The loneliness of pastoral ministry. That’s what surprised Bob Burns when he and his team were conducting the research for “Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving.” Burns is the Spiritual Formation Pastor at Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham, N.C., and one of our speakers at this year’s Talking Points conference. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise, he later qualified. Rather, it merely reinforced something he already knew to be true: Pastors can experience profound loneliness in ministry.

Even though pastors face considerable loneliness in ministry, they need close, personal relationships. According to Burns and his colleagues Donald C. Guthrie and Tasha D. Chapman, close, personal relationships are vital to our spiritual formation. These relationships offer space for accountability and encouragement as we seek to become more like Christ. Unfortunately, pastors struggle to develop these sorts of relationships: “Finding and forming intimate friendships, in which ‘iron sharpens iron’ (Proverbs 27:17) is often a frightening and elusive challenge for pastors” (Burns, Chapman, Guthrie, 42).

Burns, Chapman and Guthrie draw on the work of Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky to describe why finding and developing these friendships can be particularly difficult for pastors. In their book “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” Heifetz and Linsky differentiate between a leader’s allies and confidants. “Allies are people who share many of your values, or at least your strategy, and operate across some organizational or factional boundary. Because they cross a boundary, they cannot always be loyal to you; they have other ties to honor” (Heifetz and Linsky, 199).

Allies can be a tremendous gift. They can work with you to build support for an idea or a program. They can help you attend to your blind spots.

“Pastors are constantly working with allies,” according to Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie (p. 42). They can find allies on the elder board or leadership team and even in a children’s Sunday school class. “Yet pastors are always calculating—consciously and unconsciously—whether these allies in the congregation could or should be party to their more personal concerns.” Pastors have to choose whether or not to allow their allies to be their confidants.

Confidants, according to Heifetz and Linksy, are those people to whom you can bare your soul precisely because “they have few, if any, conflicting loyalties” (Heifetz and Lindsky, 199). They are “people you can confide without having your revelations spill back into the work arena” (p. 200).

When I interviewed Roy Yanke of PIR Ministries, he stated that, for pastors, “sharing too much can become ammunition for an exit, but every pastor needs to find those advocates he or she can share with.” Treating an ally as a confidant has risks—even for ministry families.

In one church in which my husband pastored, I developed a close friendship with a female member of the congregation. She understood me. She listened. She felt safe. And so I treated her as a confidant. But our relationship changed a bit when she became part of the church leadership team. Her position on the leadership team meant that her loyalties had shifted; she was now responsible for oversight of our congregation. I wanted to be able to confide in her still—especially about some of my church-related struggles—but I wondered whether she would relay my grievances and hurts to others.

Some pastors can successfully turn to allies for accountability, as Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie share in their book. This was certainly true for my husband and another pastor on staff who formed a deep relationship and continue to spur one another to godliness through mutual accountability. But, as the authors note, this cannot always be the case.

Pastors and ministry leaders, as well as their spouses, need confidants. Burns, Chapman and Guthrie rightly ask, “To whom can pastors go to get pastored?” (Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie, 43). Perhaps it’s a pastor of another congregation, a spiritual director, or a therapist. Perhaps it’s a good friend from seminary or a cherished professor.

A little over a year ago, when confidants were in short supply, I began meeting with a spiritual director. She’s a gentle soul, wise from decades of walking closely with the Lord. She asks me how it is with my soul. She listens to me. She attends to the Spirit. She has been an embodiment of God’s grace to me in the throes of the loneliness of ministry.

For more on this and related topics, join us on March 17 for our next Talking Points conference on the theme: “Resilience: Finding Wholeness in Ministry By Way of the Cross.”