western nations. An individualistic mindset can prevent the formation of strong friendships.
One of the points I make in Rethink Your Self is how the older definition of friendship had an aspirational side to it. You were committed to someone “through thick and thin”—not only committed to accept and love your friend, but to help them aspire to be the best and most virtuous version they could be. Today’s definition of friendship centers more on acceptance and affirmation. We look for people who will accept us as we are; we interpret the aspirational side of friendship (pushing us to become better) as negative, rather than positive.
Why does loneliness grow in this environment? Because the friendships we do have become fleeting and shallow. According to this research, one in four people don’t feel they have someone to confide in. Loneliness is a serious matter, addressed in the UK at least in part by the appointment of a “Minister of Loneliness.” What a sad title, and sad commentary on our times.
Pastors and church leaders who understand the times want the church to be part of the solution to this problem. But in our efforts to see loneliness decrease, there’s one place we and our churches must not overlook: the pastor’s wife and family.
On Their Own
A study from LifeWay Research shows that a pastor’s spouse is more likely to feel lonely and without close friendships than other people in the congregation—69 percent say they have “very few people I can confide in about the really important matters in my life.” Consider those words. Really important matters. Very few people.
Fifty-five percent say they don’t have enough relationships “where they can be themselves.” This means that your pastor’s wife is more likely than not to feel the pressure to “perform,” and to keep everyone happy, even at the expense of their emotional wellbeing.
Fifty-six percent say they have “too few relationships that make them feel emotionally connected with others.” Too few relationships. Again, when it comes to friendship, a pastor’s wife is likely to feel scarcity, not abundance.
What causes pastors’ wives to feel this way? Half of them say “they are not willing to confide in others at church because their confidence has been betrayed too many times.” In other words, they’ve been burned. They opened up. They shared their hearts. They showed their vulnerability. And it backfired. Nearly half say “if they were honest at church about prayer needs, they would become gossip.”
Here’s a statement from a pastor’s wife that expresses a lot of what the research shows:
“I desire to find friends in our church with whom I can be myself and feel free to talk about my personal challenges, parenting challenges and, maybe even, what’s different or difficult in my marriage, being a pastor’s wife. I’ve had some experiences in the past with when my trust and boundaries [with friends] were broken. As I result, I can remain diplomatic with everyone, while at the same time wishing for a deeper relationship with the very people I’m holding at arm’s length.”
Clear Expectations for the Pastor’s Family
A pastor’s family faces unique challenges. Barnabas Piper’s The Pastor’s Kid is a go-to book on this subject, giving a glimpse into the pressures and problems that can easily surface in the lives of a pastor’s children. Pastors often feel lonely, too. Just like their spouses, they’ve probably been burned a time or two when they befriended someone in the congregation who didn’t keep confidentiality or who used their vulnerabilities against them.
In my experience, church cultures that are healthiest for the pastor’s family are the ones where the pastor takes the lead in setting up clear expectations for his role and the areas in which his wife and kids will or will not be involved. By taking a protective stance, the pastor essentially says: “My wife and kids share the burden of ministry already, and when you called me as pastor, you were not calling my wife to be a piano player or choir leader or VBS teacher. You were not calling my son to be the leader of the student ministry or my daughter to be the best in Bible drill. When the members of my family feel called to serve our church in a particular way, they will do so.”
Katie Orr urges congregations to do better in recognizing these pressures:
Remember that she is not on the church payroll for being married to a pastor. She is not on every committee and doesn’t know everything that is going on. She is not her husband’s secretary. Don’t expect more from her than you are expecting of yourself. And please don’t expect her to initiate every conversation. Even extroverts have their limits. Try to understand how it feels to live in a “fish bowl.” Recognize how your complaints (to her face and behind her back) about the church, her husband’s decisions, and/or the way her children act affect her. Treat her with the same respect you yourself would want to be treated.
In Need of Grace
When a pastor is upfront and then later (even more crucially!) steps in to defend the choices of his wife and children, he helps to protect them from unrealistic expectations that can create disillusionment. This doesn’t, however, solve the problem of loneliness—a problem the pastor often must deal with as well.
Friendship in the church must include grace. And grace assumes the need for repentance and forgiveness. Orr writes:
“Don’t make assumptions that just because she is the wife of a pastor she has it all figured out, especially spiritually. She misses her Bible reading. She yells at her family. There are days she wants to stay in bed and not go to church. She makes bad choices. She gets depressed. She sins. But she often feels like she needs to hide all of that from Y. O. U. Your trust issues may look different, but she is human and her natural reaction is to protect herself from harm, just like any other normal human being.”
Grace—something the church should excel at but too often falls short of. What can we do to show grace?
Encourage your pastor and his family. Empathize with the struggles they face. Assume they often feel alone. Shut down any gossip you hear about the family. And above all, pray for the men and women on the frontlines of ministry. Pray for their hearts to be protected from the evil one. Pray against bitterness that infects relationships. And pray that your congregation will share the burdens of ministry, not add to them.
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