Lonely in ministry life, you say? Surely not! How can that be when you are always busy and constantly mixing with people? But who was it that once said that you can be lonely in a crowd? The very nature of the job prohibits the minister and his wife from close friendships. How often have I heard it said that friendships (apart from those with other ministerial couples) are only superficial on account of:
a. your position;
b. appearing to favor some people above others;
c. the likelihood of your stay being temporary.
Adventist pastors usually move after two or three years, which is just long enough to start to feel comfortable and make contact with people, members and non-members alike. Then the big upheaval of transferring starts again; it has always seemed to me to be counter-productive to everyone concerned. Sometimes I long to say to someone that WE are people, too, and have needs like everyone else. We need friends, too! But who's listening?
Psychology tells us that women in the 40-50 age group have a real "homing instinct"—an intense desire to settle down in one place (usually the place or at least the country of origin). I can identify with that. After moving around for many years, I long to return to my home country and settle in a permanent hotnejust to feel I belong somewhere. My husband and I have lived in a succession of houses, but none of them have been "home." I realize that, in all probability, my menopausal time of life has much to do with it. Yet, knowing that does not help me to cope any better.
Knowing that God understands my feelings is a great comfort. If He made me, He must understand how I feel. He knows that I and my husband have had many problems and much stress over the years while raising children within the ministerial framework. Now that our sons are grown and gone, a very real fear surfaces from time to time: "What would ( do it something happened to my dearly-loved spouse? Where would I go?" I don't even have a home because I don't feel I belong anywhere. And we don't stay anywhere long enough to make deep, caring friendships. A "rolling stone" gathers no moss!
In earlier years, I enjoyed moving around, and it did not bother me that we had no "home base." It may be a strictly female outlook for it does not appear to bother my husband as much as it does me. if the worst happened, I would call on my God, as I have in previous crises. He has not failed me yet, and 1 know that He would sustain me again, but there is the human element that remains.
I also understand that the physical changes in the female body at menopause can cause mental stresses that produce some very irrational fears. Loneliness, however, can strike at any age, so I feel that young ministerial couples particularly need our prayers and attention. Recently a young wife unburdened her loneliness to me. She is a very new church member (she met her husband while he was in seminary). This meant that in two short years she had made the transition from non-church member to pastor's wife. The change was drastic, to say the least. As a teacher, she spends her evenings preparing her next day's classes, while her husband is usually out; there is much call on his services. She is desperately, heartbreakingly Ionely—thousands of miles away from her own family. My heart aches for her. Distance prevents my doing very much to help, but I will gladly bend an ear whenever possible. Unfortunately, she is one of many who seem to experience this alienation.
When my family joined ministerial ranks, I felt certain that things did not have to be that way. For us, it would be different. But, invariably, I discovered that, although people were friendly, there was always that barrier between us. Yes, you may be invited for lunch after church. Of course everyone mixes and enjoys each other's company at a church social; you may even play a little sport together, but getting deeper than that was difficult. Would it be different, I wonder, if we stayed in a parish 20 to 30 years?
I would really appreciate our church members calling in from time to time and spending a few minutes in prayer with us and for us, but no one seems to think of it. Though I must say that when our elder son was seriously injured in a car accident a few years ago, many people did make contact to show they cared. It was so appreciated. But in everyday life it is forgotten. It would seem that the problem stems from the old idea of treating a minister with reverence akin to awe—a carryover, if you like, from an earlier age.
Another ministerial couple, with many years of service, were delighted when called to a large city church and discovered friends from college days in the congregation. They assumed that they would renew the friendship of years before, for once they would have some real close friends, but it was not to be. Sadly, the title "pastor" got in the way. Although their friends were very happy to see them again, they could feel the barrier when they tried to resume that friendship. Of course, they were hurt, but they feel certain it was only on account of their position.
In an excellent article on pastor/ congregation relationships, William M. Schwein said: "For the most part, our people see only the tip of the iceberg of our ministry and our life) .. We need to be understood, supported, and appreciated. In a word, pastors need pastors too."2 Schwein also quotes from Nelvin Vos' book, Seven Days a Week: Faith in Action, where Vos writes: 'Pastors are human beings and they have real needs. That should be self-evident, but from many pastors and their families one hears of feelings of loneliness and isolation. There is no more urgent ministry than a ministry to church leaders." I heartily agree.
Several times over the years, we have been asked by church members and non-church members alike, "What exactly does a minister do with his time?" My husband has run Pastor's Role Seminars, which do seem to give some people a clearer view of what the pastoral role entails. Unfortunately, none of us really understands what it is like to wear another person's shoes. We can only try to empathize. For example, I can only guess what it is like to be in Princess Diana's position and have so much expected of her. I wonder how she perceives people's expectations of her?
How do we perceive our congregation's expectations of us? Are those expectations unrealistic? I have always thought so. Maybe we need a promotional campaign, a "new image" of a very normal family with stresses and strains like anybody else, with children who play up sometimes in church, teens who rebel, aged family members who are sometimes difficult. And, yes, we even have an overdraft on occasions. In short, normal everyday families.
On very rare occasions I have been able to fellowship with ministers' wives of other denominations in our town and have found it a very enjoyable experience. (The nearest ministerial family of our own denomination is a long distance away.) Unfortunately, these occasions are rare because all of these people are very busy with their own flocks, their church programs, and their own families. But what time we were able to spend together was very rewarding. We were able to share our joys, frustrations, and the things we found difficult or pleasurable about ministerial life. The same problems and frustrations are evident across all denominations, it would seem.
If we encounter marital problems (ministers are supposed to be immune or exempt from these!) to whom do we go for help? The local marriage guidance service? What if you meet someone you have referred there? How about if you cannot manage your finances? Go to a budgeting service? You would refer others but not go yourself. So, sometimes ministerial couples feel more alone than ever. As yet, only one or two denomination administrations have become aware that there is a need and have provided a service to help their ministerial couples.
And, while we are about it, let us not forget our conference personnel. In our case, the pastor in charge of the local region is responsible for 60 churches and 50 ministerial families. Now, that is a lonely position. He could well feel more alienated than my husband and I. And while I am busy complaining and crying out for my needs to be met, have I thought about him and others like him? "Forgive me, Lord. Help me to remember always that every one of us needs the hand of nonjudgmental Christian friendship, understanding, and support. Help us all to continually try to `walk in the other person's moccasins.' Please help us to endeavor to alleviate each other's lonely feelings."
1 Schwin, William M., Minisily, May 1988, p. 8, "Whose shoes