The Isolated Pastor

By Bob Hiller

Well, if my calculations are correct, by the time you read this blog (I am writing this on Tuesday night), the Golden State Warriors will be on the brink of completing their undefeated playoff run by sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the NBA Finals. (Though, if you read my blog, you know my calculations are rarely correct…) Chances are that LeBron James will carry Cleveland to take one game. But I don’t think it will matter much. Golden State is stacked. The overindulgent signing of the great Kevin Durant in the off-season made the already incredible Warriors a near lock as this year’s champions. Handily winning every single playoff game may not make for great viewing, but it does make the Warriors rather impressive.

Durant is going to be thrilled to win his first ring. He had made some impressive runs with his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. But even at their best, OKC was nothing compared to this Golden State group. I like KD, so I am happy for him. But he is not going to get a lot of respect for winning this championship. It is not as though he signed with a team that was on the verge of winning a championship that just needed that one final piece. No, Golden State has been in the Finals the last three seasons. They were likely good enough to get there again without KD. He just made it near impossible for them to lose.

So, Durant will likely earn more criticism than praise for winning this ring. It will be said that he couldn’t do it on his own, that he needed the help of greats like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. LeBron James received the same criticism when he went to Miami to play with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Never mind that LeBron has been in every Finals for the past seven seasons regardless of what team he is on, or that he took the Cavs to the Finals in 2007 when he might as well have been the only player on the team. But they say that LeBron couldn’t do it on his own.

This is a ridiculous criticism of any player in team sports. Further, there are no great players who ever did it on their own. The Lakers and Celtics teams of the ‘80s were stacked. Michael Jordan had Scotty Pippen and Horace Grant. Take Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for example. People always wonder if they could be great without each other. Who cares? They need each other and make each other great. Durant is simply smart enough to recognize that no player, no matter how good, can win on his own. Individuals who try and carry too much on their own end up in defeat.

I wonder if there isn’t a lesson here for pastors. Being a pastor can be a pretty lonely job. Sure, you are constantly surrounded by people and are constantly working in the midst of the Church. But there is a particular burden that is carried by pastors that simply cannot be shared by other people in the congregation. Even if a pastor is a master delegator and able to manage his time perfectly, he still finds himself in places of loneliness and isolation. I am convinced that this makes the devil smile and sets up the pastor for defeat.

The trouble is, pastors don’t very often know where to turn to break from their isolation. It is rare for there to be true friendship for pastors with his congregants (which may be a good thing for the congregation). The pastor should not really let his guard down among those he is called to serve. They need to see Jesus more than him. That’s fine. It is just a hard place to be. His wife can be a wonderful support. But there is a certain type of comradery that men need with each other that a wife cannot always provide, no matter how wonderful and supportive she is. And to be honest, something happens to his past friendships once a man is ordained. I can’t quite explain it, but the relationships change. The reality is that pastors find themselves in isolation.

Of course, this leads to all kinds of problems. They can become flattered by any sort of personal attention they receive from women they are counseling and “fall” (read: dive) into temptation. They can get sucked into social media and spend their time posting provocative comments that require no courage but get likes from virtual friends who don’t care enough to hold them accountable. They then find themselves “teaming up” with people they’ve never met to win Facebook theology war which isn’t worth fighting nor of any benefit to the Church. Or they can turn to substances to take the edge off and find themselves drinking alone. Pair that with the internet, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Unhealthy isolation can begin to ruin pastors. The statistics of guys who leave the ministry bear this out. So, what is to be done?

Well, maybe we could learn something from Kevin Durant. Pastors need pastors. One of my closest brothers was telling me about a local Christian collage that was organizing opportunities aimed at gathering pastors together for mutual support. It may be a bit contrived, but so what? Pastors need to get out to spend time with other pastors. “Friendship is born,” CS Lewis said, “when one person says to another, ‘What, you too? I thought I was the only one!’” Pastors will find that when they around other pastors, such friendships will develop.

The ideal, of course, is for pastors to muster up some courage and seek out brother pastors with whom they can get together and talk shop. I recently took a call to a new congregation. It has been wonderful. But I left behind a group of men who I consider some of my closest friends. We met every Tuesday to talk shop, translate Scripture, eat tacos, and drink beer (not always in this order, but always with beer). It was a taste of heaven. I was never isolated. They could rip me to pieces if I needed it. They would encourage me when I was depressed. They were always ready to absolve. The mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers was a source of joy and a safeguard against the devil’s tool of isolation. I lost a great deal when I left that group.

So, perhaps I could learn something from Durant. Perhaps all of us pastors could. We need to seek out men who will enter the trenches with us. These men don’t have to see eye to eye with us in all areas of theology, worship, and practice (it is sometimes more fun when they don’t). But we do all need brother pastors praying for each other, buying another round for each other, and laughing at each other’s nonsense. That laughter is like oil on the head that runs down the beard (Psalm 133:2). That laughter keeps brothers in the pulpit. Pastors, you can’t do it on your own. Pastors need pastors.