Lonely at the Top?

“Mark … Mark … MARK!”

I quickly came back to the room. “What?” I exclaimed.

“The Jacobs family is here to see you,” Lisa stated.

“Okay, thank you. I’ll be out to get them shortly.” I went back to staring out my office window. I had a gorgeous view of the Gore Range and would often get lost in its beauty. Today, however, was completely different. I was trying to escape, to numb out, to avoid. I didn’t want to be in my office, and I didn’t want to meet with the Jacobs family. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be a youth and family pastor anymore.

Don’t get me wrong—I loved my job, I loved living in the mountains, and I loved being able to minister to the youth and families of the county, but I was tired. I wasn’t physically tired, but I was exhausted mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I was tapped out, on empty and near burnout. Reflecting back on that moment in my ministry, I realize now that I was actually struggling with loneliness.

Maybe you can relate. Being a pastor who constantly cares for others can, at times, be a lonely endeavor, and if gone unnoticed, can lead to isolation. Loneliness is “the state of being unseen or unnoticed relationally, mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. It can be driven by a lack of purpose or meaning, relationship and/or identity and is marked by a deep sense of hopelessness.” 

So, as pastors and leaders, how do you protect against pervasive loneliness and what should you do if you find yourself right in the middle of loneliness?

Protecting Against Loneliness

Protecting against loneliness doesn’t mean that bouts of loneliness won’t pop up from time to time. It does mean that you are intentionally engaging in protective factors that will mitigate loneliness. In my opinion, unrecognized loneliness leads to isolation, and isolation leads to death. It is important to pre-plan your battles while simultaneously creating both intentional and tailored protective factors for you and your future. So what does this look like?

Step One: Reflect on your own life.

How are you truly doing? It is okay to be honest in your journals. How are you really? Write it down. Be open, honest, and vulnerable. This first step is significant. Why? Because if you are not assessing yourself, you could potentially and often unintentionally hurt others. When you enter into a profession where you work closely with others, you forfeit the luxury of not knowing what is going on inside of you. When you strive to be healthy (mentally and emotionally), you have a better chance of helping others become healthy.

Step Two: Explore your theology around suffering.

I know this can be an interesting topic to discuss. Your views on suffering are directly correlated to how you will view yourself in your loneliness. Is suffering a punishment? Your lot in life? The price of being a pastor? Or is suffering a catalyst for growth and change? I firmly believe that if we don’t have a comprehensive theology of suffering, we will have an inadequate theology of care, both for ourselves and those we minister to.

Step Three: Talk with someone.

“MARK! No! If I talk with someone, I might be disqualified for ministry. I can’t tell anyone how I’m doing.” If this is your response, I need you to pause for a second, take a step back, and consider this: Why do you feel that way? Is it insecurity? Is it fear? Is it pride? What is it? Most likely, you haven’t found the right person to talk to. (Note: It shouldn’t always be your spouse). Do you have a mentor? A friend (not associated with your ministry)? A spiritual director? If you don’t have any of these resources, it’s okay. Maybe you should call a Christian counselor. You need to talk and process with someone. I would encourage you to stop buying into the lie that it is lonely at the top. It is only lonely at the top if we allow it to be.

Stuck in the Middle of Loneliness

Sometimes, you can do all the “pre-planning” in the world and still find yourself stuck in the middle of loneliness. That’s okay. Don’t panic or get too upset. If you stop, breathe, and re-evaluate your current situation, with some hard work, you can move out of loneliness. Here are a few practical steps:

Step One: Admit where you are at. 

Bringing where you are into the light has power. Hiding or trying to avoid the reality of your current struggle with loneliness only make it worse. When you call it out for what it truly is, it will begin to lose its power.

Step Two: Reflect on how you got here.

This may be a somewhat arduous process, but it is well worth the effort. Take some time to journal and reflect on how you arrived in your loneliness. Is it the current season of ministry? Is it that you’ve been through some relational trauma? Is it your own pride? Is it spiritual warfare? Whatever the reason, it is important to trace back your steps so that you can avoid the same outcome next time.

Step Three: Survey your options. 

This is an interesting step as it requires you to take a step back and look at your options moving forward. Do you need to take a break? Say no to some things? Re-engage with your spouse and your family? Are there maladaptive coping mechanisms that need to be released? The list could go on. Don’t allow your pride to enter into this step. Be honest, as honest as you possibly can be.

Step Four: Reflect on you Identity, Hope, and Purpose.

In my opinion, the antithesis of loneliness are identity, hope, and purpose. Reflect on whose you are. Dig back into the Scriptures and allow for the truths of this question to wash over you. Remember the promises of who God says you are and allow that to instill hope. Once you’ve reflected on who God says you are and your hope has begun to resurface, allow yourself to ask this question: What purpose arises out of my identity? (By the way, this is not a one-and-done process. This should be a revolving part of your spiritual discipline.)

Step Five: Ask for help.

This next step could be the most important as it is your opportunity to surrender your position and your struggle and enter into a place of healing. As I stated above, it might be hard to find a “safe” person to talk with, so this is where you might take a risk and reach out to a Christian counselor to start the process.

Being in ministry can, at times, be difficult as you struggle to care for others well. In my opinion, loneliness shouldn’t be one of those struggles. “We live in a world full of uncertainty. This statement is more evident now than ever. Mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual distress are running rampant in our communities—and are directly linked to this loneliness epidemic. Solutions will seem elusive if we follow any of the many rabbit trails in front of us. But if we choose to take a step back and see the bigger picture, the solution becomes clear. We must find ways to lean into, be present with, engage in, and heal our own inner narratives so we can be present for others in their struggles.

“It’s a messy embrace we make as we journey with people toward healing, toward Christ, and toward wholeness. Everyone’s healing will look different, and everyone’s healing will be messy as individuals sort out their emotions, hurts, frustrations, and uncertainties with your loving, encouraging presence.” 

Mark Mayfield
Mark Mayfieldhttps://DrMayfield.com

Mark Mayfield is a former pastor, a board-certified licensed professional counselor (LPC), and the founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers. His most recent book is The Path to Wholeness: Managing Emotions, Finding Healing and Becoming Our Best Selves (NavPress).