The role of pastor can be a lonely one. Yes, even a job where visiting, caring for, and leading God’s people can be isolating. According to a 2013 study by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School, depression rates for pastors are double (11.1%) those of the general population (5.5%). The study also showed that pastors who felt a sense of social isolation were at a higher risk of depression. While the causes of depression are many and include biological, social, and psychological factors, strong social connection can serve as a strong deterrent or remedy.
So if you’re feeling down, just go hang out with your friends and you’ll feel all better.
Only, it’s not that easy.
In our tradition, our pastors are required to attend seminary. This removes most from their homes and support systems and places them in a new city and a new group of people. Seminary communities can be and often are very tight and supportive, but they are also temporary. After graduation, new pastors move to another new place, one where they have probably spent no more than a week during the call process. This is not a process that lends itself to building social connections, to building a strong sense of community. It is no surprise that many clergy struggle with isolation and depression.
So what can we do about it?
More often than not, healthy community doesn’t just happen on its own. Like crops on a farm, soil must be prepared, seeds sown, and plants nurtured before a yield of supportive community is produced. We must all be active participants in the process of growing communities that care for and support one another.
For pastors, be intentional about establishing and strengthening relationships in your context. This means fostering friendships both in and out of the congregation you serve. Get out of the house and office, sometimes even when you’d rather just sit at home and watch Netflix. Give your community a chance to be life giving.
Also, keep in touch with friends from home and seminary. With technology, there is no reason why you can’t have a weekly meeting, lectionary group, or venting session with old friends no matter how far apart you live. Go beyond your Facebook newsfeed and actually talk to each other.
For congregations, do your best to invite your pastor into your own lives. Invite them to use that extra ticket to the game or join your family for dinner. Let them just be themselves rather than wear their “pastor hat” everywhere they go. They are still your pastor, but let them also be your friend.
Also, don’t forget about your pastor’s family. They may find themselves in the same isolating situation as your pastor, but without the benefit of so much time to work on establishing relationships.
More than anything, get out there and be with people! Community is necessary for us to thrive as human beings. It is how God intends for us to live. Be around one another, talk to one another, and take care of one another.